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Future of Mortgage Banking Firm at Stake in Divorce Battle

Honeymoon is definitely finished at American Equity Mortgage

July 18, 2005

By JACK NAUDI
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch


Bryan Feldman walked into a Las Vegas branch office of American Equity Mortgage Inc. on June 30, ready for a tough, but exciting day at work.

As assistant branch manager and one of the top sales producers in the company, Feldman was set to close loans that would generate $27,000 in fees for American Equity. That's a number many of the company's loan officers don't reach in a month, he said.

"We were really humping," he said.

What Feldman didn't know was that within hours he would be fired: a victim -- or an accomplice, depending on who's talking -- in the contentious fight for American Equity Mortgage of Maryland Heights.

The fight has led to contempt of court citations, employee firings and combined expenditures of more than $90,000 a month for bodyguards and security by the main characters involved. Another casualty has been one of the St. Louis area's most distinctive radio campaigns.

The battle for American Equity, first detailed in a Post-Dispatch story in March, started in St. Louis County Circuit Court. In October, Chief Executive Deanna Daughhetee Vinson filed for divorce from founder Ray Vinson.

Although he holds no formal position, Ray Vinson long had been the company's public image. Radio advertising featured his distinctive voice twanging out the last four digits of the company phone number: "99-99." In January, the spots went silent as Vinson refused to allow more commercials using his voice.

Now, the divorce court documents fill two large boxes with everything from corporate minutiae to personal and financial details of the Vinsons' lives. Other documents containing sensitive company secrets are hidden from public view.

In court documents and in interviews with the Vinsons, one point is clear: Both want control of the company. And as Feldman learned, for employees one question looms large: Whose side are you on -- Ray's or Deanna's?

A month ago, it appeared that Vinson v. Vinson was headed toward an amicable resolution. Both sides agreed to a consent order in which a contempt of court order was dropped against Deanna over her refusal to cooperate with Ray.

The two agreed to evenly split $7 million in a personal bank account.

Once banned from company premises, Ray was given permission to enter the headquarters once a month.

In addition, he agreed not to do radio commercials for any other companies or to work for competitors.

After the order was issued, Ray made a move that his wife never expected. He cut a series of American Equity Mortgage radio commercials.

He worked with Patrick Elsner, a business associate and local radio advertising veteran, to get the ads on the air. "It was a significant amount of money over 13 weeks," Elsner said.

But the stations balked after Deanna Vinson objected. Already deep into a different radio campaign, she wasn't willing to bring Ray back.

"We have new talent and a new creative team," she said. "It gives us the opportunity to explore new avenues. We're moving in another direction. It would be very difficult for me to go backwards...It's going very well."

Ray counters that American Equity and several sister companies have suffered since his ads stopped. Net profit fell 66 percent for the first four months of 2005 to $3.1 million from $9.2 million a year earlier, court documents show.

He blames that, in part, on an advertising budget that jumped 74 percent to $11 million. He also complains that his wife has increased other expenses, including commissions that eroded the bottom line.

Deanna doesn't dispute the numbers, but she says her husband is taking them out of context. While profits are down, revenues have risen 19 percent to $44.2 million for the first four months of 2005. American Equity also added 17 branches in 11 markets, she said.

"You would expect those (advertising) numbers to be up dramatically," she said. "We have a lot more branches in a lot more markets."

Deanna said she was confident about the future. "We've got record volume. Last year we did $2.4 billion in loans. This year we are forecasting $3 billion in loans."

But Ray said the company is in a downward spiral, because the new ad campaign isn't working.

"We're not cutting through the competition as Ray Vinson's voice always did," he said. "If you don't have an effective radio campaign, you're just another mortgage company."

He said he is so confident that his ads will work, he'll pay for them out of his pocket.

"That's not a fear of mine, going from the penthouse to the outhouse," he said. "I've been to the outhouse. I am confident that I will stay in the penthouse."

Ray Vinson is seeking a court order -- a ruling was expected as early as last week -- to put him in charge of marketing. His first act, he said, would be replacing the current radio spots with his.

Hanging out with the enemy
Another big point of contention between Deanna and Ray involves Joe Adams, a security agent and private investigator. She hired Adams at $500,000 a year, according to court documents.

All of the security expenses are paid by the company, Deanna said.

Adams has done more than protect her from harm. He also conducted investigations and interviews involving Ray and others, including Feldman.

Ray Vinson spent several years trying to recruit Feldman, who was a radio salesman in Detroit. In 2002, Feldman relented and began working for American Equity out of an office in the Detroit suburbs.

Last fall, Feldman transferred as a loan officer to a new branch in Las Vegas and later was promoted to assistant branch manager. By all accounts, he was one of the company's top salespeople. For the first six months this year, he was the fourth-largest revenue producer.

When Ray Vinson traveled to Las Vegas in May, he met Feldman for dinner. Shortly after, two men showed up at the branch office to speak to Feldman about his relationship with Ray.

One was Adams.

"(Deanna) said to go out and find out what's going on," Adams said.

He said he determined that Feldman's meeting with Ray was relatively innocent. Still, he said he offered Feldman some advice: "I said, 'What do you think the CEO would think of you hanging around with the enemy?'"

In late June, Feldman and Ray met twice more. The visits, Feldman said, were social with one exception. On June 27, he told Ray that a new advertising campaign had generated seven calls that day to the office.

A day later, in a phone conversation with Deanna, Feldman admitted that he discussed the phone calls with Ray. The next day, Adams was sent back to Las Vegas, where he interviewed Feldman at a restaurant and at his home about several matters.

The following day, Adams talked to Feldman's manager. Shortly after, the manager delivered a faxed letter from Deanna Vinson, announcing that Feldman was fired.

"I knew about the friendship with Ray, which I didn't do anything about," Deanna said. "But (Feldman) did give me assurances about the boundaries that he would keep...He did give confidential information to Ray."

Deanna contends that her husband is barred by the June consent order from meeting with anyone in the company's branches. Ray and his attorneys dispute that, but he said he probably won't meet with other American Equity employees anytime soon.

"When you fire a kid like Bryan Feldman, that says a lot about the company," Ray Vinson said.

Adams defends Deanna.

"People with that amount of money, I meet all the time," he said. "They all have a certain air about them. With Deanna, you wouldn't know she has a nickel."

Copyright © 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
reprinted with permission



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