As part of a strategic overhaul that includes changing its name, New England Financial-formerly known as The New England-plans to offer a raft of bank-like products to cultivate affluent and small-business customers.
The Boston-based insurer, a unit of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., plans to introduce a credit card in conjunction with First USA, Wilmington, Del., in the second quarter.
It is also looking for partners to help it offer business equipment leasing and unsecured lines of credit to small businesses, along with cash management accounts, mortgages, installment loans, and credit cards to retail customers, said Gerald W. Hayden, vice president in New England Financial's bank products group.
In contrast to insurers that have chosen to operate thrifts-thereby underwriting their products-New England Financial wants to forge alliances with companies that will provide the products. If it carries out its plans, New England Financial would be one of the first insurers to offer such a broad range of bank products without risking its own balance sheet.
The products will be unveiled over an 18- to 24-month period, Mr. Hayden said. The initiative grows out of the emerging consensus that financial services companies must provide products for different stages of their customers' lives to win and keep their business.
"Affluent and small-business is not necessarily the most profitable area to go after," said Mr. Hayden, questioning the prevailing wisdom among insurers. "They're really only the most profitable if you navigate them through their life cycles."
For example, the insurer could develop a relationship with a doctor just starting a practice by leasing equipment to him or her. Eventually the doctor, now a loyal customer, might be in a position to buy insurance or mutual funds from the company.
The company changed its name late last month to reflect its diversification beyond insurance products.
The accompanying tag line, "Power to Stay the Course," reflects the company's promise to help customers steer a financial course through their lives-using bank and investment products early on, then retirement and wealth-transfer products late in life.
The increased customer profile data that will be gathered in the bank products businesses will help New England Financial target those likely to buy other products such as mutual funds and annuities, Mr. Hayden said.
"The idea for any insurance company getting into this is to broaden and deepen their relationship with customers," said Lawrence B. Altman, a vice president with the Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. consulting firm in New York.
Checking and bill payment will be offered through a cash management account that can be accessed using a software package provided by the insurer. The Managing Your Money software is produced by Meca, which is owned by nine banks and New England Financial.
Several insurers have applied for thrift charters and three have been granted the charters, which allow them to sell bank products.
New England Financial chose not to follow suit because of the increased regulation it would bring on itself and its parent company, Metropolitan Life.
The company also felt that developing the scale to make businesses like a credit card operation worthwhile would take years, Mr. Hayden said.
"We don't want to be a bank," he said.
But whether insurers get into the bank business through thrift charters or alliances with product providers, the motivation is the same, said Maryanne Godbout, an insurance consultant at Conning & Co. in Hartford, Conn.
"You want to keep your customers," she said. "You want to provide your customers with as many services as you possibly can."