WASHINGTON - In a stinging rebuke to the management of the Student Loan Marketing Association, shareholders elected at least six of the eight insurgent board candidates led by former executive Albert Lord.
"The vote is in, the election is over, and the battle is over," said Mr. Lord, the company's former chief operating officer. "I think the owners of the company have spoken with clarity."
Lawrence Hough, Sallie's president and Mr. Lord's adversary in a long- running struggle over the future of the company, conceded that the dissident slate had gained a beachhead on the 21-member board.
"We do expect the Sallie Mae board to include new faces when all the votes are counted, " he said Thursday, noting that the results had not yet been verified.
Mr. Lord has questioned both Mr. Hough's management skills and his plan to shed the government charter that helps the company dominate the secondary market for student loans but keeps it from diversifying.
Mr. Lord predicted that his group will have at least six and possibly seven seats when the final tally is recorded. But even with seven seats, the dissidents will not control the board. Sallie Mae is chartered by the federal government and owned by public shareholders, who elect 14 of the directors. The President appoints the rest.
Still, Mr. Lord's team, which includes other former board members and executives of the company, have the savvy to influence the outcome on many issues and to make life difficult for Mr. Hough, according to individuals familiar with the situation.
The shareholder vote comes as changes in government policies on student lending are squeezing profits at Sallie Mae and casting doubt on growth prospects.
In 1993, Congress imposed a 30-basis-point fee on the company's student loan purchases and introduced a direct government loan program that shrinks the share of the loan market open to the private lenders who sell to Sallie Mae.
Mr. Hough says the solution is to drop the government charter and pursue new businesses. Mr. Lord contends that better management of the loan portfolio would restore profit margins.
Both Mr. Lord and Mr. Hough pledged to put aside their differences and work together to boost the stock price, which has plunged dramatically since the rules of the student loan business changed.
"I'm committed to having a friendly relationship (with the board), and if it takes going to charm school, I'll go to charm school," Mr. Lord said.
At least one analyst was impressed with the conciliatory tone struck by Mr. Lord and Mr. Hough following the meeting. "Peace broke out between the two factions," said Thomas O'Donnell, an analyst for Smith, Barney Inc.
Mr. O'Donnell said Mr. Lord's victory will help the stock price, which climbed 25 cents to $46.88.
Mr. Cahill writes for the Medill News Service.