Sun Life Financial Inc. has added new leadership to its U.S. annuities division to increase variable annuity sales, but analysts say the Toronto company has to overcome larger competitors as well as wary advisers and consumers.

Terry Mullen, the president of the division, Sun Life Financial Distribution in Wellesley, Mass., who was hired from Lincoln Financial Group last year, said Sun Life has "aggressively topgraded" its wholesalers over the past fives months to boost distribution.

It has the same number of wholesalers it did at the end of 2008, but added 30 from competitors, Mullen said. "When you are No. 17 or No. 18 in the industry, it can be hard to attract talent, because the bigger players can offer wholesalers larger territories where they can sell more," he said in an interview. "But when there is dislocation in the industry, there is an opportunity for a firm like ours to attract talent that previously we couldn't attract."

As the U.S. annuities division hired stronger wholesalers from larger rivals, it began identifying underperforming wholesalers at Sun Life who could be fired, Mullen said. "We put them on a performance watch list and carefully looked at metrics such as productivity and activity and notified them that they weren't performing well. Then we started to replace them," he said.

In the first quarter Sun Life's variable annuity sales rose 21.8%, to $580.1 million, from the previous quarter. By comparison, sales rose 8.3% for all variable annuity providers during that period, according to Morningstar Inc.'s Variable Annuity Research Data Service.

Stephen L. Deschenes, hired this month as president and general manager of U.S. annuities for Sun Life, said it plans to add sales through "key advisers" and to ratchet up its marketing so it can sustain the momentum it built in the first quarter.

Mullen said the company "needs to get on the shelf at more banks. Sun Life just doesn't have a well-known brand in certain channels. We want to increase advertising in trade publications and ultimately through consumer publications this year."

Deschenes said he expects "substantial" growth in variable annuity sales for Sun Life over the next 12 to 24 months.

But Michael White, the head of Michael White Associates, said he remains "sanguine about" the prospects of a resurgence in variable annuities. "I think there has been a change in the psyche of the American consumer," he said. "It is all about scrimping and saving. People want safety and guarantees, and I think it will be that way for a while. People are going to be wary of variable annuities and any investment products that aren't guaranteed."

Kenneth Kehrer, the director of the research firm Kehrer-Limra, said sales of variable annuities were "really disappointing" in the first quarter as mutual funds sales outperformed them. "We expected that given the guarantees provided by variable annuities that they'd be attractive in this market," he said. "We are really bewildered that they haven't done better."

Kehrer said the uncertainty about insurance companies has left advisers skeptical about variable annuities.

Analysts said a small group of annuity providers, including Hartford Financial Group and Axa Group, have dominated the bank channel for years and it could be difficult for Sun Life to increase sales through banks.

Deschenes, who was a senior vice president and chief marketing officer for MassMutual Financial Group's retirement income group, said he believes Sun Life can challenge the largest variable annuity companies.

"A lot of providers are looking at the same set of facts right now, and some have pulled back rather than look for ways to increase share," he said. "I think that there is a real opportunity here to offer products and services that customers will need to repair the retirement income they have lost in the past year."

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