From the time she was a teenager, Jessica Bibliowicz, the daughter of Citigroup Inc. chairman/CEO Sanford I. Weill, followed in her father’s footsteps.

As an adult, though, she became frustrated at being unable to escape his huge shadow. Four jobs — two working for Mr. Weill and two with companies run by executives she knew through him — ended in disappointment.

Two years ago, as she was looking to leave the last of these posts, the paternal network yielded yet another spot, but this time she would be running things: as chief executive of National Financial Partners, a private start-up that she planned to transform into the next Wall Street powerhouse.

“Maybe they’ll start calling him Jessica Bibliowicz’s father,” the 41-year-old native New Yorker says, revealing signs of her mother’s humor and her father’s ego.

Dressed in a dark purple suit with gold pinstripes, Ms. Bibliowicz presents a dynamic image. One of her public relations representatives — she has three — watches the clock as the CEO gives an interview in her sleek new corner office high above midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks away from Citigroup and Sandy Weill’s executive suite.

But Mrs. Bibliowicz is far from reaching her goals, and if NFP’s progress doesn’t improve she may never reach them. The company aimed to grow by acquisition — to buy out about 300 relatively small private investment and insurance firms, with an anticipated market value of $1 billion — and go public within five years. But it has brought just 85 firms under its roof and currently has a market value of about $219 million. And there are signs that Ms. Bibliowicz is pressing.

Last summer she began offering finder’s fees of from $25,000 to $30,000 for introductions to small financial firms willing to sell themselves to the company. She said last month that she might just as easily settle for a sale as she would an initial public offering. Yet, selling National Financial Partners to a bank, insurer, brokerage, or any other company would not only be less lucrative than an IPO, it may also make her someone else’s employee — perhaps even her father’s — again. And even that scenario may be optimistic.

Russ Prince, president of Prince & Associates, a Shelton, Conn., financial services consulting firm, who has done work for one of NFP’s competitors, says: “I’ll be the first one to say it’s not going to work. It’s very unlikely that you’ll get hundreds of people to sell their firms. These deals are never as appealing as the story goes. A recession would knock a couple of more nails in its coffin.”

Ms. Bibliowicz says she is too busy to spend much time worrying about her critics: talking with providers of financial products, negotiating with targeted firms, building the infrastructure for the companies already on board, and marketing the concept at financial conferences. It’s a punishing schedule that can take her away from her family — husband Natan, an architect, and their two sons — for days at a time.

“There are naysayers around,” she says, but “we’ve defined an opportunity, and I’m working my tail off to get us there.”

She has to. About 2,000 private firms compete to provide, for a fee, such financial services as insurance, estate planning and retirement benefit packages to small companies and wealthy individuals. Scattered across the country, these outfits go up against giants like Merrill Lynch, J.P. Morgan Chase, and, yes, Citigroup in a market that has $10 trillion of investable assets, according to Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Breaking out from the pack means persuading enough companies that they are better off working collectively.

Ms. Bibliowicz courts firms by making an offer of cash and NFP stock up front. She also pitches prospective sellers an economy of scale for accessing insurance and investment products, obtaining expansion capital, and plugging into back-office services without their independence being sacrificed. In return, companies that sell out give up a percentage of their income — typically as much as half.

The strategy is not new, but the scale in this part of the financial services industry is. Apollo Partners, an investment firm run by Leon Black, a savvy dealmaker, staked NFP to $125 million three years ago and installed Robert Rosen as chairman, who then recruited Ms. Bibliowicz as CEO. He knew her from having worked for her father in the ’70s and ’80s. It was her latest link to her father, but some say she was a draw in her own right.

“Her leadership was really a big factor in our joining NFP. She has a big-picture view of the financial services industry,” says Pat Monaghan, who about a year and a half ago sold his company, Monaghan, Tilghman & Hoyle of Baltimore, to National Financial Partners.

It was also easy to like, at first. The market was sizzling and so was consolidation. In Ms. Bibliowicz’s first six months, National Financial Partners acquired 23 firms, to bring the total to 50. But even while she won raves, not everyone wanted to follow her.

