Jeffrey J. Nick's office is nearly devoid of decoration, diplomas, or pictures. There isn't even a pile of papers on his desk.

But from that corner office, high atop a Philadelphia office tower, the president and chief executive of Lincoln National Investment Cos. has made plans that seem to be winning the approval of his higher-ups.

Mr. Nick took over the job in December, after Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Lincoln National Corp. asked him to head the consolidation of its mutual fund and investment companies, including Delaware Management Holdings Inc.

Taking on Delaware Management two years ago proved a challenge for the insurance conglomerate. Delaware still bore the scars of a heavy debt load under previous ownership and scant investment in its core business: selling mutual funds.

The 43-year-old Mr. Nick, who formerly headed Delaware Management's United Kingdom operations, is considered by some observers to be one of the rising executives at Lincoln National, which last year had $6.6 billion in revenue and $63 billion of assets. But he has his work cut out for him.

"He clearly has the confidence of (Lincoln National chairman and CEO) Ian Rolland and other top people in Fort Wayne," said Burton J. Greenwald, principal at B.J. Greenwald & Associates, a Philadelphia firm that does consulting for Delaware Management. "Whether he's the next CEO is a bit presumptuous, but he's being given great responsibility" at Delaware Management.

Though Lincoln National management is apparently behind him, there have already been several key defections in Delaware Management's staff. Earlier this week, news broke that a group of 10 investment managers and support staff was leaving the company.

The group included Edward N. Antoian, manager of the $1.1 billion DelCap Fund; David Dalrymple, manager of the $240 million Value Fund; Bernard Schaffer, manager of two closed-end funds; and Wynn Jessup, an institutional rainmaker. The group did not announce its intentions.

Earlier this year, the president of Delaware's distribution unit, Keith E. Mitchell, left the firm. He later joined London-based John Govett & Co. as CEO of U.S. operations.

Mr. Nick would not comment on the defections. But in a memo to Delaware's 650-member staff, chairman Wayne A. Stork said the departures are "not an unusual event in today's investment management environment." The defectors have already been replaced, he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nick continues to engineer Delaware Management's turnaround. Before the acquisition by Lincoln National in 1995, Delaware Management was deep in debt.

But by last summer, with its coffers restored (and before Mr. Nick's arrival as CEO), the company earmarked $100 million to spend over five years to improve the computer system, hire more sales representatives, and launch new products.

Delaware Management is seeking growth through acquisition, Mr. Nick said. To start, the company expects to close on a deal April 30 to buy Voyageur Asset Management, a Minneapolis-based company that manages $8.4 billion of assets.

Voyageur specializes in state tax-exempt funds, money market funds that are invested in short-term municipal securities, particularly in the upper Midwest as well as New York, Florida, and California.

Despite a strategy of acquisition, Mr. Nick doesn't consider himself so much of a buyer as a seller-a retailer, to be precise.

Delaware Management "is really more of a sales and marketing business," said Mr. Nick, a Princeton graduate who holds an MBA from the University of Chicago. "It's more like running a supermarket than running Campbell Soup or Heinz."

Supermarkets, he pointed out, "don't know what their customer will want in five years. You have to react if the customer wants more pasta and less beef, or more bagels and fewer doughnuts."

With a broad distribution network, product lines can be expanded or changed as the market demands. But Mr. Nick lets broker-dealers handle the retail side.

"We have a different target from Fidelity (Investments Group), which has no intermediary. We believe in the value of the intermediary-the broker- dealer or other sales distribution outlet," said Mr. Nick.

Delaware Management, with $33 billion under management, has a sales network consisting of 13 broker-dealers, including CoreStates Financial, Wachovia, Merrill Lynch & Co., PaineWebber, A.G. Edwards, and Prudential Securities. While banks contribute just 10% of total sales, Delaware Management hopes to increase that to 15% to 20%.

Mr. Nick claims the company has outpaced a five-year expansion plan detailed in 1995, after Lincoln National bought Delaware Management from Castle Harlan Inc., a New York-based leveraged buyout firm.

"We are in excess of targets for 2000," said Mr. Nick.

But "we haven't done as well as we should have in the past few years, particularly with the bull market. Maybe the (growth) model wasn't aggressive enough."

Some say Mr. Nick, whom Lincoln hired as a corporate strategist in 1989 (he led Chase Investment Bank's London operation, and before that worked in business development at Xerox Financial Services), has yet to prove himself in the mutual fund industry.

"It's a little early to tell, quite frankly. He doesn't have a history of building assets, so the jury is out," said Louis Harvey, president of the Boston-based research firm Dalbar Financial Services Inc.

The Lincoln acquisition freed Delaware from heavy debt, Mr. Harvey said. "They're in position to be successful.

"The key is distribution savvy. If you look at Ned Johnson at Fidelity, or Larry Lasser at Putnam, they understand the investment business, but they're brilliant at distribution."

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