St. Louis shopkeepers and small-business owners have been getting some unexpected visitors lately: officers of Mark Twain Bancshares pitching its retirement-plan products.

Loan and trust officers for the $3 billion-asset banking company have been peppering local business owners with telephone calls and visits to plug its merchant and corporate services, including bundled 401(k) plans.

"The appetite for these services from small businesses is enormous," said Nancy E. Graves, senior vice president in charge of retail banking. "They just haven't been called on" by banks before.

Mark Twain is following the lead of other banking companies that have chosen to gear their retirement services to small and midsize plans, in which most of the growth in 401(k)s is occurring.

Since January, Mark Twain bankers have made more than 1,800 calls on area businesses. About 10% of those calls have yielded new relationships for the bank, Ms. Graves said.

The handshakes and cold calls haven't reaped instant results for Mark Twain's 401(k) business, but some observers say its a tactic that more banks should adopt.

"Any practice that a bank takes that gets its name and products noticed by the consumer is a good first step," said Alexander S. Rose, a Boston- based consultant.

Mark Twain's strategy, which is part of a Neighborhood Banking initiative, calls for bank officers and executives to begin knocking on local merchants' doors at 7 in the morning. After fanning out over an area, the bankers tally their results and meet to plot a follow-up plan of direct mailings and telephone calls.

"The owners of these small business are usually shocked" by the hands-on attention, said Melanie Hoerstkamp, vice president of retail management, who orchestrates much of the canvassing.

A side benefit, she added, is that the sales pitches can often generate interest among employees and customers present in Mark Twain's banking and investment services.

Ms. Graves said the bank will continue the program through the rest of the year. She would not disclose how many corporate clients have signed on for the bank's retirement services, but said she expects to have several plans in place by yearend.

Mark Twain markets Federated Investors' LifeTrack bundled 401(k). The product, which is administered by Federated for Mark Twain, offers plan participants several mutual funds including portfolios managed by Janus Capital Corp. and Warburg Pincus Investments as well as Mark Twain and Federated.

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