Seafirst Bank's brokerage is circling the wagons.
Faced with the entry of heavyweight Wells Fargo & Co. into its Pacific Northwest territory, the Seattle-based bank is moving to defend its market lead. During the next few months, it plans to introduce a bevy of new investment products and launch a campaign to build on its name and 126-year history in Washington.
"We haven't had a world-class bank in our market, but when Wells comes, we will," said John Akin, executive vice president of investment management and trust services for Seafirst.
Thanks to its pending acquisition of First Interstate Bancorp., Wells will be in Seafirst's backyard as early as this autumn. Seafirst's Washington presence, with $12.45 billion in deposits, is three times as large as that of First Interstate. But when it comes to investment products, First Interstate's new owner has Seafirst beat.
Wells, with an $18.5 billion-asset mutual fund family, is a leader among banking companies in the fund business. It also sports a full line of investment products and a slew brokers to sell them.
"Wells is very aggressive and has a relatively mature investment program," said Kenneth R. Hoffman, president of Optima Group, a Fairfield, Conn.-based consulting firm. "For Seafirst to challenge that, they will have to move quickly."
That message is not lost on Penny Zega, senior vice president in charge of retail investments for Seafirst. To go up against Wells, Ms. Zega said she needs a salesforce three times as large as the 60 full-time brokers she has now, but a major expansion of the sales force isn't due until next year. Ms. Zega said for the time being she will concentrate on expanding the bank's product line.
"We have the customer loyalty, but we need a few more products where, frankly, Wells is ahead of us," Ms. Zega said.
Seafirst, a unit of BankAmerica Corp., plans to roll out, among other things, a revamped 401(k) retirement plan product, a money market sweep account, and an investment wrap account within the next six months, Ms. Zega said.
The 401(k) product will be introduced July 1. The plans will be priced daily and offer access via a toll-free telephone number - options not available through the bank's current product.
Plan participants will also have a broader mix of investment options, including some of BofA's proprietary Pacific Horizon Funds and Time Horizon Funds, Ms. Zega said.
The 401(k) product will be administered by BofA, but Seafirst took a lead role in developing its pricing and options. Ms. Zega said the product "was simply too expensive before, and it didn't have the options corporate sponsors are looking for."
The new wrap account, dubbed Portfolio Edge, will combine cash, mutual funds, and other investments for customers, for a flat fee. Ms. Zega would not disclose when the product would be rolled out, but it is available now to high-net-worth customers of BofA in some California cities.
Seafirst has relied on BofA for its packaged investment products since it was acquired by the California banking company in 1983.
But the bank has remained relatively independent of its parent, portraying itself as Seattle's hometown bank. Indeed, Seafirst officials are now betting customers will stick with the bank because they will see Wells as an interloper.
"We have better community ties to our customers than the brokerages and other banks do," said Seafirst's Mr. Akin. "Our plan is to build around the bank's relationship with the customer and to go from there."
To do that, Seafirst is doubling its advertising budget over last year's. It is also holding 100 financial seminars around town and sponsoring a daily financial news report on KOMO-AM, a local radio station.
Ric Sarro, a senior broker for Seafirst, reads the "Money Minute" segment on the air six times a day from a small cubicle in Seafirst Investments Services' offices in downtown Seattle.
Mr. Sarro, who worked as a radio news reporter for 12 years, delivers his spiel with aplomb. Flanked by two Bloomberg terminals that feed him up- to-the-minute market information, he said he tries "to translate all this financial info to tell the consumer what this means for their pocketbook."
Richard Van Cise, program and news director for KOMO, said he wasn't concerned that a bank wouldn't be perceived as a credible provider of financial insight.
Seafirst "is well known in the Pacific Northwest," he said. "The way the financial industry is working now, most people are aware that banks are offering consumer investment products."