The first thing one notices about Kevin Hart, the newly minted president and CEO of SunAmerica Financial Network, is his physical size. "I have all of my suits custom-made," admits the 6-foot 3-inch, 230-pound former Penn State linebacker. And it's not only his physique that's imposing, but also his goals: Hart has a grand vision for SunAmerica's far-flung broker-dealer network, one that would begin to offer centralized services to one of the nation's largest collection of independent brokerages.

At first blush, that vision does not seem particularly revolutionary. "We're moving from a world of independence to a world of interdependence," Hart says, borrowing a concept from motivational speaker and author Stephen Covey, who describes an evolution whereby a life of significance, and not merely success, can be built by leveraging group insights and synergies for the common good. Yet, given how jealously most reps guard their independence, the shift in language is causing some who are affiliated with the Los Angeles-based firm to listen closely.

Hart explains that today's interdependent world in which reps increasingly must rely on broker-dealers for technology and compliance support did not exist 15 years ago. "In the past, reps were independent because they had no one to depend on," he says. "Today, we're mutually dependent on each other's business, whether for technology, leverage, efficiency, best practices or procedures and policy manuals."

Indeed, with 9,000 affiliated representatives, the company is uniquely positioned in the independent world to achieve efficiencies and economies of scale. That has caused many outsiders--and even some within the company-to suggest that the company should consolidate its five broker-dealers. Together, Royal Alliance Associates in New York, SunAmerica Securities in Phoenix, Advantage Capital Corp. in Houston, FSC Securities Corp. in Atlanta and Sentra Spelman in San Diego generate about $1 billion in revenues. And SunAmerica is still in an acquisition mode, hoping to grow its number of reps to 15,000 by the end of 2003.

For much of the last decade, rivals have expected that SunAmerica would attempt to merge many of the brokerages. However, the financial-services giant has kept its word that it would permit the individual firms to retain their independence. So when Hart insists that a degree of integration can be achieved without sacrificing basic autonomy, his words are supported by the company's history. "We never try to tell our reps what to sell. What we do tell them is that there are ways that we can help each other survive and compete with an advantage in an interdependent world."

Hart is no stranger to competition. Besides playing under legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno from 1973-76, Hart thrived under the stern gaze of former SunAmerica CEO Eli Broad, who now plays an advisory role on the board of American International Group, which acquired SunAmerica on January 1, 1999. "My dad was a West Point guy, so he had intensity and discipline in his life in a way that was then replicated for me under Joe," Hart says. "At that time in my life, Joe was the single most competitive guy I'd ever met, and I suppose some of that spirit rubbed off."

Later, Hart encountered the same intensity in Broad, who recruited Hart to the position of national sales manager for the annuity group in 1995 and promoted him to his current post last year. "I love being around people who want to compete, not only to win, but to dominate, to set standards, to establish new highs. Some people are uncomfortable with that intensity, but I love it because it's been a part of my life ever since I was a kid," he says.

Hart and Gary Krat, the executive he succeeded as CEO of the SunAmerica brokerage network, share some common traits, even if they are very different individuals. A two-time All-American wrestler, the intensely energetic Krat was the driving force behind the firm's blistering acquisition and growth strategy in the 1990s. Krat left SunAmerica early in 2000 for health reasons and remains a consultant with the firm.

Hart's challenge is to finish digesting the acquisitions that occurred in the last six years and harness SunAmerica's resources to strengthen the services individual brokerages can offer their reps. Those who work with Hart describe him as a consensus builder who is very teamwork-oriented. His management philosophy can best be summed up by the advice he once received from his father: "Kevin, hang around with guys who are bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than you are because it will bring up your game."

Hart's modesty is unusual for a man in his position, and it permits him to launch charm offensives that catch others off guard. Describing himself under Paterno, Hart says he was the player "with the whitest socks and cleanest uniform on the bench, the one who always stood next to Paterno when we scored a touchdown so I could be seen on TV."

