The Maine Credit Union League has formed a joint venture with four insurance veterans to sell property and casualty insurance to the 577,000 members of the state's 89 credit unions.

Last month the league bought a minority interest in Equinox Financial and Insurance Services in Gray, Maine. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The league has sold products such as credit life and disability insurance through its Maine Credit Union League Insurance Trust since 1963 but decided the time was ripe to add auto and homeowner's coverage.

The league will initially focus on building services and relationships - rather than revenues - at a time when banks such as Peoples Heritage of Portland, Maine, have been pushing into insurance sales, said Richard Nadeau, the president of the insurance trust.

"We'd have been doing this regardless," Mr. Nadeau said. "But we're kind of watching them, and that's certainly played a part in it."

Mr. Nadeau said the league has been looking for a way to enter the property and casualty market and liked the backgrounds of Equinox's principals.

Equinox's chief executive officer, Robert B. Fryer Sr., has 30 years of experience in insurance and is the owner of Whitney & Sanborn Agency in Gray. The other principals are an insurance lawyer, a former government affairs director for the Maine Insurance Agent Association, and a former agency owner with 40 years of experience.

Mr. Fryer said Equinox will try to differentiate itself by offering products from regional and national insurance carriers that are not huge players in insurance in Maine.

To build sales and service, the joint venture will buy as many as 15 independent agencies across the state.

Though the league represents Maine's credit unions, each chooses whether it will participate in the insurance sales effort. Some institutions that are close to signing on to the program expect to augment it with their own licensed agents, Mr. Fryer said. Equinox has eight employees.

Portland Regional Federal Credit Union, the first to sign up, will rely entirely on Equinox for property and casualty sales, said Bert Beaulieu, the president of the $15.5 million-asset company.

Like the league, Portland Regional-which has 6,000 members in five communities - intends to focus on building relationships, Mr. Beaulieu said.

"We wanted to provide (customers) with the best possible resources," he said.

When asked about the risks of having a start-up serving its customers, Mr. Beaulieu said his board has faith in the Maine Credit Union League Insurance Trust because his credit union has a long history of using the trust to offer credit life and disability products.

Mr. Beaulieu said Portland Regional wants to be a financial supermarket and was not influenced by hometown competitor Peoples Heritage's insurance activities.

John R. Curran, the president of Morse, Payson & Noyes, Peoples Heritage's insurance subsidiary, said the new venture is "just one of many competitors out there."

He did not know enough about the new effort to predict how successful it would be, Mr. Curran said, but credit unions have a strong customer base in Maine.

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