Eaton Vance Corp. has ridden its signature niche mutual funds to growth in sales at banks over the past year, its bank distribution chief said.

Sales have more than doubled to about $125,000 per month, said William M. Gillen, senior vice president with the Boston-based fund company. That works out to $1.5 billion a year.

Mr. Gillen said the trend shows that Eaton Vance is shaking its reputation as a bond-fund-only company.

"It really is an image battle, as opposed to reality," he said. Over the years, bank sales have brought in almost 25% of the fund company's $24 billion of assets under management, he said.

Equity-fund assets increased by 73% in the fiscal year ended Oct. 31, and they account for 24% of assets under management and about 45% of sales.

Driving the growth has been the company's Tax-Managed Growth Fund, Mr. Gillen said.

Tax-managed funds minimize taxes by holding stocks for long periods to avoid punishing short-term capital gains taxes. Eaton Vance's fund sells losing stocks at yearend, allowing investors to write off the losses against gains made by winning stocks. And the fund focuses on lower- yielding securities, since dividends are heavily taxed.

In another bid to broaden its equity business, Eaton Vance is introducing the Advisers Senior Floating-Rate Fund, a no-load fund that invests in bank loans and is sold through advisers, including banks.

The fund should be available through wrap programs at banks by the beginning of next week, Mr. Gillen said.

An executive at a competing fund company said Eaton Vance should be able to continue building a presence in banks with its niche equity products, just as it has in the past with niche bond funds such as single-state municipal portfolios.

"They've been a great niche player," the executive said. "I absolutely think they can find a niche for themselves in these tax-efficient products."

Eaton Vance executives hope the fact that the company was No. 1 in the Barron's mutual fund rankings this year will help its sales improve even more.

The increased sales come mainly from increasing sales volume with existing bank partners, rather than increasing the number of banks the company does business with.

Because of bank mergers the number of institutions where Eaton Vance is a "preferred provider" has held steady at 100 over the past couple of years even though the fund company has signed up more banks.

The fund company is trying to persuade NationsBank Corp., which bought Barnett Banks Inc. last year, to include Eaton Vance products on its combined fund roster. Eaton Vance had been on Barnett's list but not NationsBank's.

Acquiring banks often dump the acquired's fund provider list and replace it with their own, but not always. A seller through BayBanks Inc., Eaton Vance was kept on the list when BankBoston Corp. acquired BayBanks two years ago.

The fund company has also lost banks because of mergers.

"Consolidation can be a wonderful thing if you come in on the right side of the equation, and can be fairly painful if you're on the outside looking in," Mr. Gillen said.

Mr. Gillen took over as head of distribution through banks and financial planners in January 1997 after his predecessor, Brian Jacobs, left the company to become a managing director of Bear, Stearns & Co.'s mutual fund family.

Mr. Jacobs' departure from Eaton Vance turned out to be temporary: He returned in less than a month.

"Suffice it to say it wasn't a good fit," Mr. Jacobs said in an interview this week.

He is national sales director for wire houses and retail brokerages. Mr. Jacobs said sales through brokerages had doubled over the last year, but he declined to give sales figures.

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