Commercial Union Life Insurance Co. of America, which had taken a passive approach to selling annuities through banks for nearly a decade, is getting serious.

The Boston-based insurance underwriter has hired its first marketing executive to actively hawk annuities and life insurance products through banks, said James Madden, the company's president.

A subsidiary of Commercial Union Insurance Cos., London, the U.S. unit is aiming for banks to generate 20% of total sales in two years, Mr. Madden said.

The company hired Gary W. Warden in June as vice president for financial institution marketing. Mr. Warden, 45, had held a similar position for two years at Banner Life Insurance Co. in Rockville, Md.

Mr. Warden's plan is to get exclusive or priority sales arrangements with five banks that each have between $5 billion and $10 billion in assets. His mission is to get these companies each generating annually $100 million in annuity sales, and $10 million in life insurance sales.

Commercial Union was prompted to act by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in March that lifted some restrictions on bank insurance sales, he said. Since 1987 the company has made fixed annuities available to about 120 banks, but sales were nominal.

"We just sat here," Mr. Madden said. "We prided ourselves on being the best-kept secret in the industry."

Several third-party marketing firms had solicited the company for its products, and the closest the company had to a marketing executive was an ombudsman.

The company's new emphasis has already found some success, Mr. Madden said. He will announce soon that Commercial Union is among five insurers to enter a selling agreement with a large New York bank.

"Our goal is to try to identify banks that are big enough to have a financial impact, but not so big that it takes the elephant two years to stand," Mr. Warden said.

The strategy involves customizing products and marketing programs for various bank departments, including bank brokerage units, trust departments and lending officers.

Some bigger-name insurers have clashed with banks over which company gets top billing on marketing materials, but Mr. Madden insists his company will remain in the shadows.

"When we look in the mirror we don't always have to see ourselves," Mr. Madden said.

But getting those relationships may prove difficult for the $2 billion- asset company. "Commercial Union does not have a name that will resonate with consumers like an Aetna Life and Casualty Co. or a Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.," said Andrew Singer, a managing director at Bank Insurance Marketing Research Group in Mamaronek, N.Y.

That's not stopping Mr. Warden from hustling. Mr. Warden spent the late 1960s and early 197Os trying to break into the West Coast music scene as a guitarist and vocalist in several rock-and-roll and country- western bands.

"You can't lead a normal life, and you get old fast" he said.

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