Allmerica Financial, a Massachusetts insurance company, is betting that private investment managers and a prospect referral program will make its variable annuities stand out at banks.

Five advisers that cater to high-net-worth clients are now overseeing portfolios in Allmerica's "Select" annuities for retail customers, a lineup of five portfolios that invest in a mix of stocks and bonds.

The investment advisers include Bank of Ireland Asset Management, Greenwich, Conn., and Nicholas-Applegate, a San Diego money management firm.

Allmerica began selling the Select annuities through brokerages and financial planners two years ago and through financial institutions this year.

Customers can place their money in individual portfolios or choose an asset allocation service to automatically divvy investments by risk thresholds.

Allmerica tapped Rogers, Casey & Associates, a Darien, Conn., consulting firm that specializes in the institutional market, to handle the asset allocation services and monitor the investment managers.

Executives at Allmerica believe that using private money managers instead of mainstream mutual funds will set them apart from the pack in the highly competitive bank marketplace.

"We could be a me-too product in a crowded market, but that wouldn't work," said Mark Steinberg, managing director at Allmerica Investment Services, the parent company's brokerage. "To be successful, we not only had to do something different, we had to it better."

Allmerica also has come up with some incentives to woo banks to sell the annuities.

For every $25,000 of annuities sold by a bank sales representative, the company will supply two "pre-qualified" leads: the names of prospects who are over age 45, own their home, and have at least $50,000 in annual income.

Allmerica is in discussions with several banks and investment product marketing firms, and so far has signed up one financial institution -- Dime Savings Bank of New York.

"I expect this kind of product to be a major part of our industry's investment offerings," said J. Edward Diamond, president of Dime's brokerage.

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