Taking a cue from some of the nation's largest banks, Marshall & Ilsley Corp. and Signet Banking Corp. are trying to persuade financial planners to sell their mutual funds.

Milwaukee-based M&I Bank is planning to launch next month a direct-mail campaign to about 3,000 financial planners across the country. And Signet, based in Richmond, Va., is on the prowl for a sales representative to market its proprietary asset allocation program to planners.

The two banks are the latest to target the already large and rapidly growing market of about 12,500 independent financial planners who work for fees rather than commissions.

Indeed, several banks hawked their wares at last week's annual convention of the International Association for Financial Planners, which drew nearly 3,000 to Minneapolis. M&I was one of the bank exhibitors, along with NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp., First of America Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp., and Well Fargo & Co.

"The contribution financial planners are making to the sales of retail mutual funds is extremely significant, and growing in market share," said James Duca, president of M&I Funds, Milwaukee.

Assets in mutual funds that were directed there by financial planners jumped seven-fold between 1993 to 1995 to $50 billion, according to Cerulli Associates, Boston.

Among the banks who have jumped on the bandwagon are BankAmerica, First of America, and Banc One Corp. And such giants as Chase, Wells, and J.P. Morgan & Co. have been mining the market for a few years now.

Banks are trying to get their own funds in front of financial planners as they attempt to build a national franchise for their traditional services and mutual funds, said James Eads, president of Signet Financial Services.

"You have to look at ways to distribute mutual funds to other financial intermediaries as well as directly to your customers," he said.

A few local financial planners already are selling the Signet's asset allocation product, Imprint. Mr. Eads went to the Minneapolis gathering last week looking for more planners to sell his funds. He was also checking out which other banks were there, he said.

"There are a lot of financial planners out there looking for ways to handle customers who have under $75,000 instead of turning them away," Mr. Eads said.

Imprint, which offers Signet's Blanchard Funds as well as those of top no-load fund companies, was designed for investors with between $10,000 and $75,000 to invest.

But banks aren't the only ones who see the potential. Virtually every mutual fund company in the nation now has financial planners in its sights.

Hiring a couple of sales representatives, or"wholesalers," isn't going to get a bank very far, said Richard Davies, the former First Chicago Corp. brokerage chief who now heads Alliance Capital Management's marketing efforts to investment advisers.

"Most banks haven't penetrated their own customer bases very well," he said.

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