Yet his self-deprecating humor masks a deeper confidence. Those who know him best say his greatest asset is his ability to hire top people and let them shine. He's also a dedicated listener, they say, so it comes as no surprise that his first act as CEO was to undertake a "listening tour" of all six of SunAmerica's broker-dealers.

What he's hearing from reps is a demand for enhanced services in the areas of technology, compliance and leverage with suppliers. "Consolidation in the area of back-office support, working on similar platforms, approving products across the entire SunAmerica group, that kind of power is very desirable," says Philip Strick Jr., of Life Plans Financial and Insurance Services, an affiliate of Royal Alliance, in Newport Beach, Calif.

As profits become more driven by technology, registered reps will be attracted to companies that provide technological efficiency, says Hart. Until recently, technology was not the company's strength. Several years ago, it introduced a PC-based platform, Vision 20/20, which had to be changed significantly to accommodate the migration to the Internet. The loss of a top technology executive to an Internet startup didn't help matters.

However, Hart believes that SunAmerica remains in a position to define the technological standards that will become the benchmark for comparison in the independent world. Likewise, standard compliance manuals and procedures, already in place for the past three years, are necessary tools that reps are demanding as they come under increased regulatory scrutiny.

On the other hand, Hart has encountered resistance to the notion of "interdependence" as applied to the financial-planning platform itself. "The transition we're facing today is moving from a transaction-based financial-planning model to an asset-based life-planning model," he says, noting that 83% of revenues are still generated by packaged-product sales. "That represents a psyche shift for a lot of people."

From a marketing and business-development perspective, Hart says, a unified platform is necessary to distinguish SunAmerica from other independent broker-dealers. In January, the company hired a chief marketing officer to unify marketing strategy for the group. Hart believes that, over time, reps will have to move from their current transaction-based mindset to a more integrated planning approach. Research indicates that investor interests have shifted over time to focus on quality-of-life issues beyond wealth accumulation. Frankly, he says, the company's most successful offices have already made the transition.

One example he cites is Jim Warren of Warren Financial Group in Kansas City, Mo., an affliliated rep who enjoys a 95% client-retention rate and a business driven completely by referrals, thanks to his focus on relationships. Warren defines "interdependence" as planning for a client's financial needs across situations and generations. "I tell my clients that if there's a crisis, I will be there, whether it's a death, disability or divorce."

Not all of SunAmerica's 9,000 reps are likely to follow that path. "There are people who are transaction-oriented and always will be," says Strick, who, along with his partner, James Bogdan, has been promoting a holistic approach for years. "Those who are set in their ways are going to have a hard time changing. But Kevin is very dynamic, and his philosophy is going to rub off on a lot of people, especially younger planners."

Hart hopes that the life-planning concept will become a key distinction, one that will raise the profile of SunAmerica and act as a magnet to draw top talent to the firm. And he may be the ideal person to drive the transition forward.

"There's something very refreshing and positive about Kevin," says Strick, "an engagement that you can see in action." Strick recounts a situation at a recent conference Q&A session, during which a member received a less-than-satisfactory response from the podium. "Kevin was standing in the back of the room, but he came forward and sat down next to the guy and proceeded to listen to his complaint. He wasn't afraid to admit that the answer had been unsatisfactory and wondered what he could do to help."

"Kevin is not afraid to surround himself with the best people, to give them great latitude to do their jobs and then hold them accountable for the results," says Warren, who has known Hart since 1985 and describes him as one of the few people he implicitly trusts to drive the transition forward. "He's high-energy, focused and ethical, and he's driven to make a difference."

Yet Warren acknowledges that Hart is in a difficult position. "Whoever is at the helm will either create the vision that people buy into or he will drive them away," he says. "I suspect that 90% of the reps are happy with the status quo, yet you have a very vocal 10% who believe in this notion of interdependence and who are willing to contribute their knowledge and experience to the investment community as a whole."

By promoting the principles of interdependence at regional and national conferences, Hart has confidence that he can push his message through. With a personable demeanor and modesty that make it easy to underestimate his competitive nature, Hart may surprise a lot of people.