As banks gain more experience with mutual fund sales, ambitious retail players see big opportunities to help their smaller brethren enter the business.

Over the past two years, banks have been eagerly mapping plans to replicate their successful brokerage sales programs at other financial institutions, chiefly community banks. Among those that have em-braced the strategy are Nations-Bank Corp., Charlotte, N.C.; NBD Corp., Detroit; and Prem-ier Bancorp,' Baton Rouge, La.; and Firstar Corp., Milwaukee.

But while several of these programs have taken off, others appear to have stalled or even fallen flat. For instance, NationsBank's plans to "syndicate" its joint venture with Dean Witter Financial Services, announced nearly two years ago, has yet to be unveiled.

So far, few banks have sold large numbers of community banks on their approach. But bankers say the strategy is fundamentally sound because it builds upon their existing correspondent relationships.

Community banks "know who we are, and they know our philosophy and our products," said Geoffrey G. Maclay Jr., president of Firstar Corp.'s Elan Investment Services unit.

Some industry observers think banks can make a go of it - but they caution that the competition from established investment mar-. keting companies is stiff.

"A lot of these rinns are fighting for their share of a shrinking pie," said Rolland Johannsen, president of Furash & Co., a bank consulting finn in Washington.

One community banker who is sold on brokerage syndications is James Fontenot, president of First National Bank of St. Martin, La. The $44 millionasset bank has been working with Premier Bancorp to sell investment products for about a year.

"This program lets us offer our customer alternative products without spending a lot of money ourselves, or getting into something that we don't have any expertise in," said First National's president, James Fontenot.

Of the handful of banks to enter the field, Premier, which has marketed its brokerage services to other banks for two years, is perhaps the furthest along.

The $4 billion-asset banking company has 22 community banks on its roster, and another 15 are waiting in the wings, said Richard S. White, Premier's chief trust officer.

Premier draws in about 15% of its investment product sales through its network of correspondent banks and has expanded its reach to community banks outside the group.

Banks are constantly looking for new outlets for their proprietary mutual funds.

"Mutual funds are a volume business and the primary reason banks are downstreaming is to increase assets under management," said Joy P. Montgomery, president, Money Marketing Initiative, Morristown, N.J.

Small banks are drawn to these services because their fledgling sales program could get more attention from bigger banks they already have relationships with.

Many of the small banks Premier works with would have fallen "below the radar of most third-party providers," Mr. White said.

"When you have a richer web of relationships, you stand to have better service from the bank you work with," said Avi Nachmany, a partner with Strategic Insight, New York.

Premier and Firstar are off to a bullish start with their syndication efforts. But other banks are struggling with their programs. NBD Corp., which recently cut a deal with Essex Corp. to provide its Charterpoint Investment Center services to other banks, scrapped the plans, a company spokesman confirmed. And NationsBank, whose plans have been perhaps the most ambitious, has yet to get its syndication program off the ground. Marketing mutual funds through community banks was a cornerstone of the banking giant's landmark joint venture with Dean Witter in 1992. NationsSecurities, as the division is known, spent a year recruiting a top executive to oversee the proc-ess of securing business from banks, finally bringing Mitchell T. Grant, who helped make Putnam Investments a dominant name among bank-sold funds.

'They're very serious about it because they went outside to find high-level talent," said Strategic Insight's Mr. Nachmany. But since hiring Mr. Grant in November 1993, "they haven't gotten very far."

A NationsBank spokesman said the program is still in the startup phase and it is too soon to say when it will begin in earnest.

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