Since its founding in 1994, FirstPlus Financial Group has had a lot of catching up to do. The Dallas-based home equity lender had a small loan portfolio, wasn't known beyond regional markets and suffered from little awareness of its hallmark 125 percent LTV loan product. What it did have were big ambitions and a highly successful marketing model-one perfected by The Money Store, the sector's most successful lender.

Not only did FirstPlus adopt The Money Store's model of using a nationally recognized sports figure as its spokesman, but it also recruited Mauro Appezzato, who orchestrated The Money Store's national campaign. The company's success is hard to dispute: Four years later, the once-obscure lender boasts an aided awareness that FirstPlus CEO Dan Phillips claims is in the 40s. Its loan originations have soared, to $4.1 billion. Investors have rewarded the company with a $1.5 billion market cap-a 1,200 percent rise from the company's initial public offering two years ago.

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