Marketing investment products to its largely Hispanic customer base in New York has proved tougher than Banco Popular de Puerto Rico ever expected.

Last December, the $1.4 billion-asset bank, a unit of Puerto Rico-based Banponce Corp., tapped Invest Financial Corp., Tampa, Fla., to help it sell mutual funds and annuities in its 30 branches.

It was the bank's first foray into the sale of investment products, and Invest's first crack at a market made up of mostly low- to moderate-income Hispanics.

Both parties now say they underestimated the difficulty of reaching customers who, in most cases, prefer Spanish over English.

The program has been hobbled by high turnover of Invest sales representatives who speak both languages. And bank executives said Banco Popular employees did not get behind the sales effort until recently because they feared cutting into depositgathering efforts.

To make matters worse, market upheaval has caused many consumers to forgo putting their money in risky uninsured investment products. To date, the program "has not met our expectations," said Paul E. Carr Jr., New York district manager for Banco Popular.

The bank got into the investment products business to fend off aggressive competitors like Citibank, Chemical Bank, and Chase Manhattan Bank, each of which has made inroads into New York's Hispanic communities.

Banco Popular decided to bring Invest aboard in New York in part because the marketing company said it could bring in 70% of investment product sales from outside the bank's existing customer base.

But the sales effort in New York quickly ran into trouble. Though most of Banco Popular's customers speak and read English, Invest did not have marketing material available in Spanish, the language preferred by 90% of the bank's customers.

The marketing company also fired two of its bilingual sales representatives and had trouble replacing them, said Invest's president, Merlin Gackle. The program suffered further setbacks because bank officials spent little time integrating the investment product sales into the bank culture, Mr. Carr said. --- And both parties admit they might have overestimated the amount of sales Banco Popular's customer base would generate, given the economic status of many of its customers. But officials say they're making a renewed effort to get the program on track.

Banco Popular is offering employees commissions for each referral they make and educating workers on how the investments fit into the bank's structure. And they have pledged to work more closely with Invest in preparing marketing strategies and materials.

Invest has hired an outside firm to produce marketing materials in English and Spanish.

Mr. Gackle said he still has nigh hopes for the program. "It's had its problems, but it's not doing bad," he said. "If they continue at this pace, they'll be doing 100% better than they did in 1994."

Mr. Cart agreed. "The program is starting to gather momentum," he said. "1995 is very important, and we're expecting tangible results."

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