Security First Group has developed a distinctive survival strategy in the crowded world of investment product marketers.

Grow by buying competitors? The idea makes executives at Los Angeles- based Security First queasy.

Instead the company, which helps 96 banks run annuity sales programs, teams up with other marketers to share clients and services.

Security First already has three such arrangements - including one with Corelink Resources, an investment marketing firm in Concord, Calif. - and wants to make more.

"When you buy a company, you control 100% of it, but you run the risk that the bank clients you're acquiring will leave or not produce the revenue you thought they would," said Michael McCoy, vice president of Security First's bank division.

Forming "strategic alliances," as Mr. McCoy called them, is the company's way of staying alive in a shrinking market that is crowded with competitors. In contrast, some marketing firms, such as Invest Financial Corp., Tampa, and Liberty Financial Bank Group, Boston, are bent on growing through acquisitions.

Mr. McCoy said Security First sees strategic alliances as a way to bring in new bank clients in markets where it doesn't operate. It concentrates on finding small investment product marketing firms with well-developed strongholds.

Security First, which has a narrow focus on annuities, also looks for companies whose wares complement its own. Corelink, for instance, is chiefly a mutual fund marketer.

The two companies hooked up about a year ago to supply broker-dealer services to 14 Security First clients in Michigan and Arkansas that wanted to expand into mutual funds. "They would have gone out to bid if we didn't bring in Corelink," Mr. McCoy said.

Security First has broker-dealer capabilities, but Mr. McCoy said the company knew it couldn't compete against more sophisticated programs. Corelink will soon begin selling Security First Group's annuities to its California bank clients as part of the arrangement.

Corelink provides record-keeping services, asset allocation programs, and computer software designed to help bank brokers sell mutual funds. Mr. McCoy said the two companies plan to add more banks to their alliance.

Security First has also hooked up with smaller firms, such as Bank Marketing, a Charlottesville, Va., firm that helps community banks manage brokerage units.

That company's president, Jeffrey McTague, trains bank brokers, tracks their sales, and helps banks choose the various investment products they will offer.

Security First has provided Mr. McTague with electronic hookups to instant issue technology. Security First will also tailor its annuity products to fit the needs of Mr. McTague's bank clients, including changing the commission structure on products.

Strategic alliances are difficult to maintain, said Richard Ayotte, president of American Brokerage Consultants, St. Petersburg, Fla.

"They need to be entered into very carefully," he said. "It's a given there are going to be times when one partner perceives the efforts of both are not equal."

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