Kevin Crowe could easily sit back and let someone else run the show now that he's sold Essex Corp., the investment marketing company he founded 15 years ago.
But somehow, he isn't quite ready to let go.
"Every product that we have sold, I own," Mr. Crowe boasted in an interview at his New York office. "As my wife says, 'Oh, no, do we have another annuity now?'"
That kind of hands-on approach has helped Mr. Crowe make Essex into an investment sales powerhouse. Last year, the company sold 16% of the $10.7 billion in annuities sold through banks, leading all comers in a crowded field.
"Every year they seem to increase their lead in a situation where there's lots and lots more competition," said Kenneth Kehrer, a Princeton, N.J., consultant who compiled the data.
That kind of sales prowess has paid off handsomely for Mr. Crowe. Last month, CUC International paid him $27 million cash for Essex. The move enables the Stamford, Conn., firm, which offers "account enhancement services" through 7,000 financial institutions to 32 million consumers, to add investment products to its stable of offerings.
Mr. Crowe will stay at the helm, and his management team will remain in place.
That's entirely in character for the 55-year-old native of Rochester, N.Y. Mr. Crowe has made it his business to stay involved in all aspects of the company, from pursuing clients to formulating advertising campaigns.
His decision to stay also shows his commitment to the company he built. With the CUC acquisition completed three weeks ago, Mr. Crowe could easily take the money and run to Ireland, where he is a part owner of a lavish castle situated on 35,000 acres.
He and his family escape to the retreat twice a year to go salmon fishing, horse riding, and golfing.
"It's a very nice place to go," Mr. Crowe said. "Your blood pressure goes down immediately, and you can relax."
Not that Mr. Crowe has done much relaxing, since his business school days at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, he joined Provident Life Insurance in Philadelphia.
By 1971, Mr. Crowe had launched his first company, Payroll Equity Plans Inc., a payroll deduction service similar to today's 401(k) retirement savings plans.
In the late '70s, he started putting together life insurance plans for thrifts. After selling Payroll Equity in 1980, Mr. Crowe turned his attention to developing Essex. In 1985, the firm started selling annuities, and the rest, Mr. Crowe says, is history.
"That year we sold $55 million in annuities, and now we do that basically each week," Mr. Crowe said.
Mutual funds were added in 1992. At that time, Mr. Crowe predicted that, with the expanded product line, Essex could increase its sales volume to $6 billion by 1997.
Even with the slow performance of mutual funds last year, Essex sold about $3 billion in annuities and mutual funds combined, Mr. Crowe said. A whopping 85% of that business came from banks.
While his business has boomed, Mr. Crowe said he does worry about the mushrooming of investment products that he and Essex have helped spur.
"Part of the difficulty has been in controlling the process, so you don't get caught up in these esoteric, complicated products" that customers won't understand, he said.
Despite concerns that the investment products arena may be growing too fast, Mr. Crowe still has his sights set on building the business. And having CUC as a parent will help Essex grow, he noted.
"We will have a lot more resources to work with for expansion, for growth, (and) for possible acquisitions" of other marketing companies, he said.
With the deal cemented just three weeks ago, Mr. Crowe is still dazzled by all the different aspects of CUC's business.
"At this time I'm trying to get my arms around all the various things they do," said Mr. Crowe.
He's already looking into using CUC's direct mail capabilities to market insurance products, such as accidental death insurance. And there should be ample opportunities to cross-sell Essex's investment products through some of CUC's subsidiaries, such as its BCI unit which markets insurance products to about 1,500 credit unions.
Some of Essex's competitors say privately that they envy Mr. Crowe's ability to sell Essex to a company such as CUC. And others say Mr. Crowe linked up with CUC at a good point in Essex's history.
"Kevin Crowe did a good job of building his company up and sold it at the right time," said Tom E. Gunderson, founder and head of Investment Centers of America, a marketing firm in Bismarck, N.D.
Industry consultants also see the marriage as a good match for both companies.
"Part of CUC's strategy for growth is adding more products they can sell through banks," said Catherine J. Baker, an analyst with Cowen & Co., a Boston-based consulting firm.
"The fact that Essex specializes in mutual funds and annuities is something that (CUC)'s small bank clients will find very attractive," she said.
"Essex has the best of both worlds," Mr. Kehrer added. "They have a very rich parent company and the luxury of remaining independent of a product provider."
Essex's sale also set a precedent and put a price tag on investment product marketing firms.
"Now there is a lot of discussion about mergers and acquisitions in this industry," said Richard A. Ayotte, a consultant in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Essex established "a benchmark against which these (third-party marketing) companies are measuring themselves," Mr. Ayotte said.
Mr. Crowe, who has ruddy cheeks and sharp blue eyes, agrees that he was probably in the right position at the right time to sell.
"We were one of the few remaining independent companies, and being one of the larger ones, it made it an attractive situation to look at," he said.
Always the salesman, Mr. Crowe exudes enthusiasm about what the future holds for Essex and CUC.
"The things we can do (together) are really only limited by our imagination," he said.