In 1979, Bank Earnings International was a small, 15-employee consulting firm in Atlanta that specialized in streamlining bank operations. While its reputation was strong in its area, it lacked the marketing dollars and the sales force to push outside the Southeast.

Yet, scarcely a year later, BEI was selling its services across the country and growing apace. By January of this year, it had 105 employees, and gross sales were running at a rate of $13 million per year -- almost triple the revenues for 1982 -- with net income topping 16%. More to the point, the company triggered this rapid growth neither by extensive hiring of more salespeople, nor by large increases in its marketing expenditures. Instead, the principal catalyst was a joint-venture partnership with a company that had the ability to bring BEI's products to a wider market.

BEI came upon this "piggyback" approach to marketing almost by accident as a result of a chance conversation between a Dallas stockbroker and his neighbor. The stockbroker, Chip Jones, was a former Army buddy of BEI co-founder Jerry Eickhoff, while the neighbor happened to be head of corporate communications for Electronic Data Systems Corp., then a $274-million company.

One day, they got to talking about the two companies and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. The EDS executive allowed as how -- with all its technical consultants -- his company still wasn't able to provide the hands-on operations expertise of BEI's consultants, all of whom were fotmer bankers. Then again, the Dallas company did have more than two dozen salespeople, as well as a strong national reputation among financial institutions as electronic-dataprocessing consultants. Might not BEI be able to take advantage of both by piggybacking its consulting service on EDS?

Eickhoff and BEI co-founder James P. Cotton Jr. were invited to Dallas to meet first with several top executives in EDS's banking division and then with the chairman, H. Ross Perot. "It was kind of overwhelming," recalls Eickhoff. On one wall of Perot's office hung an original Gilbert Stuart oil painting of George Washington, on another, a full-length photograph of Perot's family. A Bible lay on the credenza. Perot "wanted to see if we looked right and talked right. He wanted to find out what made us tick."

Eickhoff was equally cautious. "You've got to be sure that you're working with strong, ethical people who aren't out to steal what you do," he says. In most joint ventures, "a company has access to your trade secrets. It might choose to do a couple of jobs, learn what you do, then cut you out of the deal."

By the end of their second meeting with Perot, the executives felt sure enough of one another to shake hands on a three-year, self-renewing contract, under which EDS and BEI agreed to market joint studies to banks. According to the terms of the contract, representatives of both companies propose such studies whenever they call on clients. However, "the agreement is relatively loose," says Stuart Reeves, EDS vice-president and former head of the banking division. "BEI still does business without us, and we do business without them -- if that's what the client wants."

Since entering the EDS deal, BEI has sought out other partnerships. "We don't try to reinvent the wheel," says Eickhoff, who is also president of BEI Holding Ltd., of which the consulting company is a subsidiary. "Instead, we get into joint ventures where we take advantage of the other company's strengths, and they take advantage of the niche we've got. Together, we build something."

A case in point is BEI's recent joint venture with American Banker newspaper, which grew out of BEI's acquisition of a small Atlanta research company, Electronic Banking Inc., in August 1982. That acquisition gave BEI the capability to produce research studies, which it could then sell for $10,000 or $20,000 each. A better strategy, the company determined, might be to sell low-cost studies for $1,000to $4,000to a much broader market. But neither BEI nor its new subsidiary had experience reaching such a large audience. "We were used to getting on an airplane and visiting with every potential subscriber," says Allen Lipis, president of the subsidiary. "That doesn't work when you're selling a $2,000 study to 10,000 people."

Eickhoff wanted to find a partner that had credibility with the financial community and a means of reaching a large number of institutions through the mail. He was able to narrow the choice down to several publishing companies. "The hard part is finding out if they want to do it and getting to the right person," he says.

Through his contacts in the industry, Eickhoff learned that American Banker, a 23,000-circulation daily, was eager to get into the lucrative research-report business but had been unable to find a good acquisition candidate or a serious partner. So Eickhoff contacted Richard H. Tierney, executive vice-president of American Banker Inc., and proposed a joint-venture arrangement to produce and distribute a study on microcomputers and their impact on the financial industry. Tierney was only too willing to listen.

As in the EDS deal, each partner had something to gain from the relationship: American Banker lacked the research staff to put together a study; BEI had the research staff, but had neither the subscriber base nor the mail-marketing experience. After six weeks of discussions, the companies signed an agreement to develop and distribute a $3,750 study entitled "Profitable Use of Microcomputers in the Financial Industry."

In pursuing its piggyback strategy, BEI has taken care to develop the right kind of structure for each new venture. In the case of EDS, the companies agreed on a three-year, self-renewing contract, with BEI serving as an independent contractor to EDS. In the American Banker deal, Tierney and Eickhoff signed a short-term agreement to do a single project. In yet another venture, BEI formed a third company with its joint-venture partner, First Nationwide Savings, a savings and loan association with assets of $8 billion, headquartered in San Francisco.

The new company was officially launched in January 1983. Called First Nationwide Network Inc., it markets bank products and services under the Nationwide name, using pooled advertising dollars. The marketing effort is aimed at small and medium-size independent S&Ls that are trying to compete against large financial institutions and powerful nonbanks like Sears, Roebuck & Co. BEI put together the team that designed and is implementing major portions of the program. First Nationwide Savings, for its part, provides top management, prestige, capital, and many of the products, including a personal financial analysis program for customers and debit cards to use in automated teller machines in its branches. And there are plans for installation of machines in supermarkets and airports.

More recently, BEI has entered a joint-venture agreement with Darien MicroSystems Inc. of Darien, Conn., to distribute BEI's line of software for financial institutions. DMS is a sister company of Marketing Outlooks Inc., which has been marketing products to banks for 14 years. With 25 salespeople in the field, the company was looking for quality products to offer its bank customers. BEI was looking for a sales force. "We're just piggybacking our product line onto their line," says Eickhoff. Under the terms of this agreement, BEI gives DMS the exclusive rights to distribute BEI's software, on a commission basis.

But whatever the terms of an agreement, says Eickhoff, it is important that they be clear from the outset. "You have to spend a lot of time on the front end, very bluntly discussing where the problems may arise. What, say, triggers the definition of failure, and what do you do if that happens?" In its agreement with EDS, for example, there are penalties if either partner decides to back out of the relationship, as well as a stipulation that the companies can't enter into other joint-venture relationships with the same purpose for at least one year. All of BEI's agreements outline such considerations as the relationship's objectives, the responsibilities of each partner, and performance criteria.

On the other hand, Eickhoff warns that no legal document is fail-safe. "If I had a problem with EDS, I could take my corporate attorney to Dallas and line him up against Perot's 150 corporate attorneys. And there's no way that I could afford to take the case to court, much less win it." For that reason, "you've got to be comfortable that they will honor the spirit, not just the letter, of the agreement." Eickhoff sees more and more opportunities for smaller companies interested in finding joint-venture partners. Instead of saying, "We don't have it, we'll build it," the large companies are looking for partnerships that will allow them to move quickly in fiercely competitive, rapidly changing environments. "What we bring to the party is knowing how they can rearrange what they've got to more effectively hit these marketplaces," says Eickhoff. "From the large company's perspective, a joint venture allows them to sidestep the usual corporate bureaucracy . . . to get things done they'd have difficulty getting done internally."