Marine Midland Bank is finding success with an insurance product that other banks have paid little attention to-simplified whole life.
Since the Buffalo-based banking company began offering life insurance in May, about half of the 1,000 applications per month have been for simplified whole-life policies, said David L. Fried, president of Marine Midland Insurance Agency.
"We have been very successful," he said.
Banks have typically favored the quicker-selling term insurance, as underscored in a study released in October by the Association of Banks-in- Insurance, a Washington-based trade group.
In 1997 banks' commissions from term insurance were three times those from whole-life sales, the study estimated.
Whole-life insurance includes an investment feature that creates a cash equivalent, while term life has no cash value.
The emphasis on term-life insurance has grown in recent years as financial planners and columnists have urged customers to buy the less expensive term insurance and invest the difference.
Commercial Union Life Insurance of Boston underwrites the whole-life and term policies offered by Marine Midland.
Gary Warden, vice president of Commercial Union's financial institutions division, said Marine Midland's success with whole life runs counter to banks' zealous interest in term products.
Mr. Warden says many customers like the fixed return they get from the whole-life policies, but "they're just not comfortable with the 'invest the difference' part."
Mr. Fried said Marine Midland's sales of whole life have been driven by customers over 50, who are looking for insurance that will pay beyond age 65.
The product has also received a boost as a significant number of parents buy policies as a savings vehicle for their children, he said.
And several Marine Midland Insurance Agency executives have backgrounds selling savings bank life insurance, a whole-life product, he added.
The term and whole-life products are simplified. Instead of a medical exam, in most cases the applicant is checked with the Westwood, Mass.-based Medical Information Bureau, which maintains a data base of medical and insurance records.
Customers wrongly think that buying life insurance is an onerous process, Mr. Fried said.
The goal is "demystifying life insurance-making people realize that it's not something where an agent is going to be calling them and calling them and coming to their home," he said.
Marine Midland has 900 platform personnel licensed to sell insurance, he said, and expects to increase that to 1,700 this year. The bank has 23 agents selling to affluent customers, as well as a telephone sales effort that sells mostly term insurance.
And Marine Midland is running a print and billboard campaign across New York State focusing on insurance.
Marine Midland's movement toward the bancassurance approach of its London parent, HSBC Holdings, has also aided insurance sales, Mr. Fried said. Marine Midland will change its name to HSBC Bank USA this month.
Bancassurance refers to banks' making insurance an integral part of their offerings.
HSBC has successfully used the bancassurance approach in countries including England and Brazil, Mr. Fried said.
"We take (HSBC's) best practices from around the world and Americanize them," Mr. Fried said.
Recently the bank began paying employees $25 for every referral they made that results in a sale, Mr. Fried said. But if they make a referral for a product they could sell, there's no monetary reward, he said.
Such referral programs are a positive way to introduce the European- style approach, said Valerie Jordan, principal of Jordan & Jordan, a Belchertown, Mass., consulting firm. It gives the employees more product responsibility while also moving customers to do business with other bank units, she said.
"They are forcing them to sell all products," Ms. Jordan said.
Otherwise, bank employees would focus only on their own areas, she said, because "we are all creatures of habit and we drop back to our comfort zones."
Mr. Fried said his goal is for employees to identify customer needs and refer them up the ladder.
"It's the tiering of expertise," Mr. Fried said. "The referrals of more complex products flow very nicely upward."
The banking company has also added long-term-care insurance to its product menu and is considering adding property and casualty insurance this year, he said.