First Union Corp. is quietly building an insurance sales effort that many say is more comprehensive than those attempted by rival banks.

Insurance executives say competitors are generally focusing on one type of insurance, but Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union has begun to offer term life, commercial property and casualty insurance, and even group health insurance for businesses.

"They're ahead of their time," said Bruce Long, president of New England Annuities, a division of New England Life Insurance Co., Boston.

The $140 billion-asset banking company's plan to build an insurance business is part of wider corporate strategy to become a one-stop shopping center of financial services. The company has cut a reputation for aggressively selling mutual funds and annuities, and insurance is the next part of the equation.

Judging the company's success to date is difficult. Officials at the bank refuse to release sales results, even to consultants. Nevertheless, First Union is throwing a variety of plans against the wall to see what sticks:

*To reach the masses, the bank is marketing low-cost term insurance through the mail and on the Internet. Last spring the company entered a selling agreement with Quickquote Insurance Agency Inc. in Incline Village, Nev. That company researches quotes of products for every category of policyholder and sells them to customers who telephone it or contact it over the Internet.

Among the carriers marketed include: First Colony Life Insurance Co., AIG Life Insurance Co., Jackson National Life Insurance Co., Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co.

"In the area of direct marketing term insurance, they're off to a quick start compared to some of the other bank programs we've helped start over the last year," acknowledged Bradley Powell, president of the financial institutions marketing group at Jackson National Life Insurance Co.

*The company is experimenting with selling insurance to the wealthy, too. Nine insurance specialists were hired this summer to sell insurance appropriate for estate planning who work closely with trust officers and private bankers to find customers.

*First Union is also developing a health insurance business. In North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee the company has six agents selling group medical plans and life insurance to small-business owners.

*Finally, First Union agreed last month to acquire an insurance agency in Fairfax, Va., that covers small and midsize businesses.

Leading the charge is David de Gorter, senior vice president overseeing First Union's insurance group. He was hired in 1993 from an insurance agency in Los Angeles, as chairman Edward Crutchfield began a campaign to hire nonbankers to build his investment products program.

"When you get that type of message from the top of the company, it makes things a lot easier for me," Mr. de Gorter said.

First Union was one of the first banks to recognize a need to get its investment representatives working with the traditional side of the bank, including trust and commercial lending officers.

"They've done a lot of things right, built some good distribution for mutual funds and annuities," New England's Mr. Long said. "Life insurance is the next step."

Mr. de Gorter acknowledges the insurance program is still in its infancy, but he's confident it will succeed. He points to First Union's annuity growth, sparked by about 3,000 employees licensed to sell the product.

In 1993, the company had $30 million in sales. By the end of this year, sales will reach close to $1 billion, Mr. de Gorter said.

"Our goal was to be the No. 1 provider of annuities in the U.S. within five years," he said. "Today, if we're not No. 1, were close," he said.

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