Paul Smith saw the writing on the wall fairly early in his building and design career. After graduating with a degree in architecture from Howard University in 1998, he worked for seven years in the field before concluding that a different course would allow him to do more of what he wanted. He transitioned to facilities management, and it remains his field a decade later.
“I still deal with building imagery, still deal with space, and still deal with people,” Smith says. “And, one of the best changes [from the architecture days] is that I used to be the one getting commissioned by big companies and now I’m the one doing the commissioning.”
He spent more than nine years as the director of real estate, facilities, and space planning for financial-services company Sallie Mae—a position that most recently had him overseeing the development of that company’s headquarters in Delaware—but now he holds a similar position with Navient Corporation, which came about after Sallie Mae split into two separate publicly traded entities in the first half of 2014. Navient got its start providing customer service for those with private and/or federal student loans, operating out of an existing building owned by Sallie Mae. By the end of 2014, though, it had a new headquarters—with a look and feel, conceived by Smith and his team, that was all its own.
“We selected the brand and crafted the mission and values after a careful process, informed by surveys and other feedback from employees, clients, and customers,” says Nikki Lavoie, Navient’s corporate communications director. “Our values are at the heart of our brand. Our name represents our commitment to help our customers navigate the path to financial success. The location and design for our new company headquarters was one of the final steps of this process.”
A lot of thought went into the project as it evolved over the course of a year. “One of Navient’s core values is customer-centricity, putting customers first in all we do,” Smith says. “From the facilities team’s perspective, our customer is internal. So, one of the driving things for us has been the question, ‘What can we do to make the employees feel comfortable in their new space?’”
Smith and his team came up with some good answers. Navient’s new home, claiming two floors and 45,000 square feet in the Star Building in the Riverfront area of Wilmington, Delaware, reflects the contemporary vibe of the company with an open design, high ceilings, plenty of natural light, and jewel-toned color accents. Its amenities include showers, kitchenettes, and thoughtfully placed gathering areas.
“We ended up lining the perimeter of our space with offices, but since we had these 10-foot ceilings, we just had to put in glass from floor to ceiling,” Smith says. “That way, all the people who are in cubicles—the rest of the employees—can relate to and connect with the outside. That’s pretty important, considering how much time people spend at work.”
The amount of time Navient employees spend away from work, though, was a big factor in choosing the headquarters’ location. A blighted industrial sector of the city until the 1990s, Riverfront Wilmington now boasts numerous restaurants, apartments, shops, and fitness centers along its 1.2-mile Riverwalk. Factor in a children’s museum; a stadium for a minor league baseball team, the Blue Rocks; and a thriving arts scene that includes opera and two theater companies, and the area’s appeal only grows. “I think one of the best amenities Navient employees receive is the building’s exterior—the Riverfront itself,” Lavoie says.
Navient’s new headquarters is also close to the I-95 corridor—close enough, in fact, that commuters can easily see the company’s signage. A new company would be hard-pressed to come up with a simpler route to brand recognition, and indeed, the building’s proximity to the interstate factored into the company’s decision—almost as much as the city itself did. “We like being in the city,” Smith says. “All the energy you get downtown, the restaurants, the hotels, the complete revitalization—it paired nicely with what Navient is doing.”
Riverfront Wilmington’s Revival
Navient has moved to an area with many new amenities, including the following:
1. Navient Headquarters
2. Tubman-Garret Riverfront Park
3. Delaware Theatre Company
4. Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts
5. Frawley Stadium
6. Chase Center on the Riverfront
7. Delaware Children’s Museum
8. Opera Delaware Studios/City Theatre Co.
9. Hare Pavilion/Riverwalk