A small online insurance company says it will spend the year helping credit unions catch up to banks in offering auto insurance online.

Esurance Inc. of San Francisco, which last year became E-Loan Inc.’s exclusive provider of auto insurance, made its first appearance Monday on a credit union site — that of $500 million-asset California Coast Credit Union in San Diego.

And that is just the beginning, said Thomas Capp, Esurance’s director of national accounts. Credit unions are “a huge, wide-open market” for online insurance providers, he said. That is why that in marketing to depository institutions, Esurance will concentrate on credit unions this year, Mr. Capp said.

Negotiations with other credit unions are in progress, he said, and the company expects to announce deals with some this year.

Last year chief executive officer Jean-Bernard Duler said a key part of the company’s strategy for 2001 would be to sign up financial institutions. Why did it decide to focus on credit unions?

Mr. Capp said that since Esurance is small, it now can do a better job of serving small outfits, such as credit unions. The company — a subsidiary of White Mountains Insurance Group of Hamilton, Bermuda — wants to test distribution through smaller partners before trying to serve bigger ones that do business in multiple states, he said.

Esurance’s own Web site also offers the auto insurance it underwrites, as do those of other client companies, he noted.

Rene McKee, California Coast’s vice president of marketing, said she knew of no other credit union offering auto insurance online.

California Coast had two reasons to do so, Ms. McKee said. “First is to offer value to our members, since we are always looking for services to provide. Second, we want to be able to build traffic to the Web site” in ways members find useful.

The credit union and Esurance refused to discuss their financial arrangement.

California Coast, whose members are mostly teachers, students, and their families in the San Diego area, already has a extensive online menu, including online banking, bill payment, auto loans, and term life insurance quotes. Esurance added auto insurance quotes as well as purchases of auto coverage — its own — both online and over the phone.

The life insurance that California Coast sells is provided by the credit union specialist CUNA Mutual Insurance Society of Madison, Wis. California Coast also sells its annuities and investment products, but not online.

CUNA Mutual also offers auto liability, collision, and extended-warranty coverage — but not online, and in any case, California Coast does not offer these.

Nor does it sell CUNA Mutual’s other products, which include health, private mortgage, homeowners, accidental death and dismemberment policies and other life products. None of these can be bought online, but quotes on the term life and accidental death and dismemberment policies are available through some credit union Web sites.

Though Esurance, which now offers only auto policies, plans to add homeowners and renters coverage, Mr. Capp said he would not try to displace CUNA Mutual products.

Esurance’s own Web site also offers the auto insurance it underwrites, as do those of other client companies, he noted.

Carmen Effron, the president of the C.F. Effron Co. consulting firm in Westport, Conn., said most credit unions are only starting to get involved in doing business online. “If you look at technology, insurance companies are behind banks, banks are behind securities companies, and credit unions are behind all of them,” she said.

Credit unions’ small size makes it harder for them to develop insurance quoting capabilities on their own, Ms. Effron said. That makes them prime candidates to work with service providers.

Mr. Capp said it is easier for credit unions and other small financial institutions to offer auto insurance through his company than by running an agency, with all the administrative work that entails.

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