Just as banks were getting used to having mutual fund business drop in their laps, they're suddenly having to get up and run after it.
After several years of brisk demand for mutual funds at banks, sales have died down dramatically. The key reasons are that volatile markets and rising interest rates have made mutual funds less attractive, particularly to the novice investors that banks typically draw.
"When things are running well and there's plenty of business coming in, you can make a lot of mistakes and still be successful. It's much tougher now," said A. Stewart Rose, a former Fidelity Investments executive who runs a consulting firm in Duxbury, Mass.
"Banks still have a huge market," Mr. Rose added. "It's just that they have to change the way they play the game."
And, it appears, banks are beginning to do just that. In hopes of rekindling customer interest in mutual funds, they are trying out aggressive sales techniques, including television commercials, mass mailings, and sophisticated data gathering.
Fleet Financial Group, for instance, has made training and repeat sales the centerpieces of its plan to counter a big slide in sales of the Galaxy Funds.
Sales representatives are now required to spend time training branch personnel, while senior fund executives work with regional and area managers to familiarize them with the Galaxy Funds, according to Thomas Munsell, managing director of Fleet Investment Services.
Fleet is also combing through data on existing customers to spot gaps in their investment portfolios, Mr. Munsell said.
In addition to ferreting out additional sales opportunities, banks will have to supply top-notch support if they hope to compete with giant fund firms that are well entrenched, one consultant said.
"Traditional fund companies have done a better job of packaging their products and supporting them," said Geoffrey Bobroff, head of an East Greenwich, R.I., consulting firm that bears his name.
These fund organizations excel at providing promotional materials, back- office services, and wholesalers to support sales representatives, Mr. Bobroff said.
Executives at Keycorp agree, and readily admit they have modeled their retail fund program after those at mainstream companies.
The Cleveland banking company blankets its branches with a team of wholesalers, uses glossy marketing materials and regular mailings, and has devised a formidable shareholder servicing unit, said Christopher Maxwell, executive vice president in charge of Keycorp's Victory Funds.
"We've taken each of the variables other successful fund companies have taken and tried to meet or exceed them," Mr. Maxwell said.
First Commerce Corp. doesn't have nearly as big a budget as a large fund company, but this hasn't stopped the $6.3 billion-asset company from keeping a high profile in its Louisiana market.
Most recently the New Orleans company mixed humor and financial information to tout its Marquis Funds on television.
The spots features newlyweds on a porch swing, with the groom asking, "Why did I buy Marquis mutual funds from First Commerce?"
"Because her father told me to," he says, pointing to a scowling man standing behind him.
"We don't have the staff of a Fidelity, but we understand the importance of getting our name out there," said Dan Phillips, a vice president overseeing sales of the Marquis Funds.