Three strikes and they're out.

American Express Financial Advisors, the undisputed national leader in financial planning, had tried three times in the past two years to put financial advisers in large commercial banks.

But last Friday, the company abruptly ended pilot programs with Banc One Corp and Fleet Financial Group Inc. A program with First Bank System Inc. had come unglued in 1994.

What happened?

David Meuse, chairman of Banc One Capital Holdings, said Amex's advisers were slow and inefficient in giving financial planning advice.

American Express' brokers are trained to sell financial plans whose complexity is tailored to the customer, he said. And brokers tended to go after upscale customers who could be charged as much as $1,000 for sophisticated plans.

"Geared toward the more affluent, it becomes a long sales process, and that's the problem," said Mr. Meuse, whose unit oversees the Columbus, Ohio, banking company's trust and asset management services.

An American Express official, however, put the blame on banking officials too absorbed by other matters to focus on the nitty-gritty of incorporating his company's financial planners.

"They've got a lot on their plate; the timing wasn't right," said Mark Alfuth, vice president-general manager in the financial institutions group.

Geoffrey Bobroff, a consultant in East Greenwich, R.I., added that the large banks had wanted more oversight over Amex's financial advisers than the financial services company was willing to allow.

"That's the fundamental drawback," he said, that explains why American Express is having so many "difficulties with these relationships."

American Express had placed five brokers in Banc One branches in Utah last summer. The company had also, in 1994, placed five brokers in the New Hampshire offices of Shawmut National Corp., before that company was taken over by Fleet.

In the wake of its failed pilot programs, American Express is planning to try to sell its financial plans through small financial institutions. It already has formed alliances with 21 community banks and 43 credit unions.

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