First Nationwide Bank is beefing up its insurance program by training 250 platform personnel to get licenses to sell life and disability policies.

The move by the $14 billion-asset thrift comes as it absorbs into a subsidiary, FN Investments Center, the insurance program of California Federal Bancorp, a thrift First Nationwide acquired last month.

Usually, an acquirer's task is to train employees of the bank it buys to sell products its way. But in First Nationwide's case, the San Francisco- based thrift is doing just the opposite, training its own personnel to sell insurance and other products the way California Federal did.

California Federal, Los Angeles, earned a reputation as one of the country's best sellers of mutual fund and insurance products, particularly annuities, by promoting them through platform personnel. First Nationwide, on the other hand, sold such products solely through dedicated investment representatives.

"A lot of people have looked at the old Cal Fed program as a pioneer," said John LaSalle, national sales manager at First Nationwide.

Platform employees usually set up checking accounts, sell certificates of deposits, and, increasingly, hawk annuities and investment products. They have generally been order-takers.

Investment representatives are standard brokers or financial planners who seek out customers and offer investment and insurance advice after getting a customer's financial profile.

In the third quarter of last year, Cal Fed sold $52.7 million in annuities, equal to 0.60% of its deposit base of $8.1 billion, said Andrew Singer, managing director of Bank Insurance Market Research Group, Mamaroneck, N.Y. He added that Cal Fed's sales ranked 15th among commercial banks and thrifts.

But First Nationwide didn't even make the top 25, Mr. Singer said. It sold $29 million of annuities in the third quarter, equal to 0.33% of its $8.8 billion of deposits, he said.

Cal Fed was also fifth in the first nine months in revenue from sales of mutual funds and annuities. The business brought in 18.7% of the company's $75.8 million in noninterest revenue, Mr. Singer said.

A debate is raging in the banking industry about whether platform personnel, who are often less sophisticated than investment representatives, should include life insurance on their menus. But one consultant, Val Jordan of Belchertown, Mass., said that as long as they sell simplified term insurance products, chances are they will generate a large volume of sales.

"They're the ones that are in the front lines," she said. "They often know the customer better than the investment representative."

First Nationwide is hoping to place two or three licensed platform representatives in each of its 229 retail branches. The 250 new licensed representatives are in addition to the 300 or so coming over from Cal Fed, Mr. LaSalle said.

They will sell term insurance with simplified underwriting standards as well as single premium variable life insurance. The platform staff will focus on the simpler products and fill in when the investment representatives are out of the thrift.

The thrift employs 60 investment representatives who have begun to sell insurance products that build up cash value and long-term care policies, along with mutual funds and annuities.

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