For Equitable Distributors Inc., the key to a successful bank branch referral training program is candy.

"You want to make it fun," said Michael Dibbert, president of the financial institutions division of Equitable Distributors, the wholesaling organization that distributes Equitable's insurance products to banks and broker-dealers. Equitable Distributors and Equitable are both subsidiaries of the New York financial services giant Axa Financial Inc.

"At some sessions, if the correct answer is given, the award is candy," Mr. Dibbert said. "It could be Life Savers, a $100,000 bar, or another candy. People love it."

The sweets handouts, he said, do not trivialize Equitable's training program, which is designed to help bank employees who sell insurance sell more.

And it seems to be working.

Equitable Distributors started selling its variable annuities through banks in 1997 and sold $88 million that year. In the first quarter of this year it sold $156 million in variable annuities through banks - against $116 million in the year-earlier period - and banks represented 23% of its wholesale distribution of the products.

"The key to growing the business," Mr. Dibbert said, "is our wholesaling - helping branch personnel identify key issues and helping them uncover opportunities by recognizing which bank customers could lead to sales. The average bank sales force is still barely uncovering its own opportunities."

Equitable was late in developing its bank channel but has made strides while most newer players have been struggling, said Kenneth Kehrer, president of the bank insurance consultant Kenneth Kehrer Associates of Princeton, N.J.

"What's impressive isn't only that they're fighting their way in but that they are doing it the old-fashioned way - through solid wholesaling, creating good relationships," Mr. Kehrer said. "They are also the only company gaining market share in variable annuities" without the help of proprietary products, he added.

Observers say banks usually prefer to work with insurers that will create proprietary annuity products for them. Equitable may work on proprietary agreements down the road, Mr. Dibbert said, but "you have to be a credible force and have staying power first. It's not easy to enter the business."

Many annuity providers "will do a deal just to get a foothold, but we're not going to do that," he said. "We'll wait for the right opportunity. We'd rather start with the wholesaling."

Equitable Distributors has 12 wholesalers dedicated to the bank channel.

"We had no turnover last year," Mr. Dibbert said. "There is often turnover among wholesalers, but our people all stayed on."

Meanwhile, Equitable is preparing to offer two variable life insurance products and two fixed annuity products through its 225-bank network. The company now sells the variable life products, which will be introduced to banks this summer, through other channels. The fixed annuities are being designed specifically for banks and will be released in the fourth quarter, Mr. Dibbert said.

Equitable's entry into distributing fixed annuities through banks comes as a shaky stock market is adding steam to bank fixed annuity sales and slowing variable annuity sales. But Patrick Miller, chief executive officer of Equitable Distributors, said variable annuities will continue to be "our core business."

"We have to do more, and that includes offering different products, because in order to do more business with banks we're going to have to offer a wider range of products," Mr. Miller said.

Though banks are trying to use fewer providers, Equitable is doing the right thing by expanding its bank offerings, Mr. Kehrer said.

"One way a bank cuts down its provider list is by working with a carrier that lets them sell both a fixed and a variable annuity," he said. "If an annuity provider sells both, it will have a better chance to stay" on a bank's shelf.

Product diversity also protects an insurance provider from wide swings in the stock market - which can play hob with revenue if that provider's bank sales depend on variable annuities. "It's good to balance the business," Mr. Kehrer said.

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