Yet another insurance company, Ohio Farmers Insurance Co., is setting itself up in banking.

On Feb. 20, just two months after receiving a charter from the Office of Thrift Supervision, the $1.9 billion-asset company opened what is expected to be the sole branch of its Westfield Bank, next to corporate headquarters in Westfield Center, Ohio.

But the opening was almost incidental to Ohio Farmers' strategy. The new thrift is counting on its Internet banking site, planned to go live this week, and even more on referrals from insurance agents.

Jon Park, the thrift's president, said it is responding to the growing presence of banks in the insurance business. "Banks have been entering insurance at a pretty rapid clip, and they're calling on insurance company customers," he said.

The thrift wants its agents to provide referrals for a host of banking products for commercial and individual clients. Those now available are: checking, savings, and money market accounts; CDs and IRAs; consumer loans, mortgages, and home equity loans; and business loans, revolving lines of credit, and commercial real estate loans.

Like other insurers with new thrifts, Ohio Farmers Insurance - which has started identifying itself by the service mark Westfield Group - plans to use the thrift's Internet capabilities to maximize distribution.

Its 12,000 independent agents, who do business in 19 states, will make referrals to loan officers employed by the thrift.

The Internet banking site will let customers view balances, conduct transactions, and pay bills. A planned string of loan centers will also make it easy for companies and individuals to apply for loans and get financing, Mr. Park said.

The thrift plans to have a 72-hour response time on many commercial loan applications, and will offer account access through ATMs, over the phone, and on its Web site.

The thrift intends to add securities brokerage and equipment leasing sometime in the future - when has not been decided, Mr. Park said.

The use of technology gives Westfield Bank "the ability to be more responsive and make decisions faster" than traditional banks with branches, he said.

In addition to its one branch office, the thrift plans to open eight loan production offices during its first three years of operation.

Westfield's insurance agents will not get extensive training on the bank products, Mr. Park said, because he feels it is not needed. Instead, the agents will focus on sales techniques and identifying prospects for referral, he said.

Mr. Park said the thrift has set a goal of selling about $25 million in personal and business loans in the first year and $50 million in the second year. How many customers that represents will depend on the mix of personal versus business customers the thrift attracts, he said.

Initially, the thrift will do business in northwestern Ohio - in the Cleveland, Ohio, and Akron markets and the adjoining counties, Mr. Park said. "We will probably stay in Ohio in the first year, and in years two or three go into states adjoining Ohio." How Westfield does in Ohio will determine how fast it expands elsewhere, he said.

Forming a thrift puts Westfield "on a little bit more of an even footing with banks," said Valerie Jordan, president of the consulting firm Jordan & Jordan Associates in Belchertown, Mass. However, for the venture to succeed "it has to match with the insurer's philosophy on how they want to do their business."

Ms. Jordan said that to compete with banks, insurers forming thrifts need to provide the products their customer base is looking for, use technology well, and capitalize on the relationships their agents have with customers.

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