Huntington Bancshares plans to add some pizzazz to its proprietary fund menu.
Early next year the Columbus, Ohio, company plans to start selling a rotating index fund, an international fund, a midcap/small-cap fund, a New Economy fund, and a dividend capture fund. The company said it will file registration statements with the Securities and Exchange Commission shortly.
"We've had kind of a stodgy fund family," said senior vice president B. Randolph Bateman, a SunTrust Banks Inc. portfolio manager hired in September as chief investment officer.
Only two of Huntington's 12 current funds are equity funds, Mr. Bateman pointed out. "Can you imagine, in the past decade, only having two equity funds in the biggest bull market in history?"
But adding stock funds is not enough, he said. Other asset management firms "will have more marketing dollars and greater wholesaling efforts," he said, "so we need to find things with a little different bent."
Many other banks are shifting their sales focus from their own funds to better-known third-party funds. Proprietary funds have always been a tough sell because bank funds do not have the high-profile brand names or performance of larger fund groups.
But Bradley S. Vander Ploeg, an equities analyst at First Union Securities in Chicago, said that Huntington's strategy could pay off in the long term. "This is exactly the sort of thing a bank like Huntington should be spending money on," he said.
Mr. Bateman was a senior vice president and senior portfolio manager in Florida for Atlanta-based SunTrust. Huntington hired him to help build its investment business. He oversees asset management for the private financial group, the trust department, and the Huntington Funds.
He reports to Daniel B. Benhase, a former Firstar Corp. executive who was hired in June to head the private financial group, which comprises investment, insurance, trust, private banking, and brokerage businesses.
Mr. Benhase and other Huntington executives have acknowledged in the past that the bank needs to do a better job selling its proprietary mutual funds. Huntington's brokerage unit sold $620 million of investments last year, more than twice the 1997 total, but its proprietary funds made up only 1.1%. (The unit's revenues totaled $35 million.)
Huntington's immediate goal is to tap the potential of its own sales force, Mr. Bateman said. "We have 1,000 licensed broker-dealers. Most organizations would kill for that distribution.
"We will ultimately broaden our distribution outside the bank," he added, "but the emphasis has got to be in-house right now." The Huntington Funds currently manage $2.8 billion of assets, and Mr. Bateman said that he expects that figure to increase to $3.5 billion by the end of next year.
Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in East Greenwich, R.I., said Huntington will have a tough time marketing the more esoteric funds. Bank brokers are not accustomed to them, and the funds are probably not suitable for many mainstream investors, he said.
If the new funds provide good returns, Huntington's trust service group may buy them, he said. But "to the extent they're looking to attract investors from outside," he said, the exotic-funds strategy won't work.
But Burton Greenwald, a Philadelphia fund consultant, said the strategy has some promise.
"If you come out with me-too products, there's no reason for investors to buy them," he said. "If you're going to have a shot at capturing assets, you have to do something unusual."