People’s Bank in Bridgeport, Conn., has set a goal of doubling its insurance revenues in the next five years by buying more agencies, cross-selling, and developing insurance sales in its core businesses.

Barbara Johnson, senior vice president of the insurance services unit at $13.7 billion-asset People’s, said she expects cross-selling to grow dramatically as the insurance agents and bankers work together. “The opportunities are really endless, and they’re coming from places we hadn’t expected,” she said.

People’s has one of the more profitable bank insurance operations. In 2000 it accounted for about 5% of the company’s earnings of $108.4 million. And doubling the operation’s size does not seem a far-fetched goal: Last year its revenues rose 39%, to $18.8 million.

It is also one of the oldest bank insurance operations. People’s has been selling insurance to individuals for 60 years: In 1941, just a year after savings bank life insurance was created, People’s started its own SBLI program — which has continued, uninterrupted, to this day.

Ms. Johnson said that People’s decades of experience selling SBLI makes it easier for the bank to cross-sell insurance. Much of the staff is already comfortable with identifying life insurance prospects and making referrals, and selling other lines is just an extension of that, she said.

Most of the unit’s growth last year came from two acquisitions: R.C. Knox & Co., a full-service agency that People’s bought in 1998; and Beardsley, Brown & Bassett Inc., a commercial agency it purchased in 1999 that is now a subsidiary of R.C. Knox.

R.C. Knox sells commercial property/casualty insurance; employee benefit insurance, including life and health; and personal insurance for the wealthy, who often require specialized products for homes, cars, boats, and antiques. It also sells discounted auto and homeowners insurance at work sites to employees of its small-business clients. Based in Hartford, it primarily serves customers in northern Connecticut.

Beardsley Brown provides commercial property/casualty and employee benefit but no personal lines. The Bridgeport agency serves Fairfield County in southwestern Connecticut.

The unit also includes People’s Insurance Agency, which was founded in 1998 and sells personal insurance — including auto, homeowners, and life — through branch employees, the Internet, and the SBLI program.

The bank has 146 branches throughout the state, including 53 in Super Stop & Shop stores, and each has at least one agent who concentrates on life insurance.

The company sells annuities through People’s Securities Inc. rather than through its insurance unit. The brokerage and insurance operations market to each other’s customers and through other units but are run separately, Ms. Johnson said.

She intends to build the insurance business through acquisitions as well as internally — by cross-selling to People’s credit card, mortgage, and bank account customers, and creating new products. The company has no deals lined up right now, but any purchase would be “specific and targeted,” gaining a geographic area for the insurance unit or adding expertise, she said.

People’s commitment to remaining independent (and its mutual holding company structure, which makes acquiring it more difficult) helps the insurance unit as it pursues its own acquisitions, Ms. Johnson said.

“I think that helps when you’re talking to people who are giving up their independence and becoming part of a larger organization,” she said, because agencies do not fear being subsumed by a larger corporation and losing the autonomy they negotiated when they agreed to be bought.

She added that People’s existing customer base provides the best opportunities for organic growth.

Ms. Johnson is well qualified to lead the effort. A 26-year veteran of People’s, she helped expand the SBLI program early in her tenure, headed the telephone banking unit, and was a regional manager in the branch system before her appointment to her current position in 1997.

Bryan Huebner, executive vice president of consumer financial services at People’s, oversees insurance, investment planning services (including annuities), residential mortgage lending, and consumer deposits.

Cross-selling between all the units is important, according to Mr. Huebner. “Just having a loan with a client doesn’t make for a relationship.”

A key aspect of People’s strategy is to use different distribution channels, such as the phone center, the Web site, branches, and dedicated agents, to sell insurance products, Ms. Johnson said. The bank uses these channels to cross-sell to a range of clients, including retail branch customers, credit card holders, small-business banking customers, and borrowers.

The insurance unit markets existing products to bank customers and also builds products aimed specifically at capitalizing on the kinds of relationships a bank-owned agency can have with its customers and with other units, she said.

One such product, developed in a partnership between the commercial agents at R.C. Knox and the bank’s commercial lending division, is an environmental policy introduced in January.

The policy is designed to protect the bank against environmental liabilities from properties on which it has made loans. Most banks require a “phase one” environmental review before making a commercial loan because any environmental liabilities become the responsibility of the bank if a property is foreclosed on.

A buyer of this policy would not need to wait for the review and could be granted a loan much more quickly.

“This is good for the bank and the customer because it speeds up the loan process,” Ms. Johnson said.

The product was driven by the loan officers, who were looking for a way to expedite the loan process for their customers, she said. It saves customers the weeks it could take for the review to be completed, and it is an opportunity to sell additional coverage — such as a full-fledged environmental policy — after the loan closes.

Ms. Johnson said the environmental policy is an example of a banker and an agent working together, “because they really looked at the customer’s need first and then looked to solve the problem.”

A second example is a program, developed by R.C. Knox with help from People’s credit card team and introduced in early July, that insures online merchants against e-fraud. According to Ms. Johnson, the credit card department’s familiarity with e-fraud helped the Knox agents frame and refocus some of their ideas.

These new ideas demonstrate “the partnerships we have in the bank between the insurance operation and the banking operations, as well as the commitment from the top of the organization,” she said.

The lessons learned selling SBLI mean that “people understand what the goals are, and you make sure not to introduce a product without training people,” she said. “It’s a whole spectrum of knowledge and training and support that is necessary to manage an indirect sales force” making the referrals, she added.

Each employee must be trained to recognize a prospect, Mr. Huebner said. “Nobody goes down Main Street looking for life insurance.” But the referral and sales process cannot be pushy. “If you sell someone insurance they don’t need, they’ll cancel it three months later,” he said.

People’s already has 400 licensed branch reps — 100 of them series 6 licensed, which allows them to sell variable life products, Ms. Johnson said. The branch agents are continuing their training so that they can sell more products and are working with the securities unit to refer annuities customers.

There are also opportunities to work with other departments, such as trust services, she said.

Developing the skills to manage such a diversified sales force “takes a certain amount of years and a certain understanding of the organization,” Ms. Johnson said. She says her background selling insurance and banking products through various channels makes her “the glue between the bank and the insurance operations.”

Even with all of People’s plans, it remains to be seen whether the insurance unit can successfully cross-sell to loan, account, and credit card customers.

Heather L. Dilbeck, an analyst with Ryan Beck & Co., said: “It’s a nice opportunity if they can really get that business working. It definitely has room for expansion.”

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