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Man In The Middle

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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.

“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.

“Nike doesn’t do that,” he says. Neither does Conseco, whose commercials (one of which took best of class at the Cannes Film Festival) take a humorous, straight-talk approach.

“I’d rather be compared to Nike or Cheerios than to stodgy brands that people may be aware of but don’t relate to,” says Stockdale. “If you look at the top 100 brands in this country, zero are banks and zero are insurance companies, and only three are financial services companies,” says Stockdale, whose resume bears the stamp of power branders such as Procter & Gamble, Citibank, American Express and MasterCard.

So for him, the Conseco experience is novel: building a brand from scratch–and in a hurry. In three years, the company has branded all of its communications to its 13 million customers, its network of franchised independent distributors, and 40,000 captive and independent agents. Research shows that all of them are “behind the brand.”

Stockdale brags that the brand has 66% awareness nationally, an especially pleasing number that especially pleases the agents and distributors, who no longer have to introduce themselves and the company to customers. A trusted brand also makes it a whole lot easier to attract new distributors.

He brags too that Conseco finished second to American Express in American Banker’s “marketer of the year” competition.

“Think of how many years they’ve been building that brand,” he says.

Stockdale is relucant, however, to quantify the results of Conseco’s middle market strategy. He points again to high brand awareness as evidence of success, but he argues that it’s simply not valid to compare today with 1998 because it’s no longer the same company.

No, it’s not. It’s been a bumpy ride for Stockdale. The Conseco story has been tumultuous, but its transformation has been impressively swift. However, it’s an unfinished story. We don’t know yet whether transformation translates into turnaround or whether a slow-growing insurance segement will rise to 10%-a-year projections.

What we do know is that Conseco’s is working feverishly to get it back on top.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 5, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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