Twenty years ago, Sebron Andrews started his first “real” job at a new Navy Federal Credit Union contact center in an undeveloped patch of land a few miles northwest of Pensacola, Florida.
Andrews was 21 at the time—and one of 30 employees of the credit union’s brand-new contact center. After a 6-week training in Virginia, he and his new colleagues drove a 2-lane stretch of highway toward a low-rise building surrounded by woods and headed inside to empty desks in an unfinished room. “We were still walking on plywood,” recalls Andrews, a member service representative at the time. “That’s just how new everything was.”
From those humble beginnings rose Greater Pensacola Operations (GPO)—now a college-like campus with 8 state-of-the-art buildings housing cafeterias and coffee shops, fitness and wellness centers and a brand-new recreation facility with sports courts, athletic fields, a pavilion and more. A “jewel in Navy Federal’s crown,” GPO now encompasses more than 2 million square feet and stretches across more than 440 acres of prime land along the Sunshine State’s storied Gulf Coast.
The workforce has grown exponentially, too. Today, GPO employs almost 10,000 people (about two-fifths of all of Navy Federal’s employees worldwide) and is the largest private-sector employer in the region.
“It’s been remarkable to watch our ‘little satellite shop’ grow into an operational juggernaut,” says Andrews, who has since risen to senior IT manager. “We sometimes have to pinch ourselves; we’re part of something pretty special, and we got in on the ground floor.”
The story of GPO’s rapid rise dates to 2001, when Navy Federal leaders felt the need to support their surging membership—and saw the greatest potential to do so in northwest Florida.
The reasons were many: The region offered a talented labor pool in an affordable market, an abundance of good, available land and a strong connection to military communities, Navy Federal’s core field of membership. The Pensacola area (aka the “Cradle of Naval Aviation”) is home to several naval air stations, fields, hospitals and other military installations, and more military retirees call the “City of Five Flags” home than all but one other place in the country.
In 2003, the 300-seat contact center where Andrews worked opened in Commerce Park in Escambia County. Navy Federal soon bought the rest of the park and, a few years later, an additional 220 acres nearby. In the years since, GPO has constructed a small village of energy-efficient buildings, parking decks, energy plants, roads, ponds, bridges and other infrastructure to support the campus.
Growth hasn’t been without challenges; keeping up with the high-speed pace of change is tough, Andrews said. Several major hurricanes in the area and an extended pandemic haven’t made things easier. But GPO has weathered these and other storms and continues to expand to this day.
In honor of its 20th anniversary, GPO’s new Recreation Center opens on Nov. 8 with a ceremonial ribbon cutting followed by remarks from Navy Federal President and CEO Mary McDuffie. The festivities don’t stop there. They include food, games and music on Monday; a town hall on Tuesday, featuring a donation to the Blue Angels Foundation and remarks by McDuffie and COO Dietrich Kuhlman; and an annual fall festival on Thursday.
GPO’s building boom has spurred significant economic growth in the region, creating thousands of job opportunities with good pay and strong benefits and supporting area businesses. Indeed, the credit union is regularly ranked one of the best companies to work for in America by national media companies like Fortune and Newsweek and local publications like the Pensacola News Journal.
“You dream of opportunities to grow in your career,” said GPO Executive Vice President Kara Cardona, who started out with the credit union as a part-time teller and now heads GPO’s operations. The organization has offered that in spades – and continues to do so.
The campus itself benefits the area in many other, often unseen ways.
GPO’s stormwater retention ponds benefit the environment, and open walking trails and other spaces support public recreation. Community members, meanwhile, will soon be able to reserve the new Rec Center’s pavilion and fields for birthday parties and other group events.
Culture of Giving
Last, but certainly not least, is a shared culture of giving. In addition to its philanthropic donations (including a $100,000 gift in 2020 to United Way of West Florida to help the community recover from Hurricane Sally), Navy Federal empowers its employees to volunteer in the community—and provides paid leave to do so.
Last year alone, Navy Federal employees donated more than 15,000 volunteer hours in the Pensacola area and have given generously to local causes. GPO’s “army of volunteers” donate to the local United Way chapter, support area schools, mentor youth and more.
“I was blown away when I got here,” says Cardona, who sits on the board of directors for Baptist Health Care, is a member of Pensacola Bay Area Impact 100 and volunteers as a Big Sister. “Team members are willing to roll up their sleeves and give their time, treasure and talent to support the community.”
That ethic has strengthened education, alleviated poverty and improved health and financial security in the region, said Baptist Health Care President and CEO Mark Faulkner. It is “deeply integrated into the fabric of our community.” One testament to that: Escambia County’s high school graduation rate has soared since 2003, growing from under 69% in 2003 to more than 78% in 2022 (and reaching even higher numbers in other, recent years). Navy Federal has no doubt played at least a small role, Cardona said, pointing to the thousands of GPO employees who volunteer in dozens of schools in the county.
“Pensacola is one of those really special places where you really see and feel the impact that you make,” Cardona said. But the real magic, she added, isn’t the place. It’s the people—and their shared culture of service. “We answer the call to give back,” she said.
Andrews, one of 12 original “plank owners” (a naval term referring to a ship’s original crew who receive a piece of deck wood when ships decommission) still with Navy Federal, echoed the sentiment. “We have a common purpose,” he said, noting that he still has the small slate tile from the center’s bathroom that he received his first year on the job, a keepsake “plank” from the original contact center “cruiser.”
In the years since, Andrews met and married his wife, bought his first car and his first home, experienced volunteering and mentoring and now holds a leadership position. “It’s so much more than a job, or even a career,” he said. Working at GPO and watching it grow has been a “life-changing journey.” The culture that was put in place all those years ago, he adds, is “still going strong.”
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