At Large by Thomas J. Slattery
When a shaky Conseco shifted paradigms three years ago, shedding its acquisitive ways and flipping its business model, Stewart Stockdale became the .
Literally so. In the moment, executive vice president and chief marketing officer Stockdale became point man in Conseco’s still unproven initiative to reinvent itself in the middle market, those 50 million underserved, underpenetrated households in the $20,000 to $75,000 annual income range.
In 1998, the year Stockdale joined the Carmel, Ind.-based financial services company, Conseco made its last big buy, a controversial one, Green Tree Financial, now Conseco Finance. By the end of that year, the company had begun a wrenching transition from an acquisition-based to an operations-based organization.
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“We were a highly-leveraged company, still are, with a lot of debt that fueled the acquisitions. That strategy was very successful for a long time, but debts do come due,” Stockdale says. Now it’s time to deleverage, pay down the debt and grow organically.
“We had to change,” he says. “It was a matter of survival.”
And now a company that bought its way into the marketplace–through acquisitions that gave it scale (13 million customers) and an array of products in insurance, investment and lending–finds itself in the unaccustomed role of focusing on branding, customer service and productivity.
“We’re now marketing-driven and distribution-driven,” says Stockdale, in the hunt for a chunk of the middle market. In that hunt, he faces the same dilemma as his competitors: How do you reach this huge but indifferent market in a manner that’s relevant to it?
Typically, the industry focuses on complex products tailored to a financially sophisticated upper-tier market. In stark contrast, 66% of middle Americans don’t have financial advisors, don’t save and don’t plan. “We need to bring this onto their radar screens,” says Stockdale, who hopes to do that with new products and a sliced and diced arsenal of old ones tailored to their needs.
Typically too, industry packaging isn’t consumer-centric. Stockdale calls it “brand intimidation” and “marketing from the boardroom”–showing off the building and talking about assets and number of customers.