When Harold Marshall joined Associates First Capital Corp. in 1961, he started at the very lowest rung of consumer finance. "Back then they called it a trainee," he says, "but that was just a fancy name for car repossessor."

Since then, Mr. Marshall, 61, has gone on to become president and chief operating officer. Associates, meanwhile, has emerged as the second-largest consumer finance company in the United States-after GE Capital-and by far the largest home equity lender. The company's holdings of home equity loans have grown by nearly 100% since 1991, to $16.7 billion.

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