After 10 months at the helm of Conseco Inc., Gary Wendt is putting a conservative stamp on the troubled insurance and consumer finance outfit.
The Indianapolis company unloaded almost $1.7 billion of assets in the second half of 2000, including 30% of Argosy Gaming Co. and most of Consumer Finance Vendor Services Corp. Now it plans to eliminate nearly 21% of its work force - 3,000 positions - by yearend 2002, a move it says should save up to $200 million. That is on top of the 2,000 Conseco Finance jobs Mr. Wendt eliminated in July 2000.
Until Mr. Wendt's arrival, "Conseco was growing internally and by acquisition rather aggressively," said Travis Pascavis, an analyst with Morningstar. "Now with its more conservative stance, it makes sense to trim operations, and that should bode well for earnings as they have a more rationalized work force."
Mr. Wendt, former head of General Electric Co.'s financial services unit, joined Conseco as chief executive after a dismal two-year stretch that began almost immediately after it bought Green Tree Financial, now Conseco Finance, in April 1998. Conseco's stock lost as much as 90% of its value, hitting $4.625 last May. Two key executives - including its founder and longtime chief executive Stephen C. Hilbert - resigned in the aftermath, and the stock has bounced back to around $17 under Mr. Wendt.
Of the 3,000 positions targeted, 2,000 are service jobs expected to move to India; the rest will be eliminated outright or through attrition at Conseco's headquarters. A Conseco spokeswoman said operating and salary costs are "incredibly lower" in India and that turnover is less of a problem there. These things explain its plan to purchase an Indian company called exelService for $52.6 million in a deal announced last week.
Analysts are giving Mr. Wendt an "incomplete" grade.
"He's done a wonderful job disposing of legacy assets, increasing financial flexibility, refocusing the existing management on day-to-day business," said Todd E. Truitt, an analyst with McDonald Investments. "He's done nothing but underpromise and overdeliver, which is the best of possible situations."
Still, Mr. Truitt said, Conseco will need a strong second half if it is to meet its earnings guidance for the year. It expects to have made 13 cents to 16 cents in the first quarter; 19 cents to 23 cents in the second, 25 cents to 31 cents in the third; and 33 cents to 40 cents in the fourth.
"All he has to do is meet and not guide us lower this and next quarter," Mr. Truitt said. "But the real proof in the pudding will be the third and fourth quarters."
Analysts expect that Conseco's first-quarter results, which are to be released today after the markets close, will meet or exceed the target of 14 cents a share. Last year it had only one profitable quarter and its net loss for the year topped $1 billion.
In addition, Conseco must make almost $2 billion in debt payments by yearend - $680 million by June and $1.2 billion between June and January.
"He's on track, but I don't think we're out of the woods yet," Morningstar's Mr. Pascavis said. "They are back in the black, but we're still a little worried. There is certainly a lot of risk with the shares, especially at this point with the recent run."
What has proved the biggest thorn in the company's side, Conseco Finance, does not appear likely to disappear any time soon.
Conseco announced its intentions to sell the company - which it purchased for 120 million shares, worth $6 billion at the time of the transaction - soon after Mr. Wendt came on board. But there were no takers. He sought to put a positive spin on the deal late last year, arguing that Conseco's depressed stock price put the deal's value at closer to $1 billion and thus a bargain, but the finance unit is still dragging the parent down.
"Our concerns remain significant as the Conseco Finance's remains critically undercapitalized," said Thomas J. Abruzzo, senior director at Fitch IBCA, which holds a "rating watch negative" on the finance unit. "We're concerned about the company's ability to generate a satisfactory and sufficient level of returns over a consistent period of time."