A number of large insurance companies have signaled plans to sell more through banks and other nontraditional outlets.

But New York Life Insurance Co., the nation's fifth-largest life insurer, won't join them anytime soon.

Sy Sternberg, chairman and chief executive officer, said New York Life will continue to sell life insurance and annuities through its 7,000 agents.

And though insurers such as Travelers, John Hancock, Nationwide, and Prudential are broadening their menus to become "financial services companies," Mr. Sternberg said New York Life is happy as a pure insurance company.

"Sometimes you want to go in the opposite direction of the herd," he said.

In a speech at a recent insurance industry conference, Mr. Sternberg staked out a position as an industry contrarian.

Though life insurance executives are courting banks like never before, New York Life's chief executive openly questioned how successful banks will be in all aspects of the business.

"I think they can do term insurance well, because it's a transaction- oriented business," said Mr. Sternberg.

"Banks operate more on a transaction than on a relationship basis."

By contrast, Mr. Sternberg said, life insurance agents have the skills and experience to sell a wide variety of insurance products, including complex variable life policies that carry high premiums.

Mr. Sternberg called his company's agency system a "long-term sustainable market differentiator."

"We have the ability to control them, compared to the brokerage world. Our best advertising investment is our agent force."

Though other companies are trying to sell through various channels, Mr. Sternberg said that is disloyal to agents.

"How do you introduce supplemental distribution without offending the agent?" he asks.

But consumers are changing the way they choose insurance and other financial services products.

Many financial services companies are experimenting with the Internet and other nontraditional distribution outlets.

"I disagree with that philosophy that New York Life has," said Glen Milesko, president of Banc One Insurance Group.

"If they have a lot invested in their agency force, the have to defend that."

But insurance experts empathize with Mr. Sternberg's position.

It can cost up to $150,000 to train an agent, and Mr. Sternberg does not want them quitting because their own company is not supporting them.

"Given this company's investment in the agency system, if I were him, I would be talking like that," said John S. Scheid, a New York-based insurance consultant with PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Steven M. Landberg, the head of the insurance practice at Sibson & Co., added: "If you're a New York Life or a MetLife, the career agents are your biggest asset-a personal sales force that can provide value-added advice."

Mr. Landberg, Mr. Scheid, and others said New York Life will have no choice in the coming years but to supplement its sales effort.

The company is experimenting with direct-mail marketing to members of the American Association of Retired Persons.

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