John Hancock Funds Inc. is reorganizing its wholesale force to shore up slipping mutual fund sales.

The Boston-based fund company, which manages 32 funds, with $32 billion of assets, will combine sales coverage for wire houses and financial planners into one group to cut down on expenses, said Keith Hartstein, senior vice president of national sales. The move will create a 28-member wholesaler group, he said.

Previously, John Hancock had 17 wholesalers covering wire houses and 13 to cover financial planners, Mr. Hartstein said. Two wholesalers were hired by competitors last month, he said, and John Hancock has no immediate plans to fill those positions. The bank channel, which has 10 field wholesalers, will not be affected by these changes, he added.

Sales projections for the year are not rosy, with overall sales expected to be off by as much as 35% from 1998. Sales through wire houses, however, could drop by as much as 60%, partly because of poor performance by John Hancock's regional bank and financial industries portfolios, Mr. Hartstein said.

The regional bank portfolio, which had $1.44 billion of outflows in September, has had net redemptions since the first quarter of last year, according to Financial Research Corp., Boston.

The financial industries fund had outflows of $682 million in September, compared with $1.73 billion of inflows a year earlier.

The two funds, which made $2.3 billion in sales through wire houses last year, are expected to bring in roughly $600 million of sales this year, Mr. Hartstein estimated.

However, Mr. Hartstein said he expects investors' appetite for the funds to increase - particularly given the financial services reform bill that President Clinton signed into law this month.

John Hancock has also reduced the size of the regions that its wholesalers cover, which allows for better company coverage and potentially greater sales. Massachusetts Financial Services of Boston and Franklin Templeton Group of San Mateo, Calif., also have reduced the territories of their wholesalers.

A. Stewart Rose, president of Winthrop Financial Marketing of Bridgeport, Conn., said John Hancock's move to combine sales forces makes sense given that the industry is shifting to a financial planning model for distribution and advice.

Dennis Gallant, a consultant with Cerulli Associates Inc. of Boston, agreed. "You'll probably see this trend growing more among the mid-tier and small fund companies," he said.

Separately, Mr. Hartstein said John Hancock plans to merge its special equities fund into its small-cap growth portfolio early next month.

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