The track got a little narrower last year for independent mutual fund companies racing to sell their products through banks.

The reasons: Mergers among some of the big banking companies and the resulting consolidation of the preferred-provider lists banks use to determine which funds to sell.

The trend benefits the big fund companies that already have the largest presence in bank brokerages, said Michael Vessels, the head of bank distribution at AIM Management Group.

"It was only a challenge for those firms that didn't have significant shelf space to start with," Mr. Vessels said. "For the top five or six companies it's actually a pretty good thing."

Among the higher profile mergers last year was NationsBank Corp.'s acquisition of BankAmerica Corp., a deal that created the biggest retail bank brokerage, with about 1,000 sales representatives.

In preparation for the banks' brokerages being combined, they adopted a unified provider list of a dozen fund companies at the beginning of this year.

That merger cost some fund companies, including OppenheimerFunds, their favored position. Others, like Alliance Capital, won a spot on the bank's A-list.

Citigroup's Citicorp Investment Services and Primerica Financial Services are creating a unified list of just a half-dozen providers, which is expected to include the largest bank-sold fund companies.

"It's going to become increasingly difficult to get on the short lists," said David Haywood, an analyst with Financial Research Corp., Boston.

Market leaders like Putnam Investments and Franklin Templeton Group have already laid the groundwork by ensuring bank sales representatives are familiar with their products, Mr. Haywood said. And they have the deep pockets needed to provide the wholesaling support and training that banks demand, he said.

Meanwhile, the continuing game of musical chairs among fund companies' bank sales chiefs indicates that the business remains very competitive.

Allstate lured Maryann Bruce from OppenheimerFunds to create a unit that will sell funds and other products through banks and other intermediaries.

John Hancock tapped Fidelity Investments executive Peter Mawn to run its bank sales effort, a move that led to the departure of Ted Breen, who had filled that role.

And Henry Schulthesz, the longtime head of bank sales at Kemper Funds in Chicago, left for undisclosed reasons. A successor has not yet been named.

The biggest player in the bank channel, Putnam, is likely to remain dominant for a while-its $10.5 billion in sales through banks last year put it far ahead of the competition.

But the next tier of players, including Franklin, Oppenheimer, Massachusetts Financial Services, Fidelity, and AIM-are vying to break out and challenge Putnam.

To succeed, Mr. Vessels said, they must offer more sales force training and help banks figure out how to tap new markets-such as high-net-worth clients and small businesses.

"You've got to be able to do these other things that weren't required four, five, or six years ago," he said.

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