Mutual fund company American Century Investments is trying to piggyback on banks that are setting up retirement plans for corporate customers.

American Century - the combination of no-load companies Twentieth Century Mutual Funds and the Benham Group - has begun asking trust departments to include its 60 stock and bond portfolios in their corporate customers' 401(k) packages.

"I'm actually amazed that on the trust side only a few players are courting banks the way I think they should," said David Larrabee, the American Century vice president overseeing sales through banks.

At banks, trust departments are usually responsible for promoting 401(k) plans. Both Twentieth Century and Benham had had some success in that market without actively pursuing it, Mr. Larrabee said.

Of the $53 billion of assets that American Century manages, about $3 billion to $4 billion, or 5.6% to 7.5%, comes from the bank channel, he said. Probably 90% of these assets are in 401(k) plans, he added.

Customers at as many as 1,100 banks, including Northern Trust Co., Norwest, and State Street Boston have long invested in the portfolios of Twentieth Century or Benham. But the companies only began a proactive pursuit of the bank trust market after completing their merger in September.

Twentieth Century brought in Mr. Larrabee last year to set up a division that would market to banks. He had previously worked at State Street Boston, where he sold bank services to fund companies.

In October, Kansas City, Mo.-based American Century began offering brokers a new family of low-load Advisor Funds. Now Mr. Larrabee is building his unit, hoping to increase his sales staff from two to six by the end of 1997.

The company sees growth in the 401(k) business at the same time that its core customer base for mutual funds without financial advisers is giving out. "Most studies will bear out that two-thirds of people who buy mutual funds do it through an adviser," Mr. Larrabee said.

He said he expects the retirement benefit market among banks to yield $150 million of sales this year, three times more than in 1996. "That's not huge when you look at Fidelity and Putnam, but this is in incubation," he said. "We certainly think the demand is there."

Indeed, Access Research Inc., Windsor, Conn., predicted that assets in 401(k) plans would grow 15% annually for the next five years.

Observers of American Century give sunny forecasts for the company, though it's rather late to wake up to banks.

"Not as many companies are marketing to trust departments as you might imagine," said Burton J. Greenwald, a mutual fund consultant in Philadelphia. "A lot of people in the fund industry are disappointed in banks on the retail side."

But he said opportunity exists in bank trust departments because they attract a more sophisticated and wealthier clientele than bank brokerages. Banks are questioning the profitability of marketing their own mutual funds, he added, making room for outside companies in trust departments.

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