IFS Financial Services is poised to build up its distribution of insurance products through banks.

The Cincinnati company, a unit of Western-Southern Life Assurance Co., which has sold mainly fixed annuities through its bank distribution network, intends to expand its variable annuity and life insurance business and to add banks to its distribution network.

"The primary focus is regional-sized banks and some community banks," said Jim Loveridge, who is heading the effort. He was an executive at Integrity Life Insurance, which Western-Southern bought last year. Mr. Loveridge, who has worked about 25 years in insurance marketing, said IFS has relationships with about 100 banks that produce sales annually, as well as another 100 that are under contract but are not consistent sales producers.

IFS was formed eight years ago to distribute Western-Southern products through "alternative distribution channels," including banks and broker-dealers, said Jill McGruder, its president and chief executive officer.

Since then, she said, it has sold more than $2 billion of insurance products through banks.

Mr. Loveridge said the company is on track to do $700 million of sales through banks this year and plans to sell $1 billion in this channel next year.

IFS sees its main strengths as the high ratings of its products, as well as strong service, Mr. Loveridge said. He explained that the company does not use third-party wholesalers but sends its own people into banks to train salespeople and supply marketing materials.

Ms. McGruder, noting that IFS was named the No. 1 fixed-annuity vendor by the American Bankers Association in 1999, said, "A lot of big insurance companies have been in and out of this market. We've just consistently been there."

"We've been primarily a fixed-annuity company, but we have the opportunity to go beyond these fixed annuities into more variable annuities and, at the same time, some life insurance initiatives," Mr. Loveridge said. He said the company would look for more regional banks to be distribution channels.

Mr. Loveridge acknowledged that insurance companies have not been as successful in selling life insurance through banks as they have in selling annuities. "We don't have any answer that is probably any more brilliant than the next fellow," he said, but added, "the Western-Southern companies have sold life insurance for over 100 years, and they bring to the table products and experience that it's almost too much not to try."

He said sales of life insurance through banks would become easier as the banks learn how to sell them and consumers recognize banks as a source of those products.

IFS is also developing marketing and education programs to help increase sales per bank, Mr. Loveridge said.

In general, he said, banks have many people - sometimes hundreds - who are licensed to sell insurance products. But few are devoted exclusively to this effort, he said. IFS's goal is to supply a coordinated marketing plan that will help all these licensed people sell insurance more effectively.

"It is up to us to have marketing programs and plans that coordinate with the bank" so that insurance is "not just the product of the week," he said.

Western-Southern bought Integrity and its New York subsidiary, National Integrity Life Insurance Co., from Arm Financial Group of Louisville, Ky., in late 1999. Mr. Loveridge had been Integrity's senior vice president for retail marketing.

The Integrity deal expanded IFS's reach into New York State, Mr. Loveridge said. IFS has nationwide distribution, with focuses in the Midwest, Southwest, and Southeast.

In addition to distributing several Western-Southern fixed annuities, IFS distributes the Touchstone Family of Funds and Variable Annuities to financial institutions, broker-dealers, and financial planners through its subsidiary Touchstone Advisors Inc.

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