SAN FRANCISCO - A group of trust and private bankers gathered at a conference here to share war stories about the potential and the pitfalls of using direct mail to lure clients.

"We've gotten everybody from contractors to doctors - you have no idea who is going to come into the bank," William A. Sterne, group vice president at SunTrust Banks, said in a panel discussion at the Bank Marketing Association's annual conference.

"Some you really wouldn't let in the door, but if they've got a lot of money, I don't care what they look like," Mr. Sterne added.

His humorous comments underscore a serious effort by bankers to use direct marketing as a means of rustling up accounts by customers unknown to their institutions.

Though direct marketing is catching on in some private-banking quarters, it is still meeting some resistance among upper-level bank management who question the effectiveness of such an impersonal sales tactic.

But Mr. Sterne's Atlanta-based bank has had some success.

For example, he said SunTrust gained two millionaire brothers as new clients when they responded to a direct-mail solicitation via cellular phones from their air-conditioned tractors.

Mr. Sterne said the brothers, who had inherited a profitable construction business, liked the tone of the letter they got from the Atlanta bank.

But SunTrust had to field a belligerent response from an independently wealthy woman because the bank had written the letter to her husband.

Panelists on direct-mail strategy suggested that solicitation letters strive to hit a bread-and-butter note.

J. Thomas Dunlevy, executive vice president of Glenmede Trust Co., said of one of his solicitation letters, "No one thinks that it's from Ed McMahon."

"We think it's very important that the mailing have the look of personal correspondence," the Philadelphia banker said.

That look is meticulously achieved with a tasteful cream-colored envelope with hand-stamped postage.

James M. Farrell, assistant vice president, Old Kent Financial Corp., said the Grand Rapids-based trust bank is using direct mail to hit new markets in Western Michigan and Chicago.

He acknowledged that Chicago was initially considered a no-go because the name recognition of Old Kent there elicited the image of a discarded cigarette butt.

In the last two years, Old Kent sent sales letters to 3,000 to 5,000 prospects and got a 1% response rate from people who have opened accounts ranging from $100,000 to $4 million.

These trust and private bankers use information from databases like that of CDA/Investnet Technologies Inc., Rockville, Md., which compiles information on real estate holdings and insider stock trading.

Glenmede and a neighbor to the south, Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co., Baltimore, both retained Hallowell Associates Ltd.

Hallowell is a 13-year-old database marketing specialist that compiles information on wealthy individuals across the country from 15 proprietary sources. The firm has about 10 bank clients and sells each one exclusive access to the information in their regions.

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