With the hiring of former Putnam Investments executive Michael C. Vessels, AIM Management Group Inc. has accelerated its push into the bank marketplace.

The Houston-based mutual fund company, which manages $24 billion of assets, currently ranks fifth in sales of mutual funds through banks, according to a recent ranking by Alliance Capital Management. Last year, AIM wasn't even in the top 15.

Mr. Vessels' selection to lead the financial institution sales division, combined with the introduction of new classes of shares and an expansion of its sales force by at least a third, all point to AIM's attempts to strengthen its grip on the market.

Mr. Vessels was most recently Northeast region sales manager for institutional sales at Putnam. He has been on his new job six weeks.

Challenge of Expansion

Mr. Vessels said he was drawn by AIM's efforts to boost its share of the bank market.

Earlier this month, AIM introduced "A" and "B" share classes to seven of its 24 funds; subject to shareholder approval, it will restructure two more on Oct. 15.

The B shares sport a back-end load option that has proved popular with bank customers, with lower sales commissions for longer-term investors.

Last July, AIM bought the management contracts for 14 funds previously managed by the Cigna Cos., the insurance giant. About 75% of the $1.5 billion of assets were in fixed-income portfolios. Under AIM's stewardship, the assets have grown to $2 billion.

Balancing Equity Funds

The fixed-income funds, such as the $400 million Cigna High Yield Fund, helped balance AIM's primarily equity family of funds, Mr. Vessels said.

That could give the AIM an edge in selling funds through banks, because bank customers tend to prefer bond and other fixed-income funds.

In addition to the other changes, AIM four months ago introduced a variable-annuity product called Heritage. The annuity, backed by Cigna through a contractual arrangement, offers 10 fixed-yield and seven variable-yield investments.

Most Sales Through Brokers

Currently, about 17% of the company's sales are made through banks. AIM's primary outlet is big brokerage companies: 45% of sales come from national firms with seats on the New York Stock Exchange. Regional brokerages sell 20%. Financial planners and others make up the balance.

AIM has grown rapidly as a fund family, primarily because of strong-performing stock growth funds. Its flagship funds are the $5.1 billion Weingarten Growth Fund, the $1.6 billion Charter Growth and Income Fund, and the $2.4 billion Constellation Aggressive Growth Fund.

Mr. Vessels intends to add to his bank sales staff, perhaps by a third more than the 30 his division employs now.

The staff is divided into seven regional wholesalers, seven marketing specialists who work the phones in Houston, four marketing associates to help them, a key account executive, and support staff.

By yearend, Mr. Vessels intends to expand the number of wholesalers and marketing specialists by three each, at least double the marketing associates, and add to the support staff.

Mr. Vessels said AIM is strong throughout the country, but he would like to increase sales on the West Coast, where the Franklin Group of San Mateo, Calif., is the acknowledged heavyweight.

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