If Gene D. Ross had known two-and-a-half years ago what he knows now about Essex Financial Partners L.P. in Virginia Beach, Va., he never would have taken over as its president.

The 48-year-old, slightly built thrift turnaround expert was living happily in Atlanta with his wife and two daughters back in the winter of 1992. That's when a nervous PaineWebber Inc., a special limited partner at Essex, called.

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