Fortis Financial Group is assembling a special team to tackle the bank market.

The St. Paul-based mutual fund and annuity marketer announced earlier this month that it is creating a separate sales force aimed at building its business through banks.

This year, sales through financial institutions are expected to reach $120 million to $125 million, up from $110 million in 1992. Banks currently account for between 20% and 25% of total sales.

"That gives us a good base to work off of But I think there's a lot more potential there," said Kyle Selberg, the newly named vice president and national sales manager for financial institution distribution.

Mr. Selberg was previously the national marketing manager at Fortis.

Roster of Big Names

Financial institutions are not virgin territory for Fortis, though. Its client roster already includes names from the financial field such as Norwest Corp., First Bank System Inc., Firstier Bank, First Colonial, Collateral Financial Services, and Invest Financial Corp.

In the past, 10 wholesalers and 10 inside telemarketers from the broker-dealer serviced bank customers. While Fortis will continue to rely on this unit to service clients nationally, it is adding dedicated representatives to serve the financial community.

Fortis has decided to provide more focused service and support to this growing market because "we see value in catering to it specifically," Mr. Selberg said.

Sales Expected to Rise

Furthermore, said company spokesman Daniel Spiller, "60% of our broker-dealer sales were already coming from financial institutions, and it was really bogging them down."

By this time next year, the company expects 30% of its sales to come through financial institutions. Now, 40% of Fortis' business comes from financial planners and insurance agents, and Mr. Selberg expects these channels to remain strong.

The company is pouring an initial $1 million this year into staffing the new division and marketing its services. "We're now moving to provide financial institutions with a dedicated team that can provide specialty marketing assistance," Mr. Selberg said.

He plans to hire two wholesalers and one or two inside sales-people by January. A third wholesaler and more telemarketers should be on board by March. This staff will gear its sales pitch to banks.

Conservative Clientele

"Financial institutions have an audience that may not be as familiar with risk," he said. "We've got unique products and services catering to conservative bank customers."

Fortis' product mix consists of 13 mutual funds, two variable annuities, and two variable universal life products. "The niche we have is that we provide the Fortis money management service under three different wrappers," Mr. Selberg said.

The company is also developing a simplified variable universal life product specifically for banks.

Private Labels

Fortis already provides private labeled products to banks, and more deals to offer funds under banks' own names are in the works.

In its drive to penetrate the bank market, Fortis plans to take on big-name firms that already have established bank distribution units. "Our competition will be Putnam, Massachusetts Financial Services, and Oppenheimer," Mr. Selberg said.

While competitors may think Fortis, which manages $3 billion in assets, is tilting at windmills, the firm has the backing of its parent companies, NV AMEV, Utrecht, the Netherlands, and AG Group, Brussels.

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