MassMutual Financial Group hasn’t exactly set the banking world on fire since it started trying to sell through banks a year ago. But the man in charge says he will soon have the product to set the spark.

Last year’s bank sales were so thin that the Springfield, Mass., company will not reveal them, said John P. Sousa 4th, who was hired just a year ago to get the ball rolling.

He has managed to get annuity distribution agreements with three banking companies, he said last week, but he would name only one, New Orleans-based Hibernia Corp. “We’re also talking to three or four other banks,” he said.

“It’s critical to get into banks and sell our products through them,” Mr. Sousa said, “but the first step can’t be to just drive up sales numbers. That takes time.” MassMutual is used to selling through agents, he noted. “It takes time to build up other distribution channels.”

But timing is a problem, said consultant Kenneth Kehrer, the president of Kenneth Kehrer Associates in Princeton, N.J. Many banks are trying to cut back on annuity providers, he said. The average bank offers fixed annuities from four providers and variables from seven, Mr. Kehrer said; he predicts those numbers will go down.

MassMutual is also getting in the game late; he said; many competitors have already established strong relationships with banks.

But Mr. Sousa said there is an advantage in being a latecomer. “We’ve had an opportunity to see what everyone else has done,” he said. “Now we get a chance to differentiate ourselves.”

After all, he said, “we have the name, the recognition, the product. And while we know it’s extremely competitive, we know we can get there. We’re a $200 billion-asset, strong company.”

Mr. Kehrer conceded that MassMutual might “turn heads” in the bank market if it offered a unique product. And Mr. Sousa said that head-turning product will be Artistry, a tax-sheltered variable annuity for employees of nonprofits, such as schools and hospitals.

Artistry, slated for release early in the third quarter, “is a niche play, not a billion-dollar play,” Mr. Sousa said. “This product isn’t going to make us the top provider of annuities through banks, but it’ll get us in the door.”

Philip C. Stevens, the vice president of institutional distribution for MassMutual, said Artistry will sell well through banks because “teachers have a strong bank relationships and tend to work with banks more than with financial planners.”

Mr. Sousa said MassMutual also plans to introduce later annuities with broader appeal. The company has discussed collaborating with banks on proprietary products, he said — variable annuities whose options include the bank’s mutual fund, and fixed annuities whose assets the banks would manage.

Mr. Kehrer said such products “could help a company get it’s foot in the door.”

As for salespeople, Mr. Sousa said he has none dedicated to banks but is not averse to the idea. MassMutual’s 14 wholesalers are now dedicated to specific territories, not channels, he said.

But bank insurance consultant Michael White, whose Michael White Associates is based in Radnor, Pa., says bank-only wholesalers are a necessity — “even if it’s [just] three people.”

“Having guys go from agencies to a broker-dealer to a bank … is not very focused.”

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