Nationwide Life Insurance Co. has quickly emerged as the one of the two largest sellers of variable annuities in the bank market place.

Over the past 15 months, the Columbus, Ohio-based company has developed alliances with about 100 banks, including Wells Fargo & Co., Wachovia Corp. Fleet Financial Group Inc., and Bank of Boston Corp., according to Duane Meek, president of the Nationwide unit that sells through financial institutions.

All this has made Nationwide the show horse among the dozen or so insurance underwriters courting banks to sell variable annuities.

ITT Hartford Life Insurance Co. is ahead of the pack by a country mile, having generated $1.6 billion in sales through banks in the first six months, said Kenneth Kehrer, a bank insurance consultant. Nationwide generated $408 million in sales.

But Nationwide's status still lets it crowd out much of the competition. Major banks have generally turned to only two or three major variable annuity underwriters, making it difficult for the also-rans to penetrate the market.

"All the others are scrambling for a third slot, if there is one," said Kenneth Kehrer, a bank insurance consultant in Princeton, N.J. "Nationwide has come out of nowhere in two years."

Third-place Sun Life Insurance Co. of Canada, which sells its product through the fund company Massachusetts Financial Services Co., generated only $228 million in sales in the first six months, Mr. Kehrer said.

Nationwide, which sold twice as much insurance through banks in this year's first half as in 1995's, attributes its success to a radical change in the way it works with banks. The company closed its third-party marketing unit, Financial Horizons, which supplied brokers to banks that sold competitors' products in addition to those of Nationwide.

"The best route to growth was to focus on our own products," Mr. Meek said. "Operating managed programs is not the wave of the future."

Nationwide set up a division that now has nine business development directors who work with executives at banks to manage the accounts closely. The company supports that staff with 11 "wholesalers," who work directly with the banking clients' investment representatives, training them and helping them run seminars.

One of Nationwide's new clients, Bank of Boston Corp., which also recently signed up to sell ITT Hartford products, doesn't foresee a need to add more companies to its fledgling program, said Allen Croessmann, the bank's managing director of investment products services.

Mr. Croessman added that he had brought Nationwide on board in part because he had sold the insurer's products five years ago when he held a similar position at Citicorp.

He said that Nationwide and ITT Hartford are the first variable annuity companies that "really understand what the banks are looking for and provide support all the time."

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