It wasn't the kind of welcome Richard L. Huber had hoped for.

Less than two weeks after he was tapped to lead Aetna, the giant insurer's stock plunged 12% on fears that the Hartford, Conn.-based company's expenses were rising faster than its premium income. But Mr. Huber is up to the challenge of turning things around at Aetna, experts said. After all, he's a former banker.

Increasingly, insurance companies are putting former bank executives in charge. And just as rapidly, banks are turning to insurance executives to lead their efforts to sell insurance.

Just ask Glen Milesko, a one-time executive at Meridien Insurance Co.

Tapped by Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp. to lead its foray into insurance, Mr. Milesko staffed up with two of his three Meridien lieutenants. And Banc One Insurance Services Group is humming along, posting sales of nearly $1 billion last year.

Such cross-migration, unheard of a few years ago, is now routine. And that reflects the continuing convergence of the financial services industries.

"It's pretty rapid right now," said Paul Werlin, president of Human Capital Resources, an executive recruiting firm in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Certainly I don't look for any slowdown."

The reason banks are reaching out to insurance executives is clear-they are setting up insurance agencies and want experienced leadership. Insurers are looking for leadership, too, but their quest is a matter of survival, not just growth.

Insurance companies have failed to develop significant new distribution channels even as diversified financial services companies like Merrill Lynch & Co. and Fidelity Investments have started winning business from the lucrative baby boom market.

"It gets old real, real fast if you are in an insurance company planning next year's budget on a decreased revenue stream," said Roger E. Dunker, who left his perch atop Life Partners insurance company to head KeyCorp's insurance business.

To remain viable, insurance companies must cut prices, slim down, and find new ways of selling their products outside the traditional agent system, analysts said.

But the insurance industry just does not have the kind of talent needed to turn itself around, said Emanuel Monogenis, managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles Consultants.

"When you place a slide rule on the insurance industry, you cannot find good executives, particularly top executives," said Mr. Monogenis.

"Better banks have demonstrated over the last few years an effectiveness in cost management and effective use of distribution and marketing," he said. "And many major banks have experience with consolidation. All of these are pressing issues in the insurance industry."

Indeed, former bank executives guiding insurance companies through their current period of change are battle-hardened from having led banks through similar changes a decade ago.

Those changes included consolidation, cost-cutting, and the introduction of new business lines such as brokerage.

"These mutual companies are like the thrifts of the early 1980s," said Charles Wendell, a consultant at Financial Institutions Consulting in New York. "They have been highly regulated. But things are changing-the competitive dynamics are so different now, and their customers are getting smarter. Bankers who have been managers have dealt with these issues years ahead of time."

Mr. Huber, in fact, is considered a turnaround expert. A former vice chairman at Chicago-based Continental Bank Corp., he helped position the troubled company for its sale in 1995 to BankAmerica Corp.

Meanwhile, other insurance companies have been rocked by scandal. Prudential Insurance Co. of America, for example, is only beginning to emerge from its legal woes. It recently settled with policyholders after persistently battling their lawsuit alleging that its sales force had used improper sales tactics.

Arthur Ryan, former president and chief operating officer of Chase Manhattan Corp., joined Prudential as its chairman and chief executive officer in 1994, "just when the Rock was being chiseled away," said Mr. Wendell.

Mr. Ryan "had the opportunity to create stability and take the company in a new direction," Mr. Wendell said. "He went in there with a clean slate and helped stabilize the situation."

Others say that the convergence of financial services businesses has made executives' background less important than their talent.

Mr. Huber is a case in point, said Mr. Monogenis.

"Huber is a natural athlete who in the past has managed distribution, costs, and technology," said Mr. Monogenis. "Those are big issues at Aetna."

So why do the executives change industries?

"I got to the point where I had been doing the same things for a while," said Judith E. Campbell, chief information officer at New York Life Insurance Co. "It was a new challenge. Something new and interesting."

Ms. Campbell joined New York Life in June after 17 years in banking, most recently as senior vice president of deposit products at PNC Bank Corp., Pittsburgh. She is now responsible for making the technological changes that will support the mutual company's sales of life and annuity products to the mass market.

"I think now there is a sense of urgency in insurance companies that they have to get to market quickly," she said.

Money also helps lure executives to new industries. Mr. Dunker said he figured the stock options available at KeyCorp into his decision to join.

The cross-migration, of course, is a big cultural change. All of a sudden, insurance executives are strolling down the hallways of banks, and vice versa.

Banks, at least, have experience dealing with outsiders. In the mid- 1980s, they started to get serious about offering brokerage services and brought talent aboard from mutual funds and brokerage companies for their broker-dealer operations.

The jury is still out on the brokerages' bottom line. But many people feel cultural differences between bankers and brokers have been a significant obstacle to success. And culture clash should be a big concern as leaders from the insurance and banking industries cross-migrate, industry watchers said.

Publicly traded banks face market pressures unknown to the many insurance companies that are owned by their policyholders.

Performance and efficiency are a key focus of banks and have been for decades. But the mutual company structure allows insurance executives to take a longer-term view of their business than the quarter-to-quarter focus of executives in publicly held companies.

"Mutuals don't have the same accountability" to Wall Street, explained Joel Alvord, retired chairman of Fleet Financial Group Inc. "The culture, therefore, is much different." He now runs a financial services venture capital fund that invests in insurance companies.

Valerie Jordan, an insurance consultant in Belchertown, Mass., said that banks selling insurance must develop deeper relationships with clients.

"Banks need to move from a transactional culture to more of a needs- analysis culture," she said. "They need to be able to explore all the background of the individual and do more financial planning and consulting."

Mr. Milesko, who started Banc One's insurance business seven years ago, got around the culture problem by integrating his executive committee. It includes a credit card banker, a certified public accountant, and a former insurer-Alan M. Harrington, who was previously a senior vice president of Time Insurance Co.

"I tried to underpin myself with some key bank people," said Mr. Milesko. "Insurance experts must mix with retail bank operations."

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