Allstate Corp. is training hundreds of its insurance agents to sell mutual funds, variable annuities, and variable universal life products.

About 1,500 of the Northbrook, Ill., company's 13,000 agents have been trained, said Allstate spokeswoman Sharon Cooper.

"A lot of people are thinking about retirement, and if we're going to meet those demands, our agents and life specialists are going to have to understand the products and be able to sell them," Ms. Cooper said.

The growing list of insurance companies that are treading on bank turf includes State Farm Insurance Cos. of Bloomington, Ill., which is training 16,000 agents to sell home equity loans, auto loans, and auto leases.

About 1,000 State Farm agents in Illinois and 432 in Missouri have completed the program, which is also under way in Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Allstate's program prepares agents for National Association of Securities Dealers licensing exams. The licenses permit Allstate representatives to sell an array of mutual funds, from Fidelity to Oppenheimer.

"For existing agents, it's their choice. But once they see how much it helps business, we believe they'll decide to do it," Ms. Cooper said. All new agents are required to complete the training program and pass the NASD exam within a year.

Ms. Cooper could not give sales projections. "It's going to be a while before we can track this," she said. "It's early in the game, although we expect to make a big dent by the end of 2000."

James Overholt, senior consultant and manager of financial services programs at Milliman & Robertson Inc. of Chicago, said Allstate is on the right track.

"You have to diversify, and while people aren't going to flock to their Allstate agent to buy mutual funds, they might in time," he said. "People didn't flock to banks when they started offering mutual funds either."

He added, however, that Allstate should have taken this track sooner.

"They held on to their old model for a long time, so it's about time," he said. "It's put them at a competitive disadvantage."

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