Tree.com Climbs to New Heights1 Nov, 2008 By: Thomas Haire Response
When you bring the discipline and the metrics of direct response marketing to a big brand, it's a game changer," says Doug Lebda, chairman and chief executive officer of Charlotte, N.C.-based Tree.com Inc., the parent of such well-known businesses as LendingTree and RealEstate.com. "There is huge growth potential with DR. With the techniques, metrics and discipline a DR marketer brings to the table, if you give them a great product and great brand, it becomes very powerful. All of the different parts of direct response — DRTV, online, any of it — that's what we've done from the get-go. If you can find a way to make the economics work for a brand no one has heard of, imagine what you can do with a brand everyone knows already. That's what LendingTree is about."
Chairman and CEO Doug Lebda says DR methodology originally helped build the LendingTree business. Now, after spinning off from IAC, he says the new Tree.com business remains a perfect fit for measurable marketing methods.
Lebda founded LendingTree in 1996 and launched it nationwide in 1998. But, even with his ambitious nature and love of challenges, it's doubtful he could have seen the success the start-up would eventually spawn. Over the years, Lebda led the company through a successful initial public offering (IPO), five acquisitions, expansion into the consumer real estate category, a purchase by InterActiveCorp and now its spin-off and re-emergence as the independently owned and traded Tree.com.
"The idea of the Tree.com name is to build on the brand name of LendingTree and bring that branding to new consumer categories," Lebda says. It seems like a solid plan, considering the LendingTree name has an 84-percent brand awareness ranking in consumer studies and that LendingTree itself was the No. 1 online advertiser in the United States in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence (a research partner of Response).
Before returning to run Tree.com upon its official emergence as an independent company this past August, Lebda's star had risen rapidly inside IAC. He served as the company's president and chief operating officer from 2005-2007, overseeing more than 60 brands and 20,000 employees. But when IAC announced plans to spin off several of its companies in 2007, Lebda knew his home remained with the brand he founded.
"The businesses we created and acquired under the LendingTree brand are more exciting than they've ever been," he contends. "That, plus the relevance of the business to our customers — both businesses and consumers — during these economic times, made it an easy decision to return to the helm here."
A Tree Takes Root
When Lebda graduated with a business degree from Bucknell University in his hometown of Lewisburg, Pa., in 1992, he accepted a job with Price Waterhouse in Pittsburgh. "Late in 1994, I began shopping for a condo in Pittsburgh," Lebda says. "Now, I was working in accounting for a major financial firm, and yet when I went through the process of buying, there were a number of things I just didn't understand when applying for a home loan."
He continues, "Rates were always changing, and the rates advertised weren't the rates you got as a consumer. The whole process was inefficient and disempowering."