While many banks are looking to expand their insurance programs, Fleet Financial Group is shuttering its two-year-old insurance unit and integrating insurance sales into retail bank operations.
The decision to close the insurance operation by yearend-a move that will send insurance chief Robert Evans packing-is part of a major overhaul of Fleet's insurance sales strategy that has been under way for months.
In another unusual development, the bank also announced this week that next month it will end its relationship with nine life insurance carriers so it can work with just one-Travelers Group.
As part of that shift, the bank is axing its 50 telephone-based life insurance agents in Worcester, Mass., and will rely on Travelers to sell term life and long-term care policies.
Mr. Evans said that all the moves announced this week are part of a strategy to "streamline operations and cut overhead." The 10 people on his administrative staff will also lose their jobs.
"The object all along was figuring out how to build programs that would be integrated within the bank so that the start-up unit, of which I am a part, can be eliminated," he said.
Fleet's plans run counter to a trend among major banks to expand their presence and product offerings in insurance.
"Most banks are not going in the direction that Fleet has gone," said Kenneth Kehrer, a Princeton, N.J.-based bank insurance consultant.
Under Fleet's new strategy, the sale of life, homeowners, and automobile insurance would be overseen by Anne Slattery, a senior vice president in charge of retail banking.
Observers said Fleet is taking a gamble by closing down its insurance unit only two years after Mr. Evans, a former Travelers executive, launched it.
"I'm surprised," Mr. Kehrer said. "I would have thought that there was more for a senior insurance professional to do before the program was ready to be handed over to the bank."
Jack D. Cussen, the senior vice president of the financial services group at Summit Bancorp, Hackensack, N.J., also challenged Fleet's decision to turn over insurance responsibilities to the retail bank.
"The retail bank won't understand what insurance is all about," he said. "I'm not in favor of additional bureaucracy, but I think that insurance is still a business that requires some expertise and knowledge."
He added that most retail bankers will be disinclined to push a product that it is harder to sell than the average bank product.
Fleet is also moving against the banking grain by using only one company to underwrite its life insurance. In turning to the Travelers, Fleet is ending relationships with companies including William Penn Life, First Colony, CNA Financial Corp., and John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co.
Fleet also uses one company, the Hartford, to underwrite and market automobile insurance. And Cigna Financial Advisors is the one firm the bank has turned to to offer estate planning services to its customers.
Most big banks, including Chase Manhattan Corp., Banc One Corp., and NationsBank Corp., prefer to give their customers a variety of underwriting options.
Mr. Evans argued that using a single carrier can work if it is a respected company and has a broad base of products and services.
"Travelers, for example, offers competitive prices and a good customer value. And we think that customers will get good advice from the licensed agents."