Huntington Bancshares is eyeing $1 billion in investment product sales next year.

The Columbus, Ohio, banking company plans to get there by introducing additional products and through intensive sales training for branch employees in selling mutual funds and annuities.

This summer the company began a sales mentoring program for branch employees. Each employee is assigned a series 7-licensed sales professional or a licensed broker to teach selling techniques.

The company also plans to introduce a proprietary variable annuity in the fall and will step up promotion of its fixed annuity product.

The $1 billion goal is lofty. In 1998, Huntington sold $375 million of mutual fund and annuity products; it chalked up $320 million of sales for the first six months this year.

Rob Comfort, senior managing director of the bank's brokerage, said he thinks the goal is reachable, given that sales results for the first half of 1999 almost matched the tally for all of last year.

"It's aggressive but not unreasonable," said David Trone, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston in New York. He said Huntington's recent expansion into Florida should give it annuity sales opportunities with the state's retirees.

The mentoring program involves up to 500 bank employees who will each be assigned a series 7-licensed broker from the bank or a wholesaler. Between biweekly group meetings covering topics such as the sales process or customer profiling, trainees will check in regularly with their coaches to discuss their progress and areas to improve.

This fall, the company plans to introduce its first proprietary variable annuity, the Huntington Director. The annuity, to be launched in cooperation with Hartford Financial Services Group, is to be identical to Hartford's Director annuity, Mr. Comfort said, except that it will include one of Huntington's growth funds.

"We found that both salespeople and customers are very loyal to the Huntington and happy with a Huntington product," Mr. Comfort said. The product should also offer a chance to increase assets in the $2.7 billion Huntington Funds.

The bank has begun a print advertising and direct mail campaign for its proprietary, fixed-rate Huntington Access Annuity, which offers a special 8% rate. Though Huntington has offered its fixed annuity for nearly a year, Mr. Comfort said, the promotion is "a good opportunity to reach out to more conservative investors" who do not want market exposure.

Huntington sells one other fixed annuity product, plus variable annuities from 11 other companies. Its annuity sales grew from $138 million in 1998 to $145 million during the first half of 1999.

Analysts described Huntington's annuity push as a way to expand its product line and increase fee revenue.

"A company the size of Huntington needs the ability to offer a broad range of products," said Bradley S. Vander Ploeg, an analyst at Everen Securities in Chicago."

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