John A. Addison Jr., and D. Richard Williams, the co-chief executives of Primerica Financial Services, think European and Japanese investors are ready for their brand of services.
This fall the Citigroup Inc. unit will take an investment program heavy on mutual funds, annuities, and life insurance - one that has successfully targeted middle-income investors in its home market - to Europe and Japan.
In seeking to export its across-the-kitchen-table approach to sales, Atlanta-based Primerica puts itself in direct competition with local banking and insurance companies - outfits that almost certainly have better knowledge of client tastes. But Mr. Addison and Mr. Williams say they are ready for the challenge.
"Overseas markets are ripe for our business model," Mr. Williams said. "Their financial markets look much like ours did 20 years ago."
According to Cerulli Associates, Boston, Europeans have an estimated $20 trillion in household savings, while Japanese savers may have up to $11 trillion.
The executives have big ambitions for their international model. Within five years they expect it to account for half of Primerica's product sales.
When it takes its act on the road, Primerica will not directly leverage Citigroup's global network, which includes a large presence in the United Kingdom and continental Europe, where Citigroup has 444 branches. They target people with more net worth than does Primerica, whose services are designed for people who make $30,000 to $70,000 a year. Primerica says it will open its own branch network in Europe, 10 branches in the first six months. The company anticipates hiring up to 50,000 financial advisors within five years, Mr. Addison said.
But other aspects of the expansion plan have a decidedly Citigroup feel.
For one thing, the strategy is supported by top Citigroup brass, who see international growth as a company goal. Primerica will continue to push the full range of product offerings available through the Citigroup family, as it has in the United States.
And Citigroup's top talent will also play a role. A Citigroup executive will manage Primerica's Madrid office. In Dublin, Primerica will distribute life insurance products manufactured by a Travelers Group unit. And a Citigroup executive will lead Primerica's call-center operations in Barcelona.
"We will focus on building a sales force and Citigroup will focus on administration and building products," Mr. Williams said.
To create a sales force, the company will pluck people from Primerica's ranks and relocate them. Spanish-speaking sales representatives from the United States have already agreed to go to Madrid, and Asian-American salespeople are similarly lined up for Japan, Mr. Williams said.
Still, Primerica may not have an easy go of it. While widely anticipated to be the next boom market for American-style retail investing, the European community has not yet seen its mutual fund market take off, said Hugh Pye, an analyst who covers the European financial markets for Robert Fleming Inc., London.
Most people in Europe still put their excess cash in banks and credit societies, Mr. Pye said. "The mutual fund culture is less developed."
But the opportunity is there. Increasingly, European employers are switching from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans that include mutual funds, said Evangelos Kavouriadis, who follows European banking for Sanford C. Bernstein.
This development is expected to go a long way toward familiarizing people with mutual funds, acting as a gateway to further individual investment, Mr. Kavouriadis said.
According to Primerica's chief executives, the company is in the process of identifying the nuances of local investment habits on a country-by-country basis, and will design products to match those interests.
For instance, in Spain, mortgages are typically of much shorter duration than in the U.S. In Germany, the social service system provides a basic death benefit, so life insurance products will be pitched as "supplemental," Mr. Williams said.
The program's two architects bring different backgrounds and interests to bear on Primerica's overseas challenge. Mr. Addison, 42, is a self-professed country boy who spends his spare time trolling for trout at his 43-acre farm. Mr. Williams, 43, is a seasoned numbers-cruncher who kicks back to the sounds of jazz. But both share what they call "the Primerica vision" - to provide financial services and products to middle-income America.
"Middle-income families have very little access to financial advice," Mr. Addison said. "We want to sit down with them and show them how to become financially independent."
Each executive has spent more than 10 years with Primerica and its predecessor companies. The executives were named co-chief executives under chairman Joseph Plumeri in September. With Mr. Plumeri's resignation from Citigroup in December, the executives retained their titles, but now report to his successor, Marge Magner.
The international push is hardly because growth has tapped out in the U.S., the executives said.
The recent push by tax preparation specialist H&R Block Inc. to reinvent itself as a financial services company for regular folks indicates that there's still a market here.
"We don't want to get so wrapped up with going international that we lose our focus here," Mr. Addison said.
American operations remain the core source of revenue, where there are plenty of consumers that fit the Primerica profile. The target is 35-45 years old, with an average income of $30,000 to $70,000, two car payments, and an overload of debt, Mr. Williams said.
Last year, Primerica chalked up some impressive sales numbers. The company sold $56.2 billion in life insurance policies, $3.1 billion in mutual funds, $990 million in variable annuities, and made $1.9 billion of debt consolidation loans, according to figures provided by the company.
Primerica's offerings capitalize on Citigroup's deep product bench. Insurance and variable annuities come from Travelers Group, mutual funds are from SSB Citi Asset Management, and consolidated loans are from Travelers Bank and Trust.
Primerica keeps the door open to adding other Citigroup products. "We are such a large distribution system, we are always looking for new product opportunities," Mr. Williams said.
To step up product sales, Primerica is in the midst of a push to add more financial planners. It already has 100,000, but most operate on a part-time basis. Now Primerica is looking for full-time employees who will commit to making investment product sales their career.
"We believe there is a huge recruiting and building opportunity for us to expand by opening more outlets," Mr. Addison said.
The incentive for such a commitment can be generous. Primerica's top sales representative makes $3.5 million a year. While that is not a typical payout, full-time sales representatives can expect to do well, making on average over $90,000 a year, Mr. Addison said.
"This is free enterprise at its best," he said. "They work as independent contractors and see the rewards."
Primerica positions itself as an educator, showing people the need to invest. Last year, it drew up 500,000 financial plans that considered how customers could allocate their assets based on their risk tolerances.
"It's amazing how little middle America understands their credit picture," Mr. Williams said. "We help them understand how their money comes in and where it goes."
Customers are shown that investing for the long term can be relatively painless. "Our concepts and products are very simple," Mr. Addison said. "We believe the secret to getting wealthy is hard work and consistent investing."
Primerica is well positioned to take advantage of consumers' growing propensity to save, one industry observer said. "It's a good approach, giving customers a service that has value," said Sandy Katzler, a consumer services analyst with Standard & Poor's Corp.
But she warned that times are changing and many people are going high-tech to take care of their financial needs.
"People are very educated these days and they are increasingly turning to the Internet," she said.
While the Internet will not replace operations like Primerica, it will become a competitor for their clients' attention, Ms. Katzler said.
Mr. Addison said that Primerica feels strongly that most people will still want a sit- down, face-to-face meeting with their financial planners. "The way you'll get people to invest is to go into their homes and work on a plan with them," he said. "We do that like nobody else."