First Union Corp. has purchased Professional Direct Agency, an online insurance agency, for $4.35 million in cash in order to move into e-insurance.

"We can distribute insurance products in the branch, but that's not where all customers want to buy them," said David de Gorter, president of First Union Insurance Group.

Professional Direct of Columbus, Ohio, runs the Web site, which offers private-label products to financial services companies, traditional agents, and other businesses that want to offer insurance services on their sites.

The nationally licensed agency will continue to supply private-label insurance services, Mr. de Gorter said. First Union also has "a very aggressive schedule to integrate the Pivot delivery system for insurance into the First Union home page and Web site," he said.

First Union has sold more than $1 billion of annuity products this year through its branches, which also offer life insurance, Mr. de Gorter said. The purchase means that the bank can now offer life, health, and annuities products over the Web, he said. Professional Direct plans to add auto and homeowners policies in the next quarter.

The bank bought Professional Direct from, a North Palm Beach, Fla., company that runs, the online version of Bank Rate Monitor.

"Basically we determined that we had stretched ourselves a little too thin in certain business lines," said Bob DeFranco, vice president, finance, at, which has also recently divested CPNet, a college newspaper site, and, a Spanish language site.

"We're essentially pulling back to our core competency," he said. "Our business going forward will all leverage off"

The deal "certainly fits in with [First Union's] overall strategy," said Carmen Effron, president of C.F. Effron Co., a Westport, Conn., consulting firm. It gives First Union two advantages, she said. It looks good as an investment because more consumers are looking to the Web for financial services, and it lets the company sell, and control the delivery of, insurance services on its site without dealing with an outside company.

David Florian and Lou Hensley, who founded Professional Direct two years ago, will remain its co-presidents.

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