ITT Hartford Life Insurance Cos. led the way in annuity sales through banks for the third straight year in 1995, topping $1.8 billion.

No. 2 in a study by Kenneth Kehrer Associates, Princeton, N.J., was Aegon Insurance Group of Cos., a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based underwriter that emphasizes fixed annuities, with $1.4 billion in sales.

The results are a testament to the marketing prowess of these two companies, both of which have overcome obstacles in the bank marketplace. They were the only underwriters to reach sales levels above $1 billion at banks last year, according to the study.

ITT Hartford has heavily marketed variable annuities to a marketplace that is only beginning to get interested in that product. Indeed, the company's sales of variables were more than three times those of its closest competitor.

"In previous years we've sold a chunk of fixed annuities," said spokesman Joe Fazzino. "Right now the variable annuity is the workhorse." Variable annuities accounted for 76% of the company's sales in 1995, helping lift the total 15.4% over 1994 levels.

Indeed, companies that sell variable annuities thrived in 1995. Nationwide Life Insurance Co., Columbus, Ohio, saw sales double to $407 million, making it the second-highest seller of that product through banks.

For sales of fixed annuities, however, the market was soft. Although Aegon was able to place second in overall sales through banks for the third year in a row, its volume dropped 5.7% from the previous year because the interest rate environment favored certificates of deposits. The stock market also drew attention away from fixed annuities.

"We had the good fortune of getting (marketing) help from some of our bank clients," said William Waldie, head of marketing for an Aegon member company, PFL Life Insurance Cos.

Aegon sells through Banc One Corp., BankAmerica Corp., and Norwest Corp., among others.

Mr. Waldie said Aegon, concerned about a lack of product depth, is coming out this fall with a variable annuity designed for its bank clients. "You have to have a few arrows in your quiver to be in the bank marketplace," Mr. Waldie conceded.

Lincoln National Corp., another fixed-annuity shop, saw its sales plummet 60% last year. The Fort Wayne, Ind.-based company experienced a number of problems. In addition to the difficult market, it lost banking and third-party marketing clients through consolidation.

"Sales have taken a dismal turn," said Maureen Sloan, assistant vice president overseeing sales through banks at Lincoln.

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