ING Barings, with a thrift charter and a huge sales force in place, is poised for a two-pronged assault on the U.S. retail banking market.
The Dutch conglomerate, which capped a series of acquisitions by completing purchases of Aetna Financial Services and Reliastar Financial Corp. this year, plans to start using its thousands of insurance agents and financial planners to distribute savings accounts and loan products by yearend, said Arkadi Kuhlmann, president and chief executive officer of ING Direct, the newly chartered U.S. direct-marketing arm.
And in an approach that sharply differs from other insurers angling for U.S. banking business, ING Direct will mass-market its savings accounts and loans directly to consumers through the Internet and "cafe" branches, he said.
"We're looking to have a retail focus," Mr. Kuhlmann said. "Most banks try to charge a lot for assets, pay little interest, and get good returns for shareholders. I'm looking to sell product."
The company's strategy of using its insurance arm to enter the U.S. bank market could put U.S. banks on the defensive as the two industries vie for market share in a two-way crossover.
"This is the wave of the future," said Carmen F. Effron, a consultant who created and ran BankBoston Corp.'s insurance unit in the mid-1990s. "If banks don't get smart about selling insurance, insurers will eat banks' lunch on their own turf."
ING is one of several big companies using insurance to enter the U.S. banking market. State Farm Life insurance Co. and Allstate Corp. are training agents to sell banking products, and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. recently agreed to buy Grand Bank, Kingston, N.J., which it will use as a financial services platform.
Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna owns a major independent financial planning broker-dealer, FNIC. Reliastar, a Minneapolis insurer, owns the financial planning broker-dealer Walnut Street Securities and PrimeVest Financial Services, which distributes insurance and investment products through banks. Together the companies boast a nationwide sales force of more than 11,000.
ING Direct's structure is modeled after a Canadian bank marketing initiative launched by Mr. Kuhlmann in May 1997. He said ING Direct's Canadian operation has amassed about 300,000 customers and $1.8 billion (U.S.) of assets. ING Direct is also in Spain, Australia, and France, and plans are in the works for it to open for business in Italy by yearend.
Mr. Kuhlmann hopes to have that same success in the United States. "We're not a relationship bank. We're after the mass market - not the Internet-savvy client, and not the high-net-worth person," he said. "We want the traditional savers - the ones with the $1.2 trillion in savings earning 2% at their banks."
One key to success, he said, is to make it as easy as possible for customers to buy banks' offerings. "Bank products are a lot more complicated to sell than they need to be - so many forms need to be filled out, people to be seen," he said.
ING Direct is marketing certificates of deposits that have only two maturities - one year and five years - and pay 7% and 7.25%, respectively. The savings account, which pays 6.5% interest, has no required minimum, and can be linked to a checking account from any bank; it receives its deposits from those accounts.
The bank offers conventional and jumbo fixed-rate mortgages and adjustable mortgages that enable the borrower to fix the initial rate for three or five years, and adjust yearly thereafter. The mortgages carry no origination fee or application fee, and refinancing is available. The bank also offers consumer loans for up to $50,000, with a 9.95% APR.
Mr. Kuhlmann was careful to differentiate ING Direct from Internet banks.
Though the products, and information about them, are available online from ING, customers can also make contact and buy by phone, and soon will as well as at the three bank cafes that ING Direct plans to open in the United States by yearend.
The first, in New York, is slated to open by the end of October, and the others, in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., should be ready by December.
"It's like a regular coffee shop," Mr. Kuhlmann said of the concept, "but you can also do your banking there."