Though “Jessica was a real asset,” says Mark McGorry, president of Braunstein, McGorry & Co., his company turned down an NFP offer two years ago in favor of a smaller competitor that he felt had more experience with estate planning and insurance.

“They tend to be more financial people running NFP,” Mr. McGorry says.

Others didn’t like the terms of the deal or the idea of a loose federation of independent firms.

“There wasn’t enough money on the table,” says Sidney Friedman, president of Corporate Financial Service, Philadelphia. “I think a lot of guys are going to be sorry. Why sell it on a dream when I can get cash? If one of the guys goes to jail for a securities fraud, all the companies would be painted with the same brush.”

Besides whatever shortcomings prospective sellers see in it, the prospects for realizing the NFP concept have changed for the worse. Despite the freedoms afforded by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, the promise of synergy in the financial services industry has not been fulfilled, raising doubts about the need for a roll-up company like National Financial Partners. Another problem is that the slump in the stock market over the past year has made IPOs harder to do. More recently, the slowing economy has been damaging the high-net-worth market’s growth potential. Even the change at the White House is working against NFP, in the form of President Bush’s assault on the estate tax. If it is eliminated, the need for estate planning — an important business for NFP — will be diminished.

Ms. Bibliowicz has added just 35 firms to her stable over the past 16 months — a little better than two a month and a far cry from the nearly five-a-month rate she’d set in April 1999. In all, she has a rough road to travel, but it appears she is well suited for a drawn-out struggle.

“She’s strong-willed,” says Nasdaq chief executive Hardwick Simmons, who worked for Mr. Weill in the ’70s and ’80s and was Ms. Bibliowicz’s boss for several years in the ’90s. “She likes being out front. She’s very good on her feet.”

As a child, Ms. Bibliowicz boasted to her classmates in the New York suburb of Great Neck that she could get a member of her father’s beloved New York Jets to visit the school. This was after the Jets had won the Super Bowl in 1969, and none of the kids believed her. But her father, who was a friend of the team’s owner, made a phone call, and that led to a visit to the school by one of the team’s running backs, Bill Mathis.

If her father could deliver a pro football player, his daughter was open to what he had to offer on Wall Street.

Her mother, Joan, says Mr. Weill “would always talk about his deals with me and the kids. He made it seem very exciting.”

Ms. Bibliowicz got her first taste of Wall Street work when she was 14, filing annual reports at Shearson during summer vacations. After graduating from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in government (Mr. Weill had the same major and alma mater) in 1981, she worked at American Express with, though not directly for, her father. He had joined the card company after his company, at that time called Shearson Loeb Rhoades, was acquired by Amex that spring. From the start, Ms. Bibliowicz says, she found the Amex culture confining, and she told her father that he would come to dislike it.

“He said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

She was right, it turned out. Unhappy, daughter and father, in that order, both left American Express. (Mr. Weill declined to be interviewed for this article.)

In 1982 Ms. Weill became Ms. Bibliowicz (she knew her husband from Cornell) and promptly quit her job in Amex’s gold-card division before going to Hawaii for her honeymoon.

Joan Weill says of her daughter and Mr. Bibliowicz: “We felt it was good for them to make their own way. But she was never going to starve. There was always a net.”

She needed it when she returned home from her honeymoon; her father gave her a job in Shearson’s asset management division. But he left Amex in 1985, and Ms. Bibliowicz was on her own.

She began to have problems in 1990, the year the Shearson division she worked for was sold to Salomon Brothers. She felt her new bosses made it an unpleasant place for women to work, though she would not elaborate on that issue in discussions for this article.

Her father was there again with a job opportunity. He was now chief executive of Primerica and wanted her to join its Smith Barney brokerage division. But this time things were different, as she rejected her father’s offer — it was too low, she says.

