Last year, Tom E. Gunderson got a call from the owner of an Alaska bank who wanted it to start selling mutual funds.

Shortly thereafter, Denali State Bank in Fairbanks, became a client of Mr. Gunderson's retail brokerage, Investment Centers of America Inc.

A ho-hum event in many respects, it's exactly the sort of thing, repeated time and again, that has turned Investment Centers, of Bismarck, N.D., into a booming marketer of investments through banks.

Over the 10 years since Mr. Gunderson founded the firm, Investment Centers has struck agreements to sell investments through 244 community banks in 20 states.

Furthermore, Investment Centers is succeeding where other marketers of investments would like to grow - namely, among banks with no more than $500 million of assets.

That's because big banks are increasingly taking control of their retail brokerages, and giving the boot to outside brokers that had been running these programs. Small banks, by contrast, are seen as a more stable market, since they are less capable of running retail brokerages themselves.

According to Mr. Gunderson, catering to the small-business clients of small banks requires a touch that big-city brokers don't normally have.

And Mr. Gunderson works to keep his touch fresh. He frequently travels on his twin-engine plane to meet bankers in such out-of-the-way communities as Faulkton, S.D.; Las Cruces, N.M.; and Pharr, Tex. When hiring brokers, he looks for young, bright graduates of local colleges - people who are familiar with the local culture and who identify with the small-town folk.

"That's small-town selling," Mr. Gunderson said.

Investment Centers is a family affair for Mr. Gunderson, who worked for E.F. Hutton before starting the brokerage. His six sons also work in the business.

And the venture is paying off. Last year Investment Centers sold $650 million of investment products, nearly a third above the previous year. The company also signed up 51 new bank clients. These are notable achievements, given last year's difficult investment scene.

Mr. Gunderson aims to keep on growing. For example, later this year he hopes to have Investment Centers start selling trust services. Such services could be an aid to the investors with whom his firm deals, whose average age is 58 and who often need estate planning and retirement services.

What's the secret to Investment Centers' small-bank success?

"One-bank, one office, one broker," Mr. Gunderson said.

He said his brokers are told to listen to the client "across the table over a cup of coffee" and then to market products that meet the client's needs. They are told explicitly not to push such investments as annuities and mutual funds to every prospect they meet.

Mr. Gunderson admits he has modeled his business after Edward D. Jones Co., the St. Louis-based brokerage firm with the largest branch network in the country. Edward D. Jones also operates primarily in small towns, usually with one broker in each office.

But Edward D. Jones competes with banks, while Investment Centers teams up with them. In such partnerships, the banks pay upfront fees of $25,000 and agree to split commissions with the brokerage.

In return, Investment Centers hires and trains brokers and administrative staff, and does due-diligence work. Brokers work on commission.

Mr. Gunderson isn't shy about claiming he helps banks out. For example, one client, Bank Center First, also of Bism arck, grew from $21 million in assets in 1985 to $72 million today, at least partly because Investment Centers helped it sell $120 million of investments. Some of the investors also became banking customers.

Investment Centers does a solid job of equipping and training its brokers, with such things as software for laptop computers and training courses in financial planning, said Richard A. Ayotte, a managing partner of American Brokerage Consultants, a consulting firm in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"I don't know of any bank that has ever left ICA's program," he said.

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