Adding to its stable of investment services for corporate clients, Mellon Bank Corp. said Monday it plans to acquire the oldest benefits consulting firm in the United States.

Terms of the deal for Buck Consultants Inc., New York, were not disclosed. The transaction, which is subject to shareholder and regulatory approval, is expected to close in the second quarter.

The acquisition would raise Mellon's profile in a fast-growing field. Buck, which was established in 1916, advises 5,000 companies in 16 countries on designing and managing retirement, health care, and executive compensation plans.

Its revenues for fiscal year 1996, which ended March 31, totaled $197 million, ranking it eighth in the benefits field worldwide.

Demand for services provided by companies like Buck has grown briskly in recent years, and will continue to do so, observers said.

"We're seeing more companies outsource these benefit functions, which are not their core businesses," said Jeffrey Close, vice president marketing at Access Research Inc., Windsor, Conn. "It's a way to reduce costs and make them more efficient."

Mellon officials said Buck Consultants would mesh well with its Dreyfus Corp. and Boston Co. subsidiaries. Dreyfus manages $80 billion in mutual funds, much of it in retirement-plan assets. Boston Co. provides administrative and custodial services for pension plans and other institutional investors.

Buying Buck is a "logical next step," said W. Keith Smith, a Mellon vice chairman. "We have a fairly significant penetration of this business already, and with the acquisition of Buck we think we'll be a leader."

Buck saw marriage with Mellon as a way "to leapfrog over our competitors," said Joseph A. LoCicero, president and chief executive officer of the New York. He is to retain his role under Mellon, reporting to Mr. Smith. Mr. LoCicero noted that Mellon has been a client of Buck's for 50 years.

Buck's client roster may have made the firm especially attractive to Mellon, said Mary Pat Thornton, a partner in the New York office of Putnam, Lovell & Thornton, a San Francisco-based investment bank. Buck said it serves pension and other benefit plans of more than 10 million active and retired employees, totaling $400 billion of assets.

"Consultants haven't been all that profitable, but this is a good deal for Mellon because they will get access to Buck's clients for their Dreyfus funds," Ms. Thornton said.

Still, the benefits consulting field is highly competitive and won't be easy for Mellon to crack, said Geoffrey Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in East Greenwich, R.I. "The challenge when you buy a block of business is to keep it, and then trying to move some of it into your own products," he said.

Buck helps companies decide if they want to install a 401(k) plan, a profit sharing plan, and what kind of health benefits to provide employees. The company also performs actuarial services, projecting for companies how much they will have to payout to current employees after retirement.

Mellon wants to capitalize on the explosive growth of assets being poured into retirement plans. Assets in 401(k) plans are expected to grow 15% annually over the next five years, and money into pension plans should jump 9% annually, according to Access Research.

Under the terms of the agreement, Buck will become a Mellon subsidiary under the direction of its current management team, and will act autonomously from other Mellon units, the bank said.

Mellon is not the only bank to acquire a benefits consulting company. Northern Trust Corp. purchased Hazelhurst Corp. in 1994 for $22.5 million. And State Street Boston Corp. formed a joint venture in 1993 with Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

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