As chief executive officer of Primerica Financial Services, Travelers Group's unorthodox insurance subsidiary, longtime broker Joseph Plumeri 2d has created an earnings-generating, marketing machine.

But what does the newly appointed head of Citigroup's retail bank branches know about banking?

As Mr. Plumeri puts it: "Nothing."

And that's just fine with him.

"At the end of the day, I have to convince you that it's better to do business here than it is to do it someplace else," he said during a recent interview in his soon-to-be-vacated Travelers office. "That doesn't require a knowledge of banking."

As the merger of Citicorp's and Travelers' corporate banking operations stumbles-symbolized by the departure this week of Citigroup president James Dimon-the success of the new company's consumer operations is becoming more critical, analysts say. A large chunk of that responsibility is being handed to the 55-year-old Mr. Plumeri.

Last month the New Jersey native was named head of "North American Citibanking," putting him atop Citibank's 435 branches, its retail banking brokerage, and Primerica. The three operations form Citigroup's "direct sales and marketing" division, responsible for getting the company's diverse product line into as many households as possible.

A charismatic salesman, Mr. Plumeri is credited with breathing new life into Primerica, which relies largely on a door-to-door sales force to sell term insurance and other Travelers products to middle America. Now he must bring that "cross-selling" expertise to Citibank and get Primerica's sales agents and the bank's branches and brokers to work closely together.

Mr. Plumeri has dealt with challenging alliances before.

When he was brokerage chief of Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc., Mr. Plumeri played a major role in Shearson's 1993 merger into Smith Barney Inc., and was named president of the new firm immediately after.

He was replaced a year later by Mr. Dimon after reports that his in- your-face management style clashed with some Smith Barney executives. He says the experience taught him the importance of working as a team.

"I'm very goal-oriented, I am very committed and very passionate about accomplishing whatever the mission is," he said. "I had a tendency to worry more about the accomplishment or result than the process that it took to get it.

"Sometimes you don't manage relationships real well when you do that," he said.

As chief executive of Primerica, Mr. Plumeri seems to have found his calling. Since he took the job in 1994, Primerica's operating earnings grown about 65%, to $335 million in 1997.

More important, the company's effectiveness at selling other Travelers products has been virtually unmatched in financial services. This year, for example, Primerica agents sold 50% of the home equity loans made by Travelers' finance company subsidiary, Commercial Credit.

With its 100,000-plus independent sales agents who are paid commissions only, its revival-style meetings, and its trickle-down compensation structure, Primerica is often compared to Amway, a nationwide, door-to-door sales force that markets household products.

Like their Amway counterparts, Primerica agents are encouraged to recruit sales people, and they get a percentage of each sale by one of their recruits.

But instead of soap, kitchen appliances, or motivational tapes, Primerica peddles Roth IRAs, mutual funds, home equity loans, and insurance. Its pitch is financial stability for low- to moderate-income Americans-a group that, according to Primerica, has been chronically underserved.

The company's sales meetings have been compared to rock concerts, with Mr. Plumeri the star.

As a January First Call note from CIBC Oppenheimer put it, "We just returned from the annual sales conference of Primerica ... all charged up about PFS, term insurance, and financial planning for Middle America. There was a real danger that if we stayed any longer, we'd be selling term insurance instead of writing research."

Adds Oppenheimer analyst J. Paul Newsome, "He's worshipped by these people. If he said, 'Everyone drop and do 20 pushups,' you'd see 30,000 people drop and do 20 pushups."

The love affair is mutual. Mr. Plumeri credits the "everyday, wonderful people" of Primerica for his success. "They get up in the morning and just want to make themselves and their life and their family better, and I love them for that," he said.

But in his new post at the head of Citibank's retail branch and brokerage business, Mr. Plumeri will need to rely on more than his cult of personality to succeed. Though banks have embraced the concept of cross- sales, few have been able to execute it.

Mr. Plumeri has already gone to work, shepherding several pilot programs. One has Primerica agents peddling Citicorp checking accounts.

"Your personal financial analyst can come to your house, deliver your checks, do a personal financial analysis, and help you plan your financial life, which now includes the banking aspect," Mr. Plumeri said, his voice rising enthusiatically. "All of a sudden you've got bankers that are making house calls."

His competition, though, has its doubts about Mr. Plumeri's ability to apply Primerica's approach to Citibank. "It's a little Pollyanna-ish," said one insurance executive who asked not to be named. "You've got an MBA culture versus an entrepreneur culture."

Mr. Newsome of Oppenheimer said, "I'm sure he's going to come up against a lot of resistance at Citicorp. It's a bank; they've been doing the same thing for hundreds of years."

But according to Citigroup co-chairman John S. Reed, the time is ripe for a Joe Plumeri in the banking business. At a Consumer Bankers Association conference last month, Mr. Reed chided the industry for failing to understand consumers and to market to them effectively. Mr. Plumeri's Primerica is a vital part of Citigroup's sales strategy, he said.

"Primerica has literally hundreds of thousands of nonemployee salespeople," Mr. Reed said. "Nobody is going to dominate this business through product innovation-the answer is to run the sales channels really well."

Some observers agree.

"I would applaud creativity in the area of new approaches to selling bank products," said James McCormick, president of First Manhattan Consulting Group, New York.

"It's not like banks have this all figured out, and some interloper is going to come in and stumble around," Mr. McCormick added. "The smartest banks I know are saying, 'I've got a lot to learn.'"

Mr. Plumeri said he got into financial services by accident. Looking for a job while in law school, he knocked on the door of Carter, Berlind & Weill because he assumed the triple name meant it was a law firm.

When he discovered the firm was a brokerage, he signed on anyway and has been working with Citigroup co-CEO Sanford I. Weill ever since.

The story is indicative of the reputation Mr. Plumeri has earned on Wall Street. "My sense is that his life is about working very hard, about being willing to be the guy that just goes ahead and does it," Mr. Newsome said.

He also wins high praise from former colleagues.

"He's a great leader," said Dennis Mooradian, a former Lehman Brothers executive who now runs Wells Fargo & Co.'s retail brokerage. "He taught me a lot about managing. I use things today that I learned while reporting to him."

Mr. Plumeri is also "very politically astute," Mr. Mooradian added. "I'm sure he will do whatever is necessary to get (Citibank and Primerica) teams to cooperate."

Mr. Plumeri was enthusiastic about his meetings to date with Citicorp folk, whom he describes as "very committed."

"With any merger, you're supposed to take one and one and make it five," Mr. Plumeri said. "In my short time of looking at all the stuff that we can do, it can definitely be five ... it can even be six.

"The whole idea is to take all the things that are available to us in this great, new, magnificent thing called Citigroup and make sure we use them to each other's advantage," he said.

And he's determined to make sure he's a team player this time. "Life is not a one-man gang, not a one-person wrecking crew," he said. "It's not about being an island."

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