ING Group of Amsterdam is the front-runner to buy United Life and Annuity Insurance Co. in Oregon, industry sources said.

Penncorp Financial Group Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., said in January that it was entertaining bids for United Life. The unit includes Marketing One Inc., a provider of investment services to banks.

Financially troubled Penncorp, a holding company for several insurance companies, has been selling off assets to reduce debt.

James M. Truax, executive vice president of Portland-based Marketing One, confirmed that a deal is imminent but said he did not know the name of the acquirer.

"I thought maybe I'd hear this week for sure, but we haven't yet," he said.

The Dutch company's recent purchases include Equitable of Iowa in July 1997 and Compulife Inc., a third-party marketing firm in Midlothian, Va., last November.

Though he declined to talk about specific acquisition targets, a spokesman for ING said buying a life and annuity insurance company in the United States is a high priority.

"Our chairman said that he hopes that will be the case sometime this year," the ING spokesman said.

A spokesman for Penncorp declined to comment, citing company policy.

Observers said ING would be interested primarily in United Life's assets, which totaled $1.4 billion as of Dec. 31, 1997, according to A.M. Best Co. of Oldwick, N.J.

United Life sold $118 million of variable and fixed annuities in 1997 and ranked 99th among insurance companies by that measure, according to Limra International of Windsor, Conn.

One industry observer noted that Marketing One is only a small piece of the pie.

"Marketing One's kind of like the pimple on the horse at auction," said Kenneth Kehrer, a principal with Kenneth Kehrer Associates, a consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.

Nonetheless, Paul Werlin, an executive recruiter, said the firm would be valuable for its bank distribution experience. Mr. Werlin is president of Human Capital Resources of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Marketing One has fewer than 20 bank clients, according to one industry source familiar with the company. It sold about $700 million of mutual funds and annuities last year, said Mr. Truax of Marketing One.

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