People's Bank, already the most successful state bank in Connecticut in insurance sales, is seeking to bolster its effort.

The Bridgeport-based bank has sold savings bank life insurance since 1941. Now it wants to take advantage of changes in insurance rules and sell more complex products like variable life insurance and products aimed at high-end customers.

"Fifteen years ago, we wanted to do the things the laws are allowing us to do today," said Barbara P. Johnson, the 52-year-old senior vice president who is heading the People's initiative.

In June, Connecticut eased its restrictions against bank insurance sales. People's, like scores of other banks across the Nutmeg State, began studying how to get deeper into the business, Ms. Johnson said.

Ms. Johnson, a 22-year veteran of People's who was most recently regional manager for Greater New Haven, said the bank plans to sell a range of insurance, including property-casualty coverage. It is also looking at products for businesses and for high-end customers, who are often interested in strategies for transferring wealth while minimizing the tax bite.

People's does not yet have sales projections for its expanded insurance business, and it is still exploring how to market and sell the new products, which it expects to roll out in the second quarter of 1998, Ms. Johnson said. It is testing new insurance lines at a few branches.

People's is no stranger to insurance sales. The largest savings-bank- life vendor in Connecticut, it sells more than 2,000 new life policies a year through more than 300 licensed branch representatives.

It has 30,000 policyholders and $1.4 billion of insurance in force. Annuities are sold through the bank's broker-dealer, People's Securities.

Only three states-Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts-have savings bank life insurance programs. The programs were developed in part to offer insurance to middle-class and lower-income people; consequently, they come with restrictions on policy size and commissions.

People's is just one of scores of savings banks that have recently found themselves free to sell a range of insurance products. States have been easing restrictions for several years, and that trend quickened in the wake of last year's Supreme Court decision giving nationally chartered banks latitude to sell insurance. The high court's decision prompted states to level the playing field for banks they oversee.

At present, 40 states permit banks broad insurance powers throughout the state, up from 25 at the time of the Supreme Court decision in March 1996, according to Michael White, an industry consultant in Radnor, Pa.

Many banks feel this is an opportune time to start selling insurance, and the life insurance market in particular is believed to be largely untapped.

The American Council of Life Insurance says 22% of all households have no life insurance and 45% have only the life insurance provided by their employers.

In all, at least 50% of Americans are underinsured, according to the trade group. And traditional insurance agents have moved toward the higher- end market, noted Kenneth Kehrer, a consultant in Princeton, N.J.

People's is known for its innovative sales strategies. Thirty-eight of its 111 branches are in Stop & Shop supermarkets. And though the bank has branches only in Connecticut, it is the 25th-largest issuer of Visa and MasterCard credit cards in the nation.

The direct marketing approach it uses for cards might or might not work for insurance, said Mr. Kehrer.

Wells Fargo failed badly when it tried to market life insurance outside California a year and a half ago, Mr. Kehrer noted. Ms. Johnson said she's aware others have flopped but added that the potential is attractive. The bank hasn't ruled anything in or out yet, she said.

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