HOUSTON - Two former bankers have emerged as the leaders of the new mutual fund giant Van Kampen/American Capital Inc.

And true to their background, a key part of their strategy is to sell more mutual funds through banks.

As expected, Richard S. Braddock, the former Citicorp president, has become the chairman of Van Kampen/America Capital, which was formed by the merger last month of Van Kampen Merrit Cos., Oak Terrace, Ill., and American Capital Management and Research Inc., Houston.

Mr. Braddock got the chairman's job because of his connections to Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, an investment partnership that acquired Van Kampen in 1993. He joined Clayton Dubilier as a partner last June, two months before the merger was announced.

The other banker at the top is chief executive Don G. Powell, formerly chairman and chief executive of American Capital Management and Research Inc.

Before a stint as president of Frank Russell Investment Management Co., Tacoma, Wash., from 1984 to 1987, Mr. Powell clocked time at some of the industry's biggest banks.

He headed the trust and investment department at Mellon Bank Corp. in the early 1980s. Before that he was chief investment officer for State Street Bank and Trust Co.

Like Mr. Braddock - who resigned from Citicorp in 1992 - Mr. Powell also served worked at the nation's biggest bank, opening the Houston office of Citicorp Investment Management Inc. in 1973.

In a recent interview, both executives said they expect banks to account for a larger percentage of the newly merged company's sales.

"I think the acceptance (of the merged company) will come the quickest with the banks," Mr. Powell said.

This would be a marked turnaround from last year, when American Capital sold less than 20% of its investment products through banks - a significant drop from the more than a third of sales volume the bank channel constituted in 1993.

Likewise, Van Kampen garnered between 20% and 30% of its business from banks in 1994, also down substantially from the previous year, Mr. Braddock said.

Although Van Kampen was the 12th-biggest seller of mutual funds through banks two years ago in a ranking by Alliance Capital Management, lately it has had trouble competing for shelf space as banks have whittled down their preferred-products lists.

Likewise, American Capital's stock funds have not been strong sellers in banks, where customers have tended to buy more conservative offerings.

One problem the companies' suffered from was a limited suite of products. Van Kampen's product line was dominated by municipal bond and fixed income funds. American Capital specialized in stock funds.

Without a broader product line "we wouldn't have made it," said R. Scott West, the company's director of sales for financial institutions.

But the combined company is not lacking in any measure of heft.

The merger creates the country's fifth-largest family of broker-sold mutual funds and unit investment trusts. Van Kampen/American Capital has $51.8 billion in assets under management or supervision, 66 open-end mutual funds, 39 closed-end funds, 2,700 unit investment trusts, retirement plans, and a variety of other financial products and services.

The company can also cite a string of marketing and service awards American Capital received from Dalbar Publishing Inc., Boston.

"We're putting two companies together to create a full product line," Mr. Braddock said.

"It's a ying and yang," Mr. Powell added. "The trouble with both of us is that we were not 'nichey' enough to survive in our own niches. Now we're one of the major players."

Already there is evidence that the new firm is attractive to banks. The day the merger was announced in August, five banks agreed to start selling the merged company's mutual funds, Mr. Powell said. He declined to name the banks.

Other mutual fund experts also said the merger should help Van Kampen/American Capital sell investment products through banks.

As competition to sell through banks increased, "they needed something," to be viable players in that market, said Kent Strazza, national sales manager at Franklin Resources Inc., San Mateo, Calif.

But the merger doesn't make Van Kampen/American Capital a shoo-in on bank sales lists, said Kurt Cerulli, principal at Cerulli Associates, a Boston consulting firm that tracks the mutual fund industry.

"I don't think it guarantees them anything on anyone's short list," he said.

But at least the merger makes them a contender, he added.

The merger has been a delicate job to handle. In melding the two companies, "we worked very hard to save the best of both" organizations, Mr. Braddock said.

Keeping the best applies to both products and people.

The company picked the top sales people in each part of the country to market investment products through financial institutions. Van Kampen/American Capital now has 50 wholesalers, 15 of whom are dedicated to banks.

"We're really fielding an all-star team," Mr. Powell said.

Some observers said Mr. Braddock and Mr. Powell are two of the top stars, at least when it comes to helping the company win business from banks.

But both executives play down the value of their banking backgrounds.

"I don't think there are things I know profoundly that others don't," said Mr. Braddock, who is credited with resurrecting Citi's consumer banking business.

"We're going to succeed only if we can help banks build revenue," he added.

But some Van Kampen/American Capital officials on the front lines see things differently.

"It's great to have a resource like Rick Braddock," said Mr. West, the bank-sales chief. "We will use him in 1995."

Yet even though Van Kampen/American Capital hopes to grow its sales through banks, Mr. Braddock said banks' future in the investment products business may be rocky.

"A few big banks will probably make it" as mutual fund managers, he predicted. "But many won't find it attractive over time."

The banks that have the best chance of succeeding are those with an aggressive sales mentality, Mr. Braddock said. But the rapid turnover of executives who have been put in charge of banks' investment products programs is one indicator that banks are still trying to figure the business out, he added.

"I don't think all the banks made the psychological commitment to investment products," Mr. Powell noted. He said he had yet to see any "rip- roaring-success stories" among banks.

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