There's one thing that never surprises J. Abbott Sprague when he talks with bankers.

"Bankers are afraid to ask questions because they are supposed to know the answers," says Mr. Sprague, president of AIM Management Group's bank sales unit.

But Mr. Sprague doesn't let bankers' timidity get in the way of a sale. A touch of drama -- "a thespian presentation," as Mr. Sprague puts it -- can help discussions start to flow.

Banks may also be drawn in by AIM's strategic approach to the fund business.

Pride in Customer Focus

AIM prides itself as being focused singlemindedly on serving customers -- banks and other financial intermediaries who market AIM funds -- even if that means keeping a low public profile for itself.

"It's not AIM we are trying to promote. We're trying to get our customer's businesses to grow," Mr. Sprague said.

Despite its quiet approach, the Houston company's long-term investment performance gets plenty of attention from industry experts.

"It's one of those few companies that has a very good product line with what we'd generally call a pattern of excellence," said Avi Nachmany, a partner in Strategic Insight, a mutual fund consulting firm in New York.

Mr. Nachmany points to the AIM Weingarten Fund -- a diversified growth stock fund. Strong performance spurred net sales of the fund that grew from $345 million in 1990, to $1.9 billion in 1991, and $2.3 billion in 1992.

Mr. Sprague has doubtless been helped by his deep roots in banking. His family ran Canal Bank in Portland, Maine for years until it was acquired by Key Bank. He worked briefly there before joining AIM in 1980.

Nowadays, AIM has $23 billion in assets under management in 37 funds. In an unusual approach, it markets both load and no-load products to banks. The load funds are designed for retail customers; the no-loads, for institutional customers.

42 Client Banks

In all, the company has 42 client banks. Fourteen "wholesalers" -- sales representatives who help banks select the products they will offer their customers--assigned exclusively to the banks. Five serve the retail side, while the other nine tend to institutional business.

Last year, retail sales through banks totaled $523.4 million. AIM doesn't disclose institutional sales, but says it managed $9.6 billion in institutional funds at yearend 1992.

Among AIM's top bank customers is Frost National Bank, San Antonio, Texas. AIM has recently signed on several new banks to its roster including U.S. Trust Company and NBD Corp.

And right now, the company is vying to be one of the five mutual fund families on Banc One Corp.'s preferred list. "Let's cross our fingers," Mr. Sprague said.

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