annuities through banks doesn't mean the company will find the same success with life insurance. But it's trying. The company, which holds $50.3 billion in assets, has tailored two variable life insurance products for bank retail customers. It's also hitting up private banking and trust departments to sell life insurance to wealthy customers. "Somewhere there is gold in this dirt - so far we haven't found it," says Joe Kanarek, ITT Hartford's vice president of individual life and health distribution. ITT Hartford is one of a select group of life insurance undewriters, including USLife Corp., Jackson National Life Insurance Co., and American General Life Insurance Co., that are eager to sell life insurance through banks. The companies are hoping to capitalize on the banking industry's zeal to offer comprehensive financial services to customers. If insurance underwriters can capture a large presence through banks they have access to a highly efficient way of distributing their products. The more "shelf space" an insurance company can get at a bank, which has a huge number of customers, the less it has to rely on traditional agents to peddle products at kitchen tables. "The most difficult and time-consuming part of selling life insurance is prospecting for the client," Mr. Kanarek says. ITT Hartford, which in May introduced two variable life products, "Director Life" and "Putnam Capital Manager Life," has already made inroads at a dozen banks. Variable life is a type of insurance that acts much like a variable annuity. The policyholder directs the investment of his contributions into a variety of stock and bond mutual funds that span the range of investment objectives. In a variable life policy, the amount of the death benefit can go up or down depending on how the underlying investments perform. That feature is different from traditional whole life and term insurance, where the death benefit is fixed. Both of ITT Hartford's variable life products are intended to attract bank customers who have already invested in annuities, said Stephen Joyce, director of annuity and life insurance sales to banks and thrifts. By investing in annuities, these bank customers are building up savings they will eventually use for income during retirement. Variable life is the next step - to accumulate savings that will be passed on to heirs when the insured person dies. The mutual fund-like portfolios in Director Life are managed by the insurance company's subsidiary Hartford Investment Management Co. and Wellington Management Co., Boston. Bank customers can invest in Hartford's array of mutual funds that invest in both stocks and bonds. The Putnam Capital Management Fund is managed by Putnam Investments, a Boston-based mutual fund company that is the sixth largest in the country, and the top seller of portfolios through banks. Both variable life products are distributed to banks through Essex Corp., New York, and Planco Group, Paoli, Pa., leading marketers of annuities to banks. ITT Hartford is selling variable life to banks - instead of the more popular term or whole life - because it wants to capitalize on its three- year-old position as the leading seller of annuities through banks. Mr. Joyce says the variable life products "should serve as a first step to offering more traditional life insurance." But bank brokers are a difficult group to get to sell life insurance. Of all financial services products, life insurance is the most complicated to sell, say consultants. Bank brokers tend to sell mutual funds and stocks and bonds at the first meeting with a customer. But a life insurance sale generally takes longer. Because customers must get approval for life insurance, brokers have to gather an extensive medical and financial history depending on the size of the policy's death benefit. "Life insurance is not a one-interview kind of sale, whereas mutual fund sales are quick and dirty," says Valerie Jordan, a consultant in Belchertown, Mass., that helps banks set up insurance programs. ITT Hartford has responded by adapting the variable life products it already sells through stock brokers and independent insurance agents to bank brokers. Customers are not required to take medical examinations, and only have to answer four basic questions about their health. The downside to making a product easier to sell is that it becomes riskier for the insurance company, so ITT Hartford has limited the death benefit it will offer various policyholders. Although Mr. Joyce says he is pleased with the current reception by banks to sell variable life, Mr. Kanarek has had poorer results trying to penetrate bank trust and private banking departments. "We in the life insurance industry haven't found a way yet to speak the language that the bankers can relate to. We're just not communicating well enough," he says. The company, which emphasizes insurance policies for the wealthy, wants to penetrate bank trust departments for greater access to those people, Mr. Kanarek says. But trust officers don't have any incentive to sell insurance. They generally aren't paid on commission, but by a combination of salary and a percentage of assets under management. Mr. Kanarek said he has "a couple" of contracts with banks, including Norwest Corp., Minneapolis, which offer trust department customers whole life and universal life, a new kind of policy that allows the insured to vary the amount and timing of premium payments. But those contracts haven't proven fruitful, he acknowledges. For Mr. Kanarek negotiating with a bank about a life insurance product is something akin to international diplomacy. He has had three or four meetings with three banks recently, and still hasn't gotten a contract, he says. The problem is that too many people get involved in the process, he says. Banks generally hire consultants to help them choose an insurance provider. And insurance companies generally have an independent agent that wants to get involved. "Before you know it, you have 15 different layers and not enough money for everyone," Mr. Kanarek says.
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