James Mitchell & Co., a controversial annuities marketer through banks, has obtained a reprieve in its battle against Florida's Insurance Department.

The San Diego marketing company obtained a stay of enforcement this week that stops the Insurance Department from carrying out a final disciplinary order against Mitchell's marketing program at Barnett Banks Inc.

The stay will remain in effect while Mitchell appeals the final order in court.

Last week, the state Insurance Department ordered Mitchell to severely limit sales and advertising of annuities offered through Jacksonville-based Barnett. The order followed the findings of a state administrative hearing officer who contended that Mitchell's program had been "deceptive and misleading" to bank customers.

Mitchell & Co. has maintained that its program, which operated in Barnett's 600 branches, adheres to all appropriate state and federal laws.

James K. Mitchell, the company's founder, feels his company will be vindicated once the matter moves into open court. "We're anxious to present our appeal in a judicial forum," he said.

Mr. Mitchell also acknowledged that Barnett, encouraged by a recent Supreme Court decision supporting annuities sales by banks, may decide to operate the program itself.

If Barnett goes that route, Mr. Mitchell said his company would still proceed with its appeal as a way of clearing his name and his company's. Mr. Mitchell also said his company would hope to supply Barnett's annuity program with processing, record keeping, and other office support.

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Thrifts sell four times as many annuities as banks do, a new study has found.

The average thrift sold $1.8 million of annuities, compared with $440,000 for banks, according to information that financial institutions submitted to bank regulators for 1994.

Bank Insurance Market Research Group used the data to determine investment product sales trends at banks.

"When a thrift has an annuity program, its production is often considerably higher than its commercial bank counterpart," said Andrew Singer, managing director of the Mamaroneck, N.Y., research firm.

Mr. Singer attributed thrifts' edge to their early start at selling annuities. Over the past decade, these institutions have honed their sales skills while commercial banks are still developing theirs, he said.

Of the 2,465 banks that sold annuities in 1994, just 15, or less than 1%, reported $100 million or more in volume. By contrast, 13 thrifts, or 3.5% of the 384 thrifts offering annuities, posted more than $100 million of annual sales, data show.

The mean figure - total sales divided by the number of institutions selling annuities - was $12.2 million for thrifts and $4.8 million for commercial banks.

American Skandia has named Leslie Sousa key account manager, overseeing programs at banks and investment product marketing firms.

Ms. Sousa, who joined the Shelton, Conn., insurance company last year as a wholesaler, replaced Paul Widzowski, who resigned.

She reports to Alan Blank, Skandia's national sales manager for banks.

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