Commerce Bancshares of Kansas City, Mo., is approaching insurance sales slowly.

In March the banking company hired Kevin Hennessy from a local competitor to head its insurance division, but it only recently started promoting the program.

"I wanted to have something to talk about," said Mr. Hennessy, former president of UMB Financial Corp.'s insurance program.

For now, Commerce is using its existing employees to sell insurance. Over the summer about 200 branch employees became licensed to sell term life products from Hartford Life Insurance Co. and CAN, and its brokers are adding insurance to their sales lines, he said.

Mr. Hennessy is betting on life insurance as the program leader, in part because of a gaping need for coverage.

About 60% of Americans don't have enough of it, Mr. Hennessy said.

The guiding principle is to "sell the customer what they need, not what we need," he added. Mr. Hennessy would not divulge sales figures for the life program.

Early next year Commerce will introduce personal, auto, and homeowners insurance, though Mr. Hennessy said he has yet to select what will be a very limited number of underwriters.

He said he is undeterred by the number of competitors entering the business because there's enough opportunity for everyone.

"I am confident that this will be a good business and a sizable one," Mr. Hennessy said.

Mr. Hennessy would not discuss insurance sales goals or projections. But Commerce's strength is its retail size, he said, and the banking company has more than 350,000 client households in Missouri, Illinois, and Kansas.

Commerce could succeed in insurance if they apply the same kind of commitment to this program that they've shown to other businesses, said Timothy W. Willi, a bank analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons.

"Commerce doesn't move quickly on things, they like to think about it," and the company enters only those businesses it plans to stick with, he said. Even though Commerce is going up against stiff competition from other insurance programs in its region, its proven cross-selling capabilities should help, he added.

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