Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., one of the country's biggest life insurers, is betting big on banks.

The company announced plans Thursday to acquire Security First Group, an annuity manufacturer and third-party marketer through banks, for $377 million.

In addition to selling its annuities directly to 16 banks, Security First provides an array of support services to 60 smaller banks around the country.

The deal comes as major insurers are grappling with how best to sell their wares through banks. MetLife last year set up its own bank distri- bution division, but it has signed up only one bank.

"We saw it as an opportunity to jump-start what was an incubator project," said Joe Reali, senior vice president for MetLife's department of bank financial services.

By buying Security First, which is owned by London (Ontario) Insurance Group, MetLife could build a powerful bank presence, competitors said.

"If this is what MetLife is going to use to leverage their entry into the bank third-party marketing side, there might be reason for concern in the future," said the head of one insurer's bank channel division.

New York-based MetLife is not the first insurer to buy a third-party marketer. Last year, Reliastar Financial Corp., Minneapolis, brought Primevest Financial Services, St. Cloud, Minn., for $15 million. Also last year, Allstate Life Insurance Co. bought Laughlin Group, a Beaverton, Ore., firm, for an undisclosed price.

But unlike those less expensive targets, Security First also manufactures annuities. And it boasts a large business in taxed deferred individual retirement accounts with public employees of schools, universities, states, and municipalities.

Of the company's assets of more than $4 billion, the bank division accounts for a third but is said to have greater growth potential than the "qualified plan" side.

Security First was reportedly up for sale three years ago, but no buyer was willing to meet the asking price, said a person familiar with the company. The source said he believed the asking price was less than the price announced yesterday-but the company was smaller as well.

Both sides of the business will expand MetLife's reach, said Harry P. Kamen, chairman, president, and chief executive.

"MetLife's acquisition of Security First Group, like our merger with The New England last year, is a strategic transaction that adds significant value to MetLife's core business by extending the company's market reach," said Mr. Kamen in a statement.

Insurance companies that distribute through banks are likely to watch closely to see how much muscle MetLife puts behind cracking open the bank channel.

With $149 million in annuity sales through banks last year, Security First is only a mid-level player among third-party marketers. But its new owner could seek to change that.

A similar deal took place in 1993, when GE Capital bought GNA Corp. from Weyerhauser Co. for $525 million.

GNA Corp., which is the biggest manufacturer and distributor of annuities through banks, sold $467 million of fixed annuities and $12 million of variable annuities last year.

Los Angeles-based Security First sold $82 million of fixed annuities and $67 million in variables last year. In the first quarter of this year it sold $44 million in annuities, according to Kenneth Kehrer Associates, Princeton, N.J.

Brian J. Finneran, Security First's head of bank channel operations, said more than $170 million worth of annuities has been sold through July of this year. He attributed the jump to the fact that the company signed up 25 banks this year. Most of the annuities it sells are proprietary.

As a third-party marketer, Security First handles a range of tasks for its clients, typically small banks. It supervises, trains, and coaches staff, handles administrative and compliance duties, and in many cases sits nose-to-nose with customers to sell them annuities.

The firm also wholesales annuities to bigger banks including Signet Bank, Richmond, Va., and Mercantile Bank, St. Louis, Mo.

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