Third-party marketer PrimeVest Financial Services is scrambling to reassure vendors and bank clients after the resignation of its top three executives.

The shake-up at PrimeVest started Jan. 27 when chief executive Stephen Fischer resigned, effective immediately.

Before the month was out, Michael Lenzmeier, executive vice president of operations, and Doreen Strand, executive vice president of sales and marketing, had tendered their resignations.

Industry observers said the departures grew out of friction that began when ReliaStar Financial Corp., a Minneapolis insurance company, bought PrimeVest in 1996. ReliaStar began urging the third-party marketer to sell more of its proprietary products-annuities, mutual funds, and life insurance, observers said.

Mr. Fischer could not be reached for comment. But Ms. Strand and Mr. Lenzmeier said in phone interviews that Mr. Fischer was forced out.

"It's not a product issue mainly," Ms. Strand said. The trio's "vision and mission" differed from ReliaStar's, she added.

Ruth Weber Kelley, a spokeswoman for ReliaStar, said Mr. Fischer left voluntarily.

In addition to ReliaStar products, St. Cloud, Minn.-based PrimeVest distributes products from Hartford, Nationwide, Putnam, and Franklin Templeton through its network of 600 small financial institutions. Ms. Kelley said ReliaStar wants PrimeVest to offer lots of product choice because that is the key to its success.

"While we definitely want to get our products on the shelf alongside everyone else," she said, "we're not looking for any special treatment or advantage."

Mr. Lenzmeier said he decided to leave the 14-year-old company because its culture had changed as it grew and was acquired by ReliaStar. He declined to elaborate.

In letters sent to hundreds of banks and vendors in recent days, PrimeVest said: "We remain dedicated to the financial institution marketplace and focused on product choice and the 'needs-based selling' approach we have always taken."

PrimeVest, which is being run by an interim management committee, also said it would move quickly to fill the three vacancies.

"We really regret that these three individuals resigned," Ms. Kelley said. "They are capable individuals who made a significant contribution to PrimeVest over the years."

PrimeVest posted sales of $3 billion in 1997, up from $2.3 billion in 1996. ReliaStar, with $20.3 billion of assets under management, is the nation's 12th-largest publicly held life insurance holding company.

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