Managing retirement savings has long been a major part of Kemper Corp.'s mutual fund business. Now the Oak Park, Ill.-based company is bringing a retirement focus to its bank sales effort.

After a yearlong training push, Kemper has begun promoting sales of 401(k) plans and other qualified retirement plans through banks.

Kemper's goal is to sell 350 to 400 plans through banks by yearend, according to two executives who share the title of national sales manager for the financial institutions division.

The executives, Terrence P. Cunningham and Henry J. Schulthesz, said they saw a need to add retirement plans to their product arsenal when they took charge of the financial institutions division in February 1994.

Increasingly, consumers think of 401(k) plans as the backbone of their savings, Mr. Schulthesz said. And banks, he maintained, have a natural edge in providing these plans. That's because much of their growth is expected to come from the industry's core constituency: companies with 500 or fewer employees.

Though Kemper, which manages more than 8,000 qualified retirement plans, is a major player in the small-plan arena, it hadn't stressed the products at banks until quite recently.

"Banks have been so busy with the retail side of the market that there was no reason to do this," Mr. Cunningham said.

Retail fund sales have been foundering since interest rates began rising last year. But sales of funds through 401(k) plans are less sensitive to economic shifts, presenting a strong sales opportunity during down markets, Mr. Schulthesz said. "The money keeps pouring in."

Kemper sells about 75 to 100 retirement plans each month through broker- dealers, Mr. Cunningham said. In contrast, bank-based brokers are closing sales at about one-tenth that rate. But more business is in the pipeline, and he expects sales to accelerate.

He said one sign that bankers are making headway is that several have been named to Kemper's "ProStar" group, an elite circle formed to recognize brokers who sell at least $3 million in Kemper retirement plans.

Five of the 50 ProStar members are bankers; last year, there were no bankers in the group. The chief perquisite of membership is a trip to a three-day conference - held most recently in Tampa - for advanced sales training and meetings with Kemper's portfolio managers and chief economist.

Kemper is also marketing a new program, dubbed Kemflex, that enables banks to combine their own mutual funds with Kemper Funds in a 401(k) program.

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