If you want to win at basketball you can "be like Mike." But who is the role model for banks that want to win in insurance?

Robert H. Warrington, vice chairman and chief financial officer of Old Kent Financial Corp. poses the question-and freely admits he doesn't have the answer. As he sees it, the bank insurance success stories are just starting to be written.

But one thing is clear: Old Kent, a $15.4 billion-asset banking company in Grand Rapids, Mich., is vying to be one of those success stories.

Three years after its first insurance agency acquisition, it is striving to integrate insurance into the bank culture. Old Kent sells a full line of personal and commercial insurance and is one of the top 100 U.S. brokers of insurance.

Premium fees from insurance sales totaled about $22 million in 1998-$16 million from sales through its agencies and $6 million through sales of credit life policies. That worked out to about $3 million in net income, or about 1% of the company's total. Mr. Warrington said he wants that figure up to 3% to 5% of net income within five years.

"If we can't make it rise, there is no sense being in the business and deflecting management's attention," he said.

Observers say that is the kind of mind-set it takes for banks to succeed in insurance sales.

"I'd say they are thinking like the big banks, and I think that's right," said Richard D. Starr, chairman of the Financial Institutions Insurance Association.

In all, Old Kent acquired three agencies in Michigan and a handful of single agents who had run their own shops, Mr. Warrington said. Old Kent Insurance Group now has about 100 agents and 100 support people, he said. With licenses to sell virtually any insurance line, the bank is looking more toward additional agents than new agency acquisitions, Mr. Warrington said.

With its organization in place, one of the biggest challenges remains making insurance important to all bank employees, he said. "There's so many people in the banking organization that we need to teach about insurance products."

It is an uphill struggle, he said. The business "is still not well known and understood, to be brutally honest." Employee turnover and the crush of competing products hamper the effort, he said.

One step the bank has taken is to pitch insurance to all its employees; Mr. Warrington himself has bought six policies. That initiative has built recognition.

To "drive insurance from the top down," he said, the bank began placing executives who lead areas such as retail banking, commercial banking, and investments onto the insurance subsidiaries' board of directors. The effort, almost two years old, is "picking up momentum and it's going in the right direction."

"We're working very hard to try to come up with a mechanism to leverage insurance products over various banking lines of business," he said.

Agents have begun to understand bank bureaucracy, but developing internal referral relationships is a slow job. "We build relationships one at a time," Mr. Warrington said.

In addition to traditional insurance sales, the bank is also moving toward lower-cost insurance sold by telephone. This spring it formed an alliance with Foremost Corporation of America, a Caledonia, Mich., insurance sales firm. Customers receive direct mail about the program and may call for an auto or homeowners insurance quote, Mr. Warrington said.

It's too early to judge that effort, Mr. Warrington said.

Ultimately, he said, U.S. banks will succeed in insurance. In Europe, banks control 50% of life insurance sales, and he said the same can happen here with time and a level regulatory playing field.

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