Ms. Bibliowicz didn’t quite set out on her own, however. Instead, in 1992, after having her second son, she went to work for Prudential Securities, which was run by Mr. Simmons, who had known her since she was a child. She was director of sales and marketing for mutual funds at Prudential, but left in 1994 when she was passed over for a promotion to head up the mutual fund business.

“She was upset when she left,” Mr. Simmons says. “She did a damn good job for us. She wanted the top job and felt she deserved it. She needed a bit more time. Her father intervened. My advice was not to work for a parent. She opted to move and, in the long run, I’m not sure it worked out for her.”

Mr. Weill, who had since transformed Primerica through acquisitions into a larger and more diverse Travelers that included Smith Barney and much of his old Shearson unit, wanted his daughter to run his entire mutual fund business. It would be the biggest job she’d ever done, but she accepted — though she had reservations.

“I was in agony over the decision,” she recalls. “There are so many politics in an organization to begin with, then you throw in being the CEO’s daughter on top of it.”

She did well, eventually adding on responsibility for insurance and estate planning. But her fears about being the boss’ daughter proved to be warranted.

In 1997 she had a well-publicized falling-out with James Dimon, who was then her father’s chief lieutenant. Neither she nor Mr. Dimon would talk about it now, but A. Michael Lipper, a Summit, N.J.-based money manager, says Ms. Bibliowicz fought with Mr. Dimon over an issue that many brokerage firms were fighting at the time.

“We were in a period where commission rates were declining,” he says. “Her primary responsibility was to get the sales force to increase the sales of third-party funds. She wanted to keep more of the profit within the company, as opposed to paying it out in commissions. Jamie’s first loyalty was to the retail sales force.”

In the end, both became casualties. Ms. Bibliowicz left Smith Barney in June and became president and chief operating officer of John A. Levin, a money management firm whose namesake chairman and chief executive was another family connection. (Mr. Dimon was fired from Citigroup in November 1998, and the tug-of-war with Ms. Bibliowicz provided some of the kindling, though not the spark.) Her stint at Levin lasted 22 months.

“There wasn’t enough for me to do,” she says. She wouldn’t get into details and Mr. Levin refused to comment for this article. According to Mr. Lipper, Mr. Levin’s “investments weren’t doing well and he didn’t want to spend or borrow the money to commit to a large marketing program.”

Since Ms. Bibliowicz’s arrival at NFP, the company’s work force has grown from three to 35 and its earnings from about $15 million to $50 million, but it still has a long way to go before it can launch an IPO. Ms. Bibliowicz says Wall Street will not take the company seriously until its market cap increases nearly fivefold. It’s a tremendous task, especially when the best years appear to have passed by, but she has strong support among the firms her company acquired.

“Our business has seemed to thrive regardless of the economy,” says Frank McGehee, who sold his Little Rock company, Legacy Capital Group, to NFP in April 1999. Mr. McGehee says NFP can offer things that small firms like his can’t easily get on their own.

“They have a very substantial technology budget,” he says, and in joining NFP he cut the money he used to spend on an outside tax attorney to help with estate planning by $90,000 annually. Now, he can get that service in-house.

Mr. McGehee says he is not itching to have NFP go public. “By the end of 2004, I would hope that we’ve had an IPO or a sale, but I want the timing to be right for everyone,” he says.

While a sale isn’t the first choice of exit strategies, there are supporters who find it a viable option.

“There is a mad scramble to get at high-net-worth individuals,” says Steven Begleiter, an investment banker at Bear Stearns who works closely with NFP. “Brokerage firms, banks, and insurance companies could all conceivably be interested.”

Ms. Bibliowicz is taking nothing for granted. She visits member firms and prospects throughout the country, staying in touch by cell phone with her husband and children at their home in Westchester. N.Y.

“I realized that I needed to build something of my own,” she says. “Something that has lasting value in the industry, something that is good for the clients of our firm, something that brings value to the businesses we acquire and I can make people believe in me, believe in the vision of the company.”

Ms. Gold, formerly of American Banker, is a senior writer covering banking and insurance at Institutional Investor magazine.

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