Stephen Hilbert has always been a champion of the underdog.
Last year the 52-year-old chairman of Conseco Inc., Carmel, Ind., bought 6,000 tickets to an Indianapolis Colts football game to ensure the floundering team a sellout and, consequently, free television coverage in the local market.
In the past 19 years, he's built an insurance giant, with 1997 revenue of $5.55 billion, from a $10,000 investment, largely by buying up companies that have fallen out of favor with other investors.
But his most recent purchase, $6 billion for Green Tree Financial Corp., St. Paul, a manufactured housing lender, is his largest and most controversial to date.
And Mr. Hilbert's goals for the acquisition are nothing short of Olympian.
He said he wants to "build the finest financial services company in America" by melding two companies that share one audience: middle- to low- income borrowers.
The acquisition, which closed June 30, brings Conseco's nationwide customer count up to 12 million. To put that in perspective, Chase Manhattan Corp. has about 30 million customers.
Mr. Hilbert, unlike other acquirers, is not planning to wring savings from the deal by eliminating overlaps. Instead, he is planning to keep virtually all Green Tree employees and to profit through cross-selling.
In an interview during a recent visit to New York to drum up investor support, he said the Green Tree purchase was different from most banking mergers in that it was predicated on building revenue. "Bank mergers are tear-down stories," he said.
Conseco has said previously that its typical customer has a household income of $25,000 to $75,000, very similar to Green Tree's. "That's the beauty of this transaction," Mr. Hilbert said. "We have the same customer base."
Pilot tests of cross-selling opportunities are already showing positive results, Mr. Hilbert said.
In one, about one-quarter of 4,000 new homeowners expressed interest in talking to a Conseco life insurance agent, he said.
Generally, insurers like Conseco cull leads from deeds filed after a home is bought, a process that can take months. Conseco's new partnership gives it access to Green Tree borrowers almost immediately, a big edge on the competition.
"If we close 3% to 4% of these, it'll be four times the national average," Mr. Hilbert said.
Conseco snagged Green Tree at a time when the lender was suffering a lack of credibility among investors. The company had been forced to take writedowns for loans that prepaid faster than expected-charges that critics said should have been taken months earlier.
In addition, Conseco has already said it will be taking a $498 million charge in the second quarter, related to the acquisition, to further adjust Green Tree's assumptions.
Nonetheless, Mr. Hilbert insisted that he has bought a "growth machine" whose loan originations and internal revenue have grown significantly in the past 12 months.
In a release due today, Green Tree is expected to report $5.2 billion of loan originations in the second quarter, a 30% increase from the year before, Conseco disclosed this month.
In addition to the similar customer bases at Green Tree and Conseco, Mr. Hilbert and Green Tree chief executive Lawrence M. Coss have been referred to in press reports as "so alike it's scary."
The two founded multibillion-dollar operations with less than $20,000 and relied on street smarts, not MBAs, to expand their operations.
"I'm not going to say that that gives us an advantage" over bankers, Mr. Hilbert said. But "we started with a clean sheet of paper."
The two have built the systems and cultures of their organizations themselves, he said, and can "move quicker, make decisions, and more importantly implement those decisions" faster than a traditional bank.
He has been laying the groundwork to make Conseco a household name. The company is footing part of the bill for the Indiana Pacers' new stadium, giving it naming rights. For the next 20 years, the Pacers of the National Basketball Association will play basketball in the Conseco Fieldhouse.
And it started a series of television ads in February that have already drawn attention for their irreverence. "It's very important for any financial services company that wants to thrive to establish a brand name," Mr. Hilbert said.
One ad for life insurance products features a clay-mation "Middle American" couple drinking coffee in the living room, while outside the grim reaper is coming up the front walk.
He is just about to knock when something catches his eye: a female grim reaper, who flashes a bit of leg bone. He decides not to knock, and the two turn and walk away, while the message "You never know when your number is going to be up" flashes on the screen.
The only thing missing from Conseco's full menu is investment banking capability, Mr. Hilbert said.
"If I could snap my fingers, I would want an investment banking firm with solid retail distribution-like an A.G. Edwards or an Edward D. Jones," he said. But, he stressed, "I'm not talking to any of them. ... I'm not thinking about buying."