Elaine Puleo Carter may seem an unlikely candidate to be running the bank sales division of OppenheimerFunds, one of the biggest mutual fund sellers through financial institutions.

Two decades ago, when her counterparts were cutting their teeth in the financial services business, Ms. Carter was raising a child and helping run pizza restaurants in Ohio-and she barely knew what a mutual fund was.

"I tell people I'm just a pizza queen from Ohio," said Ms. Carter, who has an "American by Birth, Buckeye by Choice" bumper sticker on display in her office at Oppenheimer's New York headquarters.

The erstwhile pizza queen now has a big job in filling the shoes of her predecessor, Maryann Bruce, who started Oppenheimer's bank channel business in 1990 and turned it into the third-biggest player.

"Oppenheimer under Maryann did the best job in the industry of getting from X to Y in a short amount of time," said Ms. Carter's counterpart at another fund company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Now that they've so recently got on top, the challenge is to stay on top."

The 53-year-old Ms. Carter, who took her post in October, says her diverse background will help her achieve that. She is not as well known in the industry as is her predecessor, but has ambitious plans and has already made some key hires.

She has set a high target for her team of wholesalers, key account managers and regional sales managers: to be among the top three vendors at each of Oppenheimer's key bank partners.

Ms. Carter expects sales of Oppenheimer funds through banks to rise to $3.8 billion this year from $3.1 billion in 1998. She is chasing No. 2 Franklin Templeton Group, which had $3.9 billion in sales through banks last year but has stumbled because of its emphasis on value and international funds.

She even has thoughts of dethroning the bank sales champion, Putnam Investments, which had $10 billion of bank sales in 1998.

"I don't think Putnam is untouchable," she said.

Those who know her speak of Ms. Carter's midwestern charm and self- effacing personality. Those traits are wrapped around a strong will.

In the mid-1970s, Ms. Carter helped run a series of pizza restaurants in the Columbus area with her first husband. Between keeping the books for the restaurants and looking after her son, she squeezed in some evening college courses.

"I didn't think I was going to go to college to graduate and have a career," she said.

But the credits added up, and before she knew it Ms. Carter had a degree-in sociology. After a career aptitude test pointed her toward the brokerage business, Ms. Carter picked up the phone book and called every brokerage listed.

She eventually landed a spot with the old Shearson American Express as a broker. In New York for the first time during the interview process, she said "I was like one of those wide-eyed tourists."

Her reading habits had to change too. Early on Ms. Carter admitted to her boss that she did not read The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, or Business Week.

Asked what she did read, she replied, "Good Housekeeping."

But her persistence and tenacity made her and a new crop of trainees top performers.

"We really did shake up the old guys who were comfortable in their jobs," said Ms. Carter, who was the only female broker in the brokerage's Columbus branch at the time-1983.

One of the secrets of her success has been dressing for it. Down to earth and friendly, Ms. Carter is formal when it comes to sartorial matters, and expects those who work for her to dress "two steps" ahead of their position.

"What kind of image do you want to project?" is a question she puts to the casual dressers who work for her.

By 1987, Ms. Carter had made it to the executive track at Shearson, training brokers in the company's New York offices. She left in 1990 for Barclays Bank in New York, where she was program manager for fixed annuity sales.

Then in 1992, Oppenheimer hired her to be a key account manager for banks in the western half of the country. Three years later she was named director of key accounts.

Her selection to take over the entire unit when Ms. Bruce left last year for a position with Allstate Insurance Co. reportedly surprised some at OppenheimerFunds.

Typically, national sales managers have been picked to run bank sales units. Part of the reason is that they tend to be better known at more banks than key account executives.

Indeed, Ms. Carter is relatively unknown among her peers at other companies and at banks. Three heads of the investment areas at big banks who were contacted for this article said they did not know Ms. Carter. But those who do say they are impressed.

"She clearly has a very good understanding of how Oppenheimer works and what they need to do to support their accounts," said Deborah Bernot, president of Cal Fed Investments, Sacramento, where Ms. Carter was key account manager for Oppenheimer. "She has good follow-up and a desire to understand the banks she works with."

And Ms. Bernot said she likes the executives Ms. Carter has tapped to fill key posts. They include Brent Krantz, a regional sales manager who focuses on the West Coast, and Lynn Jensen, a key account manager based in Los Angeles.

Part of Ms. Jensen's mission is to try to get Oppenheimer onto the preferred provider lists of banks on the West Coast, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, her former employer.

Oppenheimer was on BankAmerica's A-list but lost that spot when the institution merged with NationsBank last year and the two lists were combined.

Such mergers are part of the reason why Ms. Carter comes to her position at a pivotal moment.

"The stakes get higher every time these banks merge," said Kenneth Kehrer, a consultant in Princeton, N.J. "You're up to the point that some of these individual banks might do 10% of total bank sales."

Robert L. Ash, managing director at Fleet Investment Management-where Oppenheimer is not on the preferred list-agreed.

"She's going to have to figure out a way to differentiate Oppenheimer from other funds," he said.

Ms. Carter said that persistence and perfectionism will help her to do that. People in the industry are likely to see those traits on the golf course.

An avid player since taking up the sport eight years ago, Ms. Carter would not reveal her handicap but said she works hard at the game.

"I drive well; my short game needs work," she said. "I don't embarrass myself out there."

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