Associates First Capital Corp., the largest U.S. finance company, is planning to celebrate its newfound independence quietly.
On April 7, Ford Motor Co. will sell its 80% stake in Associates, leaving the $60 billion-asset company to its own devices for the first time in 23 years. But things are not likely to change much.
"It's just going to be business as usual," said chief executive Keith Hughes. His low-key approach fits well with the company's profile; it has only scant recognition in banking circles and is virtually unknown by the majority of consumers.
"We've been around for a long time, but our name doesn't ring through the halls of American finance," said Mr. Hughes. "Which has been O.K. with us."
But Associates is hardly a fringe player. The company is the fourth- largest issuer of commercial paper in the world, has 2,265 offices worldwide, 22,582 employees, and market capitalization of $7.15 billion.
But becoming a household name is not a priority, Mr. Hughes said. "We don't want to get lost superimposing a brand-name strategy."
Instead, the company is busy building credit card partnerships with brand names like Amoco, where the "name of the company on the back of the credit card" is not important, Mr. Hughes said.
The company's one stab at advertising is its television campaign in Texas featuring former Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Bradshaw. Although the commercials are being well received, Mr. Hughes said he does not expect them to run for longer than a year, because, "advertising is expensive."
Associates has received some unwanted publicity this year. It has been the target of a Federal Trade Commission investigation, was mentioned in a Congressional hearing, and was the subject of a "Dateline NBC" expose. All the publicity concerned accusations of predatory lending.
But the 80-year-old company appears to be taking a low-key approach to the charges. An official statement issued Monday encouraged consumer education and emphasized Associates' reputation in the industry without directly addressing any of the charges.
Long-standing rumors have had Associates acquiring Beneficial Corp., Delaware, the second-largest finance company. This month Beneficial put itself on the block, and a deal is rumored to be close at hand. But the odds may be against Associates being the buyer.
"We're not great liquidators," Mr. Hughes said, commenting on acquisition strategy in general. "We don't like to cut out the infrastructure" of acquisitions. A purchase of Beneficial Corp. would involve a lot of overlap in the companies' branch networks, he acknowledged.
He would not comment on Associates' interest in Beneficial, but did note that size is no deterrant to acquisition targets. A combination of the two companies would create a $97.5 billion-asset finance giant, larger than Norwest Corp.
Associates prides itself on picking its acquisitions carefully and monitoring their performance, he said. "Every acquisition we've ever done over $25 million, we can tell you where it is today."
Analysts expect that any deal for Beneficial would be a stock swap. But Mr. Hughes noted that Associates has no problem with financing.
"We know we can raise capital like any bank," he said. Associates has long avoided securitizing its loan pools and eschewed the controversial gain-on-sale accounting method. Several specialty finance companies that use gain-on-sale accounting were forced to take writedowns when their assumptions did not pan out. The corrections spooked investors and virtually closed the capital markets for these companies.
Chase Manhattan Corp. is Associates' most far-reaching banking relationship, he noted, although the company works with hundreds of others.
International expansion is high on the priority list, Mr. Hughes said. The company has 697 offices overseas, in the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Japan, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Costa Rica.
No matter how and where the company beefs up operations, Mr. Hughes is promising conservatism. "You never want a lending company to be in the position at daybreak where it's forced to grow," he said.