Cigna Corp. has set its sights on the cream of banks' crop: private banking and trust clients.

The Bloomfield, Conn.-based insurer is recruiting six sales people to knock on doors of trust departments and private banks, as well as wire houses, in the most affluent regions of the country.

They will be competing against teams from other big insurers, including Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., Manufacturers Life Insurance Co., Allmerica Financial Life Insurance and Annuity Co., and Equitable, that are seeking access to bank's richest customers.

"There has been a huge push by insurance companies to build alliances with private bankers and trust officers," said David G. Kaytes, managing vice president, First Manhattan Consulting Group. "This is the most lucrative area."

Many Cigna policies are geared for wealthy business owners. One mainstay is survivorship whole life-known as 'second-to-die' insurance-which gives beneficiaries of a couple's estate the cash to pay inheritance taxes. Others include corporate continuum universal life-or "'key man"-insurance, as well as products that help execute succession plans.

Cigna's pitch to high-end money managers: without the right insurance, the assets they handle can disappear over-night.

"We like to think we have the right piece to orchestrate everything," said Westley V. Thompson, a vice president who heads the company's life brokerage division.

Independent agents and wholesalers still deliver the majority of policy holders to Cigna, helping its individual financial services division generate an operating income of $161 million in 1996. Mr. Thompson, who joined Cigna in 1994 from Aetna Life Insurance Co., said he is working with six banks that want to sell Cigna's wares to their private banking customers.

He declined to name the institutions.

Historically, private bankers and trust officers have had only informal relationships with insurance agents to whom they refer clients. But Mr. Kaytes, the consultant, said bank executives are becoming more amenable to working out formal arrangements with insurance companies.

"As banks begin to look more critically at trust departments and say 'you have to increase earning power,' there is a more formal approach coming along," Mr. Kaytes said. "Within the last year we've seen more and more of these relationships," he added.

Last summer, Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, bought a minority stake in Succession Planning International, a subsidiary of Manufacturers Life that specializes in selling insurance to closely-held businesses and their well- to-do principals.

Bank of Boston Corp. also plans on selling policies across its private client base. Executives there say life insurance is a logical product to cross-sell between commercial banking and the trust department. The $62.3 billion-asset banking company is negotiating to buy an insurance agency.

Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wachovia Corp., meanwhile, is hiring insurance agents to work in-house alongside its private bankers, trust officers, and small business lenders and sell policies underwritten by different insurers.

"This seems like the right way to go," Mr. Kaytes said. "Having everyone invent their own relationship is risky and suboptimal."

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