Metropolitan Life, the nation's second-largest insurance company, is quietly drawing up plans to crack the burgeoning bank market for insurance and investment products.
The New York-based giant wants to offer banks agents who would be licensed to sell products ranging from life insurance to mutual funds to individual securities, several sources said.
While Met Life's own products would be the centerpiece of the sales push, the company also intends to offer competitors' wares, these sources said.
In effect, Met Life would function as a "third-party marketing firm" - a broker-dealer that helps banks manage their investment sales programs. This approach could give it a leg up in the sector, as banks are often reluctant to push a single vendor's products.
The plan, still in its infancy, comes in the wake of a Supreme Court decision barring states from blocking insurance sales by national banks in small towns. The ruling has set banks scrambling to start insurance sales programs - and has prompted big insurers like Met Life to look for ways to get in on the action.
Insurance companies have seen sales through their agents decline steadily in recent years, and they view banks as fertile ground, said Robert Baranoff, a manager at the Life Insurance Marketing Research Association, Windsor, Conn.
While banks handled less than 1% of the $9.5 billion of life insurance sales in 1995, "10 years from now, I wouldn't be surprised if they had a 15% market share or more," Mr. Baranoff said.
But many Met Life rivals have been wary of moving too quickly into banks for fear of angering their career agents - salespeople who are under contract to promote a specific insurer's policies. By including a wide variety of providers and products in its bank program, Met Life could sidestep that conflict, observers said.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., which holds $142 billion of assets, declined to detail the company's plans for banks. But one insider said the insurer has already assigned at least two executives to the new program.
They are John Chatfield 3d, a vice president for bank financial services, and Michael St. Pierre, national sales director. Mr. Chatfield declined to comment, and Mr. St. Pierre could not be reached.
Observers said Met Life's plan for banks is in keeping with its desire to become a complete financial services firm. It is currently beefing up the credentials of its 11,000 career agents to include securities licenses, they said.
What's more, Met Life is in the midst of acquiring New England Mutual Life Insurance Co., a Boston-based insurer that sells annuities through banks. Met Life already owns State Street Research & Management Co., a Boston-based mutual fund company.
"When we meet with Met officials, they say they recognize they have to develop relationships with banks," said Lawrence Mayewski, senior vice president, life-health division, A.M. Best Co. "If they're going to be successful, they have to customize their program for banks."
One competitor shrugged off the insurance giant's plans. Relocating agents or hiring new ones to put in bank branches is "risky and expensive," said David Sanderford, a senior vice president at Aetna Life & Annuity Co., Hartford, Conn.