As it prepares to become a publicly traded company in 2000, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. is also laying the groundwork for increasing sales through commercial banks.

The Boston-based insurer is building its bank-related sales force from four wholesalers in March to a projected 10 by yearend.

The company recently hired Peter F. Mawn, a Fidelity executive, to focus exclusively on selling life insurance, annuities, mutual funds, and long- term-care products through banks. He succeeds Bill Nichols, who left the bank last year.

"We are realizing now that there is a lot of opportunity in this channel and we need to build up," said Kathleen M. Graveline, Hancock's senior vice president for alternative distribution.

Until now Hancock, the 13th-largest U.S. insurer, has been an also-ran in the bank channel, trailing far behind competitors such as Hartford Financial Services, Nationwide Financial Services, and America Skandia.

The bank has relationships with several large U.S. banks, including Chase Manhattan Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., BankBoston Corp., and Fleet Financial Group.

Though Hancock is considered a mid-level seller of fixed annuities through banks, it has sold a negligible amount of insurance, variable annuities, and mutual funds through the channel.

But industry observers argued that Hancock could jump to the front of the pack, given its powerful brand name. These observers point out that the market for selling through banks is still wide open, with no one carrier or group of carriers crowding out others.

"No one has been boxed out of the insurance game through banks," said David Kaytes, a consultant at First Manhattan Consulting Group, New York. "We're still in the bottom of the first inning."

Hancock's decision to build its relationships with banks came amid a wider corporate effort to increase sales through nontraditional distribution channels, including financial planners and retail brokers.

Now that the insurer is preparing to become a shareholder-owned company, executives are striving to demonstrate that it can generate more revenue and earnings growth than it has in the past, Mr. Kaytes said.

"They want a good price in the marketplace," he said.

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