NEW YORK -- Some kids graduate from college and go to work in the family business.

When Natasha Esch graduated, she already owned the family business. At 21, Esch is proprietor of the Wilhelmina agency, one of the great names in the modeling business. It was a gift from her father.

There may be drawbacks to acquiring a business this way. Esch admits that her name would mean nothing to a supermodel like Claudia Schiffer. "If I called her up she'd probably say, 'Who the hell are you?' " she says without embarrassment. But recognition isn't her goal; she won't be satisfied, she says, until she builds Wilhelmina into "the number one agency in the world."

She is poised, firm of handshake, level of gaze. She has narrow almond eyes and full features that lend her a model-like air, though she lacks the requisite height. Her mouth is mobile, expressive, often twisting itself into a crooked bemused line. She appears to wear no makeup; her nails are not colored, but whitened under the tips.

True, she's still working out of a cubbyhole. But technically her father, who has a nice corner office at the bustling agency, serves at her pleasure. German businessman Dieter Esch is -- on paper -- a consultant to the firm. He's a rather active "consultant" at the moment, but Natasha hopes he will soon start devoting more of his time to golf.

Since the beginning of January, after she graduated (a semester early) from Babson College in Massachusetts, Esch has been prowling the halls, trying to absorb everything in preparation for the day when she takes over. She figures it won't be long.

She sits, legs crossed, in her father's office. "I feel that I'm making a great effort and I have big ambitions and I'm willing to work hard," she says in a voice that bears the traces of growing up in Germany. "I'm willing to justify the opportunity that was given to me."

What's going on? Is Dieter Esch a generous papa, or perhaps a clever businessman who's found a fresh face to attach to a company no longer in its first bloom? Even Natasha acknowledges that Wilhelmina could stand to spruce up its image -- and she is the ideal candidate for the job. And Dieter, as it happens, much prefers to stay out of the limelight. He has reason for his reticence.

Past Problems

Natasha Esch politely declines to discuss her father's troubles of the past. In the mid-'80s, his business collapsed -- spectacularly and publicly. The authorities asked probing questions and his answers were insufficient. He ended up sojourning for a time at the expense of Germany's taxpayers. Whatever impact Esch's experience had on his daughter, it didn't diminish her appetite for business.

After boarding school in Switzerland, she chose Babson College -- which offers degrees in business only. Meanwhile, her father resurfaced in the United States, seeking new investment opportunities. He considered that "whatever he was going to do, I might want to continue," Natasha says. He bought the Wilhelmina agency for his only child, and she found the choice good. She could imagine putting in 12-hour days there. "It's a lifestyle," she says. "You enjoy being with people that are young, creative and good-looking."

Wilhelmina was founded by the supermodel of that name in 1967. The agency was a dominant force in the modeling world at least until 1980, when Wilhelmina fell ill with cancer and died at the age of 40. Two associates took over the business. One of them, the now-grandmotherly Fran Rothchild, still plays a role in running Wilhelmina, though she sold her remaining interest to Esch in 1989. The agency was something of a faded beauty by then, outstripped by Elite Model Management and Ford Models, the two giants of the industry.

Dieter Esch has melded a couple of smaller companies with Wilhelmina and forged partnerships with others. And the agency scored a recent coup by acquiring a supermodel, the 5-foot-10 1/2-inch Nadege (pronounced na-DEHJ). "Wilhelmina is definitely on the right track," says an editor at Vogue magazine. "They're a very powerful agency now, and they're only going to get stronger. One of Dieter's strong points is that he knows who to hire."

Others are harsher. "Dieter's getting too much credit," exclaims Bethann Hardison, who runs an agency named after herself. "Acquisition to me is not a talent or skill. ... This is not calculus, what this guy's doing."

Wilhelmina's rivals like to point out that Wilhelmina may be profitable (the company won't disclose its annual grosses) but it lacks prestige -- the famous models like Schiffer and Cindy Crawford, who get contracts with such companies as Revlon and Lancome. While it has a strong male modeling division, its female models are known for doing lucrative but relatively unglamorous work for mail-order catalogues such as Spiegel, J.C. Penney, and Victoria's Secret. And they're leery of Esch, partly because he is perceived as a businessman-interloper in an insular (albeit cutthroat) business. And then there is the matter of what happened in the Old Country.

From 1975 through the early '80s, Esch rapidly assembled the world's third-largest construction equipment concern from a string of financially troubled smaller companies. At 37, he had gobbled up about a dozen such outfits under the umbrella of his company, IBH Holding. The company's annual sales at one point reached about $1 billion.

But even while Esch's star was ascending, he couldn't get the kind of backing he wanted from Germany's big, conservative commercial banks. He complained that he was the victim of stodginess. "The problem was not me but the atmosphere in Germany," he said to a reporter in 1980. "In America, we would have had not the least bit of trouble."

