TUCSON, Ariz. - There was a swagger in the walks of many executives at last week's National Second Mortgage Association conference - and not just at the Thursday night hoedown.

Home equity lenders are seeing tremendous growth in their market. And they are confident that it will continue.

"Obviously there is something very exciting going on our industry," said John T. Hayt, chief executive of Equicredit Corp., Jacksonville, Fla., the group's president.

C. Stuart LaDow, a consultant and longtime player in the home equity industry, said second-mortgage lenders were finally reaching a high point of production.

"We wouldn't be enjoying the interest and attention if business wasn't good," he said, standing on a balcony in the cool night air of the desert.

He predicted that the good times would continue.

"This industry will continue to prosper because it is smart to have a second mortgage," he said.

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Jim Tunney, a longtime referee in the National Football League and now a professional speaker, gave an interpretation of the NSMA acronym.

Instead of the National Second Mortgage Association, he said NSMA might stand for "Never give up; Service customers; Make it happen; and All TEAM: Together Everyone Accomplishes More."

He told war stories from his days as a referee, in addition to giving advice about how to better yourself and your company.

"I don't think we sell anymore," he said. "We build relationships."

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Golf was the all-encompassing issue at this year's conference. Tucson may be the golf capital of America, a reality not unnoticed by conference goers.

The sport was mentioned at just about every conference session. Greeting a sparsely attended session on the origination of "non-standard" mortgages, Jeff W. Schaefer, senior vice president of sales management, Ford Consumer Finance Co., said, "I guess golf has claimed some of our members."

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George Nicholas, chairman and chief executive at Industry Mortgage Co., Tampa, said the home equity lenders had always been sensitive to their image as hard-money loan originators.

"We abhor foreclosures just as much as Fannie Mae does," he said.

He said home equity lenders must diligently maintain the better name they have slowly created for themselves over the last several years.

"The B or C customer is nothing more than a credit blip in that customer," he said.

He said conferences like NSMA's helps other lenders see "the merits of what a B and C customer truly is."

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Alan Turtletaub, founder of the Sacramento, Calif.-based The Money Store, is generally considered a legend in the home equity industry.

He helped form NSMA 21 years ago.

On Friday, Mr. Turtletaub, a grandfatherly man with a strong handshake and a gentle disposition, was rewarded for his efforts. He was given the association's Award for Meritorious Service.

"I thank you for getting into an industry that has got to grow," he said upon receiving the award.

* * *

Networking was raging this year, as usual. Home equity lenders, a chummy bunch, were huddled in clusters of three or four around the lobby of the plush Westin La Paloma making deals for services and loans.

"There are many deals going on," said one top executive. "Portfolios (of home equity loans) are for sale - for a price. Deals are being made."

Marc Turtletaub, chief executive of The Money Store, did not show up at the conference until Thursday night. Over plates of barbequed steaks at the western hoedown, he sat with his father, Alan, and three of his upper- echelon executives.

Among the chief's first questions: "Do any business yet?"

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