Ten months after scuttling its full-bore insurance operation, Fleet Financial Group has been quietly reassessing its approach to this business.
In October the Boston banking company stunned the bank insurance world when it pulled the plug on a two-year-old program being built by insurance veteran Robert Evans.
Fleet dropped nine underwriter partners and kept just two - Travelers Life and Annuity, Hartford, Conn., for term life insurance and Lincoln National Corp. for disability products. With the insurance program's remnants placed under the retail bank's control, executives at the $100.7 billion-asset company fell back to reconsider their options.
"I think some tactical errors were made in our approach to the business," said L. Peter Sheehan, senior vice president and director of Fleet's investment and insurance programs, during a recent interview. "We are focusing on revising our strategies."
Today, Fleet is taking a minimalist approach to the insurance business. The goal is to avoid amassing overhead until it is proven the bank can generate substantial insurance sales, Mr. Sheehan said. Fleet has developed a relationship with Hartford Financial Services to sell automobile insurance and continues to sell insurance underwritten by Travelers and Lincoln National.
Nevertheless, Fleet's current efforts have not silenced industry critics who assailed the company when it cut back on its insurance commitment last year.
Valerie Jordan, president of Jordan & Jordan, a Belchertown, Mass., consulting firm, said the bank did not have the patience to wait for its program to become profitable and is now "crippling along" without a plan.
"When the program went back to just Travelers after closing the call center at Fleet, it was as if they were starting the program over," Ms. Jordan said.
Now the bank is trying to sell term insurance as a commodity, which will never succeed financially, she said.
"If you want to do a good job, you've got to make (many products) available and not just think term products," she said. "Fleet is looking for a quick return on their dollar, and insurance is not a quick-fix product." Fleet will not discuss its insurance sales except to say that they have dropped since the reorganization.
Mr. Sheehan said the program has relied on periodic statement stuffers and haphazard branch referrals to generate sales leads.
"We're trying to improve the quality of branch referrals," he said.
To do that, the bank is identifying branch employees for insurance and investment sales, he said. "We're educating our employees to know who is a good prospect."
"Far from walking away from this business, we're looking to increase core competencies of all our employees for the branch and beyond," he said. Mr. Sheehan said the company has continued to promote Travelers' term products since the reorganization.
A recent Fleet flier asked, "How much is enough?" With life insurance, the mailer suggested, the rule of thumb is coverage equaling five to seven times one's annual salary. It invites customers to call an "800" number for a free quote.
While that mailer has been sent regularly since operations were scaled back, Fleet will soon pitch a new, simplified term product from Travelers called "EasyCare."
Barry Jacobson, a senior vice president at Travelers Life and Annuity, explained that the product will typically have a two- to three-day turnaround for 65% to 70% of the customers.
The remaining customers, who have serious health problems like cancer, will experience longer waits for further inquiry, he said.
Mr. Jacobson said the combination of technology and phone sales is unique. He said he does not know any other product that lets underwriting decisions be made over the phone. No medical examinations are required for up to $100,000 in coverage. A saliva test is required for customers buying up to $300,000 coverage. That takes 10 days to 14 days.
For the $100,000 policies and under, underwriting speed is impressive, Ms. Jordan said. But it is still term insurance, she added.
Fleet's decision to use Travelers for term insurance came before the announcement of the insurer's merger with Citicorp, a bank rival. Still, Mr. Sheehan said he does not expect the deal to pose any competitive problem.
Though Fleet's insurance moves have generated some negative media coverage, Mr. Sheehan said, he does not believe they have turned customers against Fleet's ongoing insurance sales. "I'm not aware of any deep-seated problem," he said.