Twenty-five years ago Alan Turtletaub founded Money Store with $18,650 in seed money he borrowed from his partner's sister.

Last week the Turtletaub family's stake in selling the company to First Union Corp. was estimated at $710 million. Alan's son Marc, chief executive of the company, is now worth over half a billion dollars.

Money Store may be the most spectacular rags-to-riches story in the specialty finance sector. The Turtletaubs identified a market and single- mindedly targeted it with television advertising, making their company a household name.

"Talk to your mother about this business," said E. Reilly Tierney, a Fox-Pitt, Kelton analyst. "The only company she'll know is the Money Store."

That notoriety, built most memorably in a series of ads featuring former Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto, is the real reason that the company was picked up by a big bank, analysts say. "First Union is buying a brand name," Mr. Tierney said. "It's a unique animal."

Once Money Store had established an identity, the Turtletaubs successfully diversified into other related lines of business, most notably student and Small Business Administration lending. This earned the company respect and imitation from peers.

"First Union really got a jewel," said J. Terrell Brown, chief executive of United Companies, Baton Rouge.

The only other home equity company to be bought by a bank in recent years used much the same strategy to build its name recognition.

Champion Mortgage-renowned throughout the Northeast for its ads featuring founder Joseph Goryeb, and the tag line "When your bank says no, Champion says yes,"-was purchased last April by KeyCorp for $200 million.

The speciality finance sector is littered with little guys who made it big.

Brian Chisick started First Alliance Capital Corp., Irvine, Calif., in 1967 with $5,000, saved "a nickel here, a nickel there," he said. At that time, the industry was "full of little old men who didn't know a thing about sales and took great delight in turning everyone down."

Mr. Chisick, a former office machine salesman, turned his promotion savvy to second-mortgage sales. Now First Alliance is a publicly traded company with a $188 million market cap. If First Alliance sold for a premium similar to that for Money Store, Mr. Chisick's stake would be worth more than $90 million.

And Gary Judis started Capitol Home Loan Co. with a $1,600 investment in 1967, and merged it into Aames Financial Corp. At its peak, the company was a publicly traded lender with a $1 billion market cap. Mr. Judis left the company last year, after cashing in millions in stock options.

But don't look for all these companies to command high prices if they are sold, Mr. Tierney cautioned. Money Store's valuation of 14.3 times earnings should serve as a ceiling for the sector, he said, because no other company demonstrates the same level of franchise value.

The Turtletaub family never really intended to cash in. Four years ago, Marc Turtletaub told American Banker, "I want us to be like GE Capital."

But since then, the company, and the sector, have taken some hits. Last year Money Store lost the advertising director responsible for a much- lauded ad campaign featuring Jim Palmer, to FirstPlus Financial. Its start- up subprime auto division faltered, the head of the unit quit, and then Money Store shut it down-a blow that Marc Turtletaub took especially hard, investors said.

And early this year subprime lenders' stock prices plummeted because of fears of inflated earnings. Money Store was trading last week at half of its 52-week high.

In fact, some speculate that the Turtletaubs' best move to date was their decision to sell while banks were still interested in the sector.

Said one investor: "The smartest thing they've ever done may be selling out now."

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