In a break with its own tradition, Comerica Inc. has teamed up with an insurance agency instead of buying it.

Last week the $36 billion-asset Detroit banking company announced that American Direct Business Insurance, Windsor, Conn., had agreed to market insurance to the bank's smallest commercial customers.

Comerica is not alone in establishing such alliances with brokers. BankAmerica Corp. and Chase Manhattan Corp. are among those that have opted for marketing agreements with property and casualty brokers or underwriters who sell directly to bank customers.

"You will absolutely see more of this," said Andrea Martin, president of Comerica's insurance operation.

A recent study of banks' insurance sales efforts and strategies supports her prediction.

The study, done by Risk Management Associates for the American Bankers Association and the Independent Insurance Agents of America, found that 41% of 307 banks contemplating entering the insurance business preferred forming joint ventures with agencies.

Thirty-five percent preferred acquisitions; 17% preferred direct deals with an underwriter; and 7% had other approaches.

Ms. Martin, who has overseen several acquisitions that have helped Comerica develop one of the most ambitious bank insurance programs in the country, says that developing a face-to-face insurance sales force is best achieved by buying established agencies with seasoned salespeople.

But she favors joint ventures in most cases in which products are best sold by phone.

Ms. Martin explained that it was too expensive to build or buy a company to serve the 6,000 customers it will target with American Direct.

These are "the smallest of the small"-customers that will generate less than $10,000 each in annual premiums. And meeting the needs of these small businesses requires expertise, she said.

"We're seeing these kind of business arrangements that aren't acquisitions, particularly in the areas of serving business customers," said Kenneth Kehrer, a Princeton, N.J.-based bank insurance consultant.

Doug Kerr, president and CEO of American Direct, said Comerica certainly had the resources to buy his 18-month-old company. But he thinks the partnership idea was preferable from the agency's standpoint as well.

"We don't have to play a lot of corporate politics or use any particular systems," said Mr. Kerr. "It's a technologically intense business, and we run a paperless office."

In its first year of operation, American Direct worked with 4,000 customers that generated $2 million of premiums. The company sells property and liability insurance, which includes automobile and umbrella coverage options.

In addition to 40 phone agents, the company has a network of 14 claims adjusters in Michigan to support the Comerica business, he said.

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