Most insurers see banks as just one more sales outlet, but one South African underwriter wants to make banks its sole avenue to the U.S. market.

Sage Life Assurance of America Inc., a new unit of Sage Group, Johannesburg, plans to sell insurance products designed for the bank channel. The new unit is to be based in Stamford, Conn.

The company expects that early next year it will receive Securities and Exchange Commission registration approval for a line of annuities, single- premium, flexible premium, and term life insurance.

Sage would begin selling its new products through Independent Financial Marketing Group of White Plains, N.Y., a third-party marketer to banks, said Robin Marsden, president of the new unit. The insurer then would add other third-party marketers and eventually go directly to banks, he said.

"The strategy of the company is really to be a product manufacturer working with banks," Mr. Marsden said. "The bank market is something we know, and we think it's a great opportunity."

Sage says banks are poised to become big players in insurance sales in the United States, just as they were in South Africa in the early 1970s.

At that time, a small percentage of insurance was sold through banks in South Africa. Banks there have become a major player in insurance sales, accounting for a sizable minority of all insurance sold, Mr. Marsden said.

Sage does have some understanding of U.S. banks. It founded Independent Financial in 1984, then sold it in 1995 to Liberty Financial Cos.

But one consultant warned that Sage would have a difficult time succeeding by selling only through banks.

"Putting all your eggs in one basket doesn't seem wise," said Mary Ann Godbout, a consultant with Conning & Co., Hartford, Conn.

Ms. Godbout said Sage might have success in tailored annuities that are selling well through banks. But insurance is a mature, slow-growth industry in the United States, and she said that building a business through banks- where life insurance sales are insignificant - will be a challenge.

"I'm not saying it won't work, but it's something that's going to take time," Ms. Godbout said. "I think it's going to require a lot of effort."

Mr. Marsden agrees that life insurance is a hard sell compared with products such as mutual funds. However, he says a concerted education effort would help to make a difference.

Sage plans to have three employees who work with bank life specialists to educate the public about life insurance, he said. Sage also would add 10 to 12 wholesalers and marketers to its U.S. staff of 14.

"It's a little bit shocking how little life insurance Americans have," Mr. Marsden said. "There's obviously an opportunity banks have."

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