BankBoston Corp. is pushing its year-and-a-half-old insurance effort into high gear with a slew of initiatives designed to put it in the forefront of bank insurance programs.
Under the leadership of Carmen Effron, the bank's insurance chief, BankBoston hopes to emulate the European bancassurance model by integrating insurance sales with the bank's retail effort.
Currently, BankBoston sells term life and several other policies using direct mail and licensed specialists. But Ms. Effron, who is president of BancBoston Insurance Agency Inc., has plans in the coming year to enlist branch employees and even the Internet to broaden the distribution of insurance products.
"We have made a corporate commitment in this business," said Ms. Effron during a recent interview in her office. "We have ambitious goals."
Sales results at this point are fairly insignificant, industry sources said, and Ms. Effron refused to discuss numbers.
But observers at least credit the banking company for its desire to develop a full-fledged insurance operation that markets many products through many channels. Few U.S. banks entering the insurance marketplace in the wake of a favorable Supreme Court decision two years ago have chosen to operate on such a grand scale.
Moreover, these observers said, Ms. Effron has the industry knowledge and tenacity for the task.
"She's a person who any bank would want running their insurance program because she cares about the industry," said Roger Dunker, president of KeyCorp's insurance management group. That opinion is based on his work with her on industry committees where she's tireless, he said.
Valerie Jordan, a consultant based in Belchertown, Mass., also said, "She's more knowledgeable about insurance than a lot of people running bank programs."
Unlike many Americans who reverently talk about the European model of integrating insurance with banking, Ms. Effron has lived it.
Before joining BankBoston, Ms. Effron worked for the U.S. operation of London-based National Westminster Bank, helping to develop its insurance sales effort in New Jersey. Paul W. Feeney, now marketing director at Coutts & Co., National Westminster's private bank, worked with her and contends she helped move the bank's effort forward.
"She has bags of energy and enthusiasm and has a very can-do attitude," he said. Mr. Feeney singled out her knowledge of regulatory issues.
Ms. Effron also spent five years in American International Group's European life division as director of the financial institutions strategic business unit.
Ms. Effron's background, combined with a skill for tough negotiation with insurance carriers, gives her some clout as she tests distribution methods, Ms. Jordan said.
In May 1997, BankBoston formed a joint life insurance venture with William J. Lynch and Associates, a Boston- and Miami-based life insurance agency.
That program sells corporate-owned life insurance, nonqualified commercial insurance, and high-end estate planning. Ms. Effron said she is pleased with the program, which began last year.
On the retail side, the bank sells annuities and term insurance using licensed specialists.
"I think it is a program in its infancy when you compare it with some of the other big banks," Ms. Jordan said. However, she added, "there's a tremendous opportunity just because of Boston and it being a financial center."
One short-term obstacle may be bank customer concerns in the wake of Fleet's rapid scaling back of its young insurance program last fall. This Boston banking company competitor closed its two-year-old insurance unit and axed its 50 telephone-based life insurance agents. Its modest insurance program was folded into retail operations.
"All banks in the Boston area are probably tainted by the bad publicity," Ms. Jordan said. "It's an unfortunate situation."
Ms. Effron viewed Fleet's decision as an opportunity. "We're definitely not getting out of the business," she said.
To make insurance "just another product" in an integrated retail system, Ms. Effron plans to increase sales from the bank platform. Early in 1999, the company said, it will roll out a system whereby a customer could go to a retail workstation. There, an investment representative could handle most needs, including annuities and term insurance sales.
At the station, Ms. Effron said, she wants the representative to use a profiling system to assess customer needs quickly. Then an appropriate sale can be made, or the customer can be quickly referred to a specialist. As part of the initiative, many platform representatives will get additional training and licensing to sell insurance products.
Another initiative Ms. Effron expects to introduce in September is aimed at the health insurance needs of the bank's 120,000 small-business customers.
Under the program, small-business customers would be able to choose from a variety of health maintenance organization providers. The banking company would administer the program and collect premiums from the businesses' cash management accounts.
BankBoston plans to pitch the program by direct mail. Some may criticize this approach, Ms. Effron said, but the company is selective in its mailings, and the Boston market has yet to be saturated.
Ms. Effron also said she thinks customers will become accustomed to buying insurance over the Internet.
"The Internet is going to be one of our delivery channels," she said. "In my gut it makes a lot of sense- but I'm not sure the carriers would agree."
Though many in the insurance industry condemn the Internet as an impersonal way to sell insurance, Ms. Effron disagreed. Recently, she said, she surfed the Internet to find books for a friend battling cancer. Using Amazon.com, she found a book, bought it, and had it gift-wrapped. The book was delivered in California the next day, and Ms. Effron got an e-mail confirmation.
"To me, that's a very personalized experience," she said.
Internet sales, she said, don't have to be restricted to term products. Products like single variable life come to mind, she said. And just as USAA has proved that the phone can be used for sales, so too the Internet can be harnessed, she said.
"It depends on your relationship with your customer and how they view you and do they trust you," she said.
In building the insurance program, Ms. Effron said, she will continue to outsource as much as possible. "Unlike some of my counterparts, I don't think it's necessary to have administrative on the balance sheet."
Controlling and overseeing activities is the crucial need, she explained.
Ms. Effron said that so far BankBoston is happy with its annuity sales, direct marketing, and other insurance initiatives. "We're just not big enough," she added, however.