OppenheimerFunds Inc. is the latest mutual fund company to consolidate its distribution channels in a way some observers say more fund companies may adopt.

But some fund executives say Oppenheimer’s “dechannelizing” is an overly risky strategy that may not have much of an upside.

Fund companies with wide distribution networks have traditionally segmented their wholesaler groups into banking, brokerage, and financial planner channels, and have salespeople assigned to specific businesses. But on Jan. 1 the New York firm pulled its wholesaling efforts to banks, brokerages, and financial planners under one umbrella.

The company replaced its three-channel system with two divisions: a wholesaler division that addresses salespeople on the branch level and a key account division that deals with senior executives. The wholesalers are divided geographically into seven regions.

Elaine Puleo Carter, national director of strategic accounts, said Oppenheimer did this to help serve its clients and to reduce travel time for its salespeople.

Having one Oppenheimer representative call on an organization such as Citigroup Inc. — rather than assigning a particular account manager to call on each of its subsidiaries — simplifies the relationship between the fund company and its distributors, Ms. Carter said.

“It’s best for them to have one main person to call,” she said.

Phil Witkower, Oppenheimer’s director of relationship management, said the change allows the company to serve its clients more effectively. Large conglomerates such as Citigroup make product decisions for all its subsidiaries on an executive level, so it does not make sense to treat each subsidiary separately, he said.

“The question is not just ‘Can we sell you funds,’ “ he said. “The question is now, ‘Can we finds ways together to mutually help each other.’ “

A third group, headed by Mr. Witkower, has been created to work on alternative product development with large clients.

In remodeling its distribution network, the $120 billion-asset unit of MassMutual, a Springfield-based insurer, is following the examples of MFS Financial Services of Boston and Alliance Capital Management of New York, both of which consolidated distribution for their bank and financial adviser divisions last year.

The change seems to have borne fruit for Oppenheimer: Last month the company sold a record $1.65 billion of mutual funds, a 12% increase from the year before, Ms. Carter said. The company did not make bank sales numbers available.

Bruce Greenwald, a mutual fund consultant in Philadelphia, said that the decision by funds companies to consolidate their wholesaling operations, rather than maintain separate wholesale divisions for each channel, can be a cost saver as well as a more efficient method to administer sales.

Many investment product providers have consolidated their mutual fund and variable annuity sales forces, Mr. Greenwald said. In addition, the dearth of qualified salespeople available today might lead other fund companies to consolidate their sales forces, he said.

However, a mutual fund executive who asked not to be named said that adding banks to the route of a wholesaler who has traditionally called upon wirehouses risks alienating the banker.

“Some bankers feel they’ve been slighted” by one fund company that has consolidated its distribution channels, the executive said. The bankers had built a relationship with a dedicated wholesaler, but now have to build one with a new wholesaler who may already give other clients higher priority, he said.

Mr. Witkower said that managing this change in distribution requires caution, but Oppenheimer made sure its salespeople maintained their relationships with their clients so as not to alienate them.

No one was fired in the consolidation. Ms. Carter — formerly head of the bank channel — is now in charge of key accounts and expects to add six more salespeople to the 21 she currently manages. She reports to Mr. Witkower.

The change became official Jan 1, but the company is still looking to fill positions, including a head for the wholesaling division.

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