Embarking on an ambitious plan to enter the bank marketplace, Equitable Cos. has named an executive to set up a division to market to banks.

The insurance company has hired Jeffrey W. Thornton, 37, to head its new financial institutions division. Mr. Thornton's unit will try to get the nation's 60 largest banks to sell Equitable's annuities - a task he is not taking lightly.

"To come into the bank channel this late, we're going to have to have superior product and resources," Mr. Thornton said.

Equitable, which holds $51.4 billion in assets, plans to begin marketing fixed and variable annuities to banks in the fall. The move is part of a corporate strategy to sell insurance products through distribution outlets beyond Equitable's legion of career agents.

The company last year began marketing to brokerage houses and independent financial planning firms to boost stagnant sales. Sales declined in 1995 to $337 million from $350 million the year before, according to A.M. Best Co., Oldwick, N.J.

Mr. Thornton said Equitable has given him four years to make the company the leading seller of annuities through banks.

That could prove tough, as ITT Hartford Life Insurance Cos. has been entrenched in that spot for three years, according to Kenneth Kehrer & Associates, a consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.

And other insurers that specialize in annuities have longstanding relationships with banks.

But don't count out Equitable, the nation's seventh-largest insurer.

"What The Equitable does have in its favor is a very well-known brand identity, while the specialized annuity companies don't," says A.M. Best analyst Michael Albanese.

Mr. Thornton is busy searching for three senior managers and 15 "wholesalers" - sales representatives who will pitch products to brokers and offer sales training.

Equitable hired Mr. Thornton away from McGuinness Group, a tiny company in Newport Beach, Calif., that markets insurance products to banks and brokerage firms.

He will report to Jamie Shepherdson, a managing director who oversees Equitable's sales through banks, brokers, and financial planners. Mr. Shepherdson was formerly the chief operating officer at McGuinness.

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