Cold callers learn to live with rejection. So it's no surprise that Stephen Hilbert, the former encyclopedia salesman who heads Carmel (Ind.) insurance company Conseco, is bouncing back from his failed bid for Kemper two years ago. On Aug. 26, Hilbert unveiled four acquisitions with an aggregate value of $2 billion.

A planned $793 million stock swap for American Travelers would give Conseco strong distribution of long-term care insurance for the elderly, and a $650 million cash-and-stock deal for Capitol American Financial would bring a big cancer insurance business. Hilbert will also buy the remaining shares of two companies in which he owns stakes: Bankers Life Holding and American Life Holding. That would improve Conseco's balance sheet. The company's stock jumped 1 11/16, to 44, on the news, up 40.5% this year.

More buyouts are likely. In 15 years, Hilbert has done 25. "Beneath [Conseco's] traditional exterior," says Hilbert, "there beats the heart of a tiger." If it can just keep from biting off more than it can chew.

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