A major Canadian insurance company has assumed complete control of the Holden Group, a Los Angeles company that runs annuities sales programs at about 100 community banks.

London Insurance Group of Ontario, which already owned a 60% stake in the company, disclosed this week that it boosted its ownership to 100% in May.

For Holden Group, the move could provide the backing the company needs to grab a bigger share of the bank market for annuities, which are a popular tax-exempt investment vehicle.

The company has sold about $100 million in annuities so far this year, making it one of the smaller players in the investment products marketing field.

Holden executives say London Insurance Group, which underwrites about 15% of the retail life insurance sold in Canada, brings to the table strong credit ratings and a solid financial footing.

That could make Holden Group a more appealing partner to the midsize and regional banks it wants to attract to its client roster.

Till now, Holden has picked up most of its accounts from community banks, largely on the strength of an endorsement by the American Bankers Association.

"All of this is being done to make ourselves a much bigger player in the bank market," said Michael McCoy, senior vice president at Holden.

The shift in ownership includes changes in the company's name and its top management. Holden Group will become London Insurance Group of America as soon as necessary regulatory approvals are obtained, Mr. McCoy said.

Robert Mepham, who had been Holden's executive vice president, was elevated to president and chief executive. Mr. Mepham, 56, replaces R. Brock Armstrong, who had held those posts for three years.

Mr. Armstrong, in turn, is moving to London Insurance Group's headquarters in London, Ontario. He will serve as chairman of the American unit and as executive vice president of London Insurance Group's principal life insurance unit.

Though London Insurance Group completed its buyout of the Holden Group in May, it spent several weeks redrawing the organizational charts before announcing the change to client banks this week.

London Insurance Group gained full control by purchasing the 40% stake that had been held by Glen Holden, Holden Group's founder.

Mr. Holden, who formed the company in 1973, had not been involved in day-to-day operations since the late 1980s, when he sold the majority interest to London Insurance.

Holden's offers fixed and variable annuities, which are underwritten by its subsidiaries, Security First Life Insurance Co. and Fidelity Standard Life Insurance Co.

With greater financial support from London Insurance, Holden plans to expand its sales efforts to include larger banks, Mr. McCoy said.

He added that the company also hopes to help larger banks "manufacture their own products" -- that is, to manage annuities that would be underwritten by London Insurance Group of America.

Holden's Security First unit has already taken a step in this direction, helping Signet Banking Group, Richmond, Va., roll out a proprietary variable annuity in September 1993.

London Insurance's Holden purchase is the latest in a string of moves by financial service giants seeking to strengthen their hold on the bank market.

GNA, a large distributor of mutual funds and annuities through banks, was bought by General Electric Capital Corp. last year. And, earlier this year, insurer Great-West Life and Annuity purchased BancSource, a marketer of investment products through banks.

Holden Group's rivals say the company may get support from its parent, but that may not be enough. "It's very competitive out there," said James K. Mitchell, chairman of James Mitchell & Co., a leading distributor of annuities through banks.

"If you have a lot of distribution cost, it can be absorbed by the parent."

But Mr. Mitchell added that in an industry where name recognition is just about everything, Holden may be hitching its future to a virtual unknown.

"Is London Insurance a known name in the U.S.?" he asked.

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