One bank did back Esch heavily and in 1983 found itself severely overextended as a result. The bank was bailed out, but IBH -- some $220 million in debt -- was less fortunate. The company filed for court protection from its creditors and Esch was forced out. In interviews he defiantly vowed to try his luck in the United States.

His departure was delayed. Esch was arrested and charged with a range of financial improprieties. After spending three years in prison, he still says he got "a bum rap." But he doesn't worry about Natasha. "I don't think the world of business is that risky unless you try to reorganize bankrupt companies," he says. "I will say she has learned from my experience as much as a person can learn. Perhaps that's why she's a little more mature than other kids."

Father Knows Best

Natasha Esch walks through the Wilhelmina offices, which display a modest effort to lay a sheen of glitz on a suite in one of those faded New York buildings with Grecian molding on the ceilings. The name "Wilhelmina" is scrawled in red neon above the receptionist's desk, the art is modern.

In the inner offices, several bookers -- or agents -- sit at round Formica tables, yammering noisily into telephones. Sunk into the center of each table is a kind of Lazy Susan rotating file with folders containing the schedules of various models. The bookers constantly spin the file and pluck out a particular "girl," as they are invariably called in the business.

"It's very difficult for me to say what a typical day is because no day is typical for me yet," Natasha says. "I do come in at quarter to 9. I don't prance around and look over people's shoulders." She discusses agency business -- including matters such as her salary -- with her father, she says. "He consults me. But he's also put me in charge of certain things." At the moment, she's responsible for collecting and paying commissions. She's trying to meet the players -- models, advertisers, photographers -- as she goes. (She won't say how much she's paid, but she says it is reasonable "given my age, my experience, my knowledge, but also given the fact that I'm the owner.")

Though some 21-year-olds would chafe, she says she doesn't mind working with her father (or, strictly speaking, having her father work for her). "Any girl who's an only child has that sort of a dream -- to be with Daddy, learn from Daddy," she says. Still, she doesn't want him to stay too long. "He'll leave when he and I are both satisfied that I'm fully up to running every aspect of this business," she says. "He thinks within a year, two years."

Two models -- elongated creatures with full lips and aggressive cheekbones, saunter through the offices. The sight could be enough to make a young woman feel like a sparrow in a room full of peacocks.

"I have a lot of friends ask, 'How can you bear going to a party with somebody so beautiful? Doesn't it make you miserable?' I really don't feel that way," says Esch. "I think if you have a good sense of yourself, you don't try to compete."

At the moment, Esch is enjoying a shower of publicity. "You want fame and all of a sudden, here it is," she says. She is flabbergasted, flattered, she says, as she poses gamely for a news photographer, seated at her father's desk. Dieter Esch darts in and out of his quarters, making plenty of room as members of the media do their part to promote his daughter's extraordinary coming-out. But the idea of having him pose for a picture is abruptly dismissed; his response suggests that he would rather take a stiletto heel in the eye.

A Quick Study

Some competitors sneer at the notion of Natasha Esch as owner. "Oh, dear God," shrieks a competitor at the mighty Elite. "Twenty-one and you just graduated college and you're going to run a modeling agency? That's a joke! ... So her name gets around. You should know how that works. You send out a name over and over. {People} remember the name. That's an old trick."

In fact, Wilhelmina could use a bright young face and Esch stands ready to lend hers. She says that when Wilhelmina was in charge of the agency "it had an edge."

"This business is very image-conscious. Who do you have? Are you behind the times or with the times? That's very important. If you have someone that people like, people can associate with, people have respect for, the image of the company will go up as a result." In this mission, she adds, "I think my age helps me a lot."

She dismisses the idea that veterans in the agency might resent her. "Ultimately, everyone realizes the better I learn and the more they teach me, the better it'll be in the long run for the company and therefore for the people who work here," she says.

Her main mentor is Rothchild, a woman who seems to miss her old partner, Wilhelmina, as much now as she did 13 years ago when the loss was fresh. "Natasha is learning what I learned in 25 years," Rothchild says. "But she's learning fast."

Rothchild says Esch is starting almost on the bottom rung -- just above mailroom level. "She really wants things to happen much faster than they're happening," Rothchild says. "I told her she has to learn to be patient. ... I gave her a lecture. Her father gave her a lecture. She's got to earn the respect of employees. She can't just barrel in there. ... She has to learn to listen more before she makes a decision. But that she'll learn with age. And I don't know if she ever had to make a decision before in her life." Overall, Rothchild says, "she's handling herself beautifully."

But Rothchild remembers one early blunder, when Esch took a call from a client who wanted "a perfectsize 8" and offered to pay $300 for the job. "She came running in and said, 'Can I do it? I'm a perfect 8.' And I said, 'No, you can't. You'd be competing with your models.' "

"She said, 'Oh, my God, but it pays $300 and I could use the money.' " Rothchild considered this and gave this response to her employer: "I started laughing."