United Companies Financial Corp. is billing itself as the youngest 50-year-old company in the lending business.

Despite the fact that the company has been making home equity loans to credit-troubled borrowers since 1946, president John Dienes says United Companies is still just a teenager - with most of its corporate maturation to come.

"We've got a five-year business plan that's fairly aggressive. We're planning on growing geographically, internationally, through new products. I'd like think that when it's finished, we're going to be a really big company," said chief executive J. Terrell Brown.

The company is hardly small potatoes today. Its $1.5 billion of loan production last year puts it among the top five originators of home equity loans.

But United Companies' long childhood has not been a particularly easy one. The company suffered through several capital-strapped years in the late 1980s and early 1990s before being bailed out when securitizing home equity loans became popular.

And it is facing an uphill struggle to expand in an industry that has seen burgeoning competition as lenders of all stripes flock to home equity in a quest for higher margins.

To sharpen its focus, United Companies has disposed of some of its diversions, leaving it time to concentrate on the thing it knows best - making home equity loans. This year it has sold both its life insurance division, which is beset by litigation, and its scandal-ridden title insurance division.

The past three years have seen a lot of changes. United Companies has transformed itself from a southern retail and referral operation to a five- pronged home equity lending machine.

Now, the company is garnering loans from all angles: walk-in branches, bank partners, wholesale lenders, portfolio chunks, and manufactured housing.

"They've got one of the broadest origination channels in the business," said Jennifer Scutti, an analyst with Prudential Securities.

The company saw originations rise 70% in 1995, and it may pick up even more volume this year. Total second-quarter origination volume stood at $669 million, an 84% increase over the year before.

"What we've been trying to build is an organization that can control its own destiny," explained Mr. Brown, who has been CEO for 11 years.

His decison to broaden the company's origination channels three years ago was accompanied by an executive hiring binge.

"If you're going to be successful and go to the next level, you can't do it yourself," said Mr. Brown.

The management team he has put together is "one of the most gracious in the business," said Gary Judis, chief executive of rival home equity lender Aames Financial Corp., Los Angeles.

Southern hospitality aside, analysts describe it as a highly functional combination of experienced home equity veterans and newcomers to the business.

"They've been dynamic and flexible about structuring the company," said Ms. Scutti of Prudential. "They're very proactive, and they have a quick response time."

John Dienes, who joined the corporation in 1994 after serving as an executive vice president and head of corporate banking for NationsBank Corp., has brought excellent corporate experience to the company, analysts say. "He's been very effective at making sure the infastructure matches the company's growth," said Samuel Liss, analyst with CS First Boston.

Dale Redman, a 16-year United Companies veteran, has served as as chief financial officer for eight years.

Keith Hoffman was named president of Unicor, the company's wholesale lending division, last October. His experience in a Georgia-based mortgage bank has given him perspective now that he's on the other side of the fence.

"I've been there, I've done that. You know that every deal to your clients is their most important deal."

Mr. Hoffman's experience is paying off: Unicor's originations increased from $12 million in 1994 to $423 million in 1995.

The increase, Mr. Hoffman holds, has more to do with the 150-plus account executives he hired than with his expertise. "I'm just the conductor. You have to hire good people," he said.

C. Geron Hargon, known as GeeGee, came aboard last September after serving as chairman at Hibernia National Bank's south central region. He was named president of United Companies' 150-branch retail network a month later. Under his direction, United Companies Lending Corp. watched originations rise from $691 million in 1995 to $939 million last year.

In yet another October move, H.C. (Mickey) McCall 3d, a 25-year company veteran, became head of United Companies' bulk purchasing division, Southern Mortgage Acquisition.

Southern Mortgage purchased $128 million in bulk loans last year, versus $15 million the year before.

Many home equity lenders have some way of capturing loans at bulk, retail, and wholesale levels. But analysts cite United Companies' additional two divisions as unique.

Ken Roberts, who had retired as president after decades at Green Tree Financial Corp., came out of retirement three years ago to head United Companies brand-new manufactured housing division. The Minnesota-based operation started making loans in November of last year.

And two years ago, Mr. Brown and his son, John T. Brown Jr., developed the Ginger Mae division, which partners with banks to capture borrowers. The program, in which bank tellers trained by United Companies initiate the loan process, got off to a rocky start. But it turned in more than $50 million in loans last year and is expecting to more than double that this year.

For United Companies, analysts agree, the future looks bright - in part because the past has not been perfect. "Terrell Brown and his crew have evolved with the benefit of having some experiences that weren't great," said Samuel Liss, analyst with CS First Boston.

"They've got the wind at their backs and they know what they're doing," agreed Prudential's Ms. Scutti.

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