One of the big names in insurance has made an acquisition signaling a stepup in its effort to sell through banks.

Allstate Life Insurance Co. completed the acquisition last week of Laughlin Group, a Beaverton, Ore., company that manages insurance sales programs for 150 banks. Terms were not disclosed.

Allstate, based in Northbrook, Ill., is already a leading seller of annuities through banks via a subsidiary, Glenbrook Life and Annuity Co. The company has selling agreements with 20 banks, with about $550 million in annuity sales last year.

Laughlin gives Allstate an efficient channel for additional insurance sales through banks, an Allstate executive said. Laughlin's clients include PNC Bank Corp., SunTrust Banks Inc., and California Federal Bank.

"Laughlin has an outstanding history of relationships with trust departments at banks," said Marla Friedman, president and chief operating officer of Glenbrook Life. "We believe much insurance will be sold through the work site, and many corporations deal with banks for their employee benefits needs."

Laughlin, founded in 1978 by its chairman, Paul Laughlin, has the seventh-biggest bank-customer roster among the investment service suppliers known as third-party marketers.

These companies - Invest Financial Corp. and Essex Corp. are among the leaders - provide a host of services to banks, including hiring and training brokers and selecting and monitoring products.

Laughlin specializes in annuities and other insurance products. It says fixed-rate annuities account for about 60% of total revenues, which were not disclosed.

The firm also does credit analysis of insurance companies for bank clients and distributes guaranteed investment contracts that are underwritten by insurance companies.

But what Allstate was really buying was Mr. Laughlin and his relationships with financial institutions across the country.

"Allstate wants us to remain autonomous and entrepreneurial," Mr. Laughlin said in a telephone interview. He will stay on for an indefinite period, with the mission of keeping client banks in the fold.

In recent years, Laughlin Group has been helping bank trust departments market their ability to set up retirement and health-care plans for their customers' employees and executives.

"Laughlin is a pioneer in developing ways to promote insurance through banks," said Kenneth Kehrer, a consultant in Princeton, N.J. "Laughlin needed the resources of Allstate to develop a life insurance program for banks."

Indeed, Mr. Laughlin acknowledged he had tried to develop a life program on his own. He would have had to hire a whole staff of agents to be deployed at the banks - involving costs he found prohibitive.

Mr. Laughlin, 54, said he has had merger talks with 25 insurance companies over the last three years. He said he wanted to sell out because he would like to retire in five or six years.

Mr. Laughlin also said he had been trying to form a joint venture with Allstate for a year and a half, but negotiations had bogged down.

"We said that was too complicated, so let's just sell this whole thing and get going with the life insurance program," Mr. Laughlin said.

Third-party marketing firms have been consolidating in recent years, chiefly because many big banks are cutting their ties to marketers as soon as they build up some investment sales expertise.

Allstate, a former Sears, Roebuck & Co. subsidiary, is not the first insurer to go after a company like Laughlin.

Liberty Financial Cos. of Boston, which owns Keyport Life Insurance Co. as well as mutual fund and bank brokerage sales units, has been on the prowl for firms like Laughlin. It doubled the size of its bank brokerage subsidiary in June when it acquired Wall Street Investor Services, New York.

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