Thomas M. Marra, director of individual life and annuities at ITT Hartford Life Insurance Co., likes to tell stories of his company's rich past.

During the Civil War, Hartford covered both the Springfield, Ill., home of Abraham Lincoln and the Arlington, Va., mansion of Robert E. Lee. And it has paid out claims on almost every American disaster, from the Chicago fire of 1871 to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Mr. Marra hopes to write his own noteworthy page in Hartford's 185-year history by leading the quest to market its life insurance through banks.

"This is not for the faint of heart," he said.

Some of the country's largest insurers are descending on banks, offering to customize products, share revenues, and shoulder marketing costs, in a bid to get banks to carry their wares. A recent Supreme Court ruling affirmed banks' rights to sell insurance, opening new outlets for an industry that has been in a sales slump for a decade.

Hartford has taken a wait-and-see approach to selling life insurance through banks, pushing only variable life policies through a handful of institutions. If Hartford's former chief actuary has his way, the country's eighth-largest life underwriter will soon enter the market. And it stands ready to design whatever life products the bank market demands.

"Even if it means a different way for us to play the game, we want to be a part of the bank marketplace," Mr. Marra said. "We want to see where the whole scene is going."

Hartford has defied the odds against marketing insurance products through banks. For three years, the company has emerged as the No. 1 seller of annuities through banks, with a focus on variable rather than fixed-rate products.

Because of their risk, variable annuities are believed to be much more difficult to sell than their fixed counterparts.

"Early on, everyone told Hartford that banks can't sell variable annuities," says Kenneth Kehrer, a bank and insurance consultant in Princeton, N.J., "but Hartford stuck to its guns."

The company sold $1.8 billion in total annuities through banks in 1995, 76% of that in variable annuities. Executives say Hartford is on track to almost double its total annuities this year.

Landing the top spot in banks selling annuities does not guarantee success on other fronts. Mr. Marra is quick to acknowledge that there are many challenges for Hartford in the bank channel.

For one thing, the company offers little in the way of term insurance - the cheapest and least complex form of life insurance, but the one expected to emerge as the big moneymaker in banks.

Mr. Marra, however, said he will design a term product if he must.

After all, it was he who helped to craft two of Hartford's most popular annuities, they say, as well as a slew of the company's life insurance and disability products. Those accomplishments helped Mr. Marra attain a coveted executive vice presidency within Hartford's top management.

"He's very well thought of in the industry as a guy who combines actuarial skills with marketing savvy," Mr. Kehrer said.

Hartford can capitalize on its expertise selling insurance to wealthy people who need estate planning - a market that bank trust departments are especially keen to serve. And it will keep looking for ways to build on its variable annuity juggernaut.

A major catalyst of Hartford's success there is Planco, a small marketing company in Paoli, Pa., that distributes Hartford's wares to 150 banks, including Citicorp, NationsBank Corp. and Boatmen's Bancshares. Planco is responsible for 45% of the company's annuity sales through banks.

"These guys put the capital into the business to make it work," said Edwin Gold, Planco's chairman. He said Mr. Marra "is a man who wears many hats, has many talents."

One of Mr. Marra's major accomplishments: helping to get Putnam Investments, the nation's sixth-largest mutual funds company, to manage the assets of a variable annuity dubbed Putnam Capital Manager. Putnam is the leading seller of mutual funds through banks, and a top seller among stockbrokers and financial planners.

"When it came time for bank brokerages to start selling variable annuities, they simply wanted one with the mutual funds they were already selling," Mr. Kehrer said.

One banker who is trying to sell his own company's proprietary variable annuity acknowledges the appeal of ITT Hartford's Putnam product.

"It's not like Hartford has anything untouchable in terms of product, but it's big," said David de Gorter, managing director of the insurance group at First Union Corp. "The name carries a certain momentum."

In addition to banks, some 70,000 stockbrokers and 10,000 independent agents sell Hartford's wares. Mr. Kehrer said Hartford can easily transfer its experience selling through stockbrokers to the bank market, giving it a distinct advantage over insurers that rely more heavily on agents for their sales.

And Hartford will soon be the first insurance underwriter to start up proprietary mutual funds by cloning its own variable annuities.

ITT Hartford Group, Hartford's deep-pocketed parent, captured an exclusive arrangement last year to sell homeowner and automobile insurance through the American Association of Retired Persons.

"They have been in alternative distribution ahead of the pack, and they are innovative in terms of product design," said Michael Albanese, an analyst at A.M. Best Co.

Hartford executives say banks have been slow to bring insurance products onto their menus but now realize they must offer more comprehensive services in order to compete with mutual fund companies, brokerages, and the insurance industry.

"Banks are no longer clueless," said Peter Cummins, an Hartford vice president in charge of individual annuity sales. "They have learned that disintermediation isn't always so bad, especially when loan demand is down."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.