SunTrust Banks Inc., already one of the best-established bank marketers of investment products, is deepening that commitment with the introduction of its own line of variable annuities.

The Atlanta-based banking company is launching the annuities this month, following a series of training rallies for branch salespeople in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee.

The proprietary annuities "are a logical extension of our investment products array," said Hamilton Smith, senior vice president of SunTrust Banks.

SunTrust is linking the annuities to four of its STI Classic mutual funds. The product will also include a money market fund overseen by Federated Investors and five fixed portfolios whose rates are set at different annual intervals.

SunTrust chose Allstate Life Insurance Co. to underwrite the annuity contracts, a role that is off-limits to banks under the Glass-Steagall Act. The agreement between the two companies supplies SunTrust with a name partner and gives Allstate its first crack at working on a bank proprietary annuity.

During the past three years, several big banks have joined up with insurance underwriters to offer their own variable annuities. "The big regional banks are increasingly going in that direction," said Andrew Singer, managing director of Bank Insurance Market Research Group, Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Banks, he said, "see a kind of franchise value in putting their name on the product."

Many of the early proprietary products were slow out of the starting gate, but industry observers say SunTrust's products carry built-in momentum.

The bank's STI Classic mutual funds - by virtue of intensive marketing and oversight from SunTrust money management legend Anthony K. Gray - have a higher profile than many other bank funds.

The characteristics should make customers more comfortable about placing their money in these annuities, analysts said.

With 650 branches, SunTrust also has the kind of broad network that can quickly raise investment dollars to get the products' assets to the critical mass needed for profitability. An executive who worked on the SunTrust project said the family of annuities will need to gather $75 million to $100 million of assets before turning a profit.

The product introduction comes as SunTrust is restructuring its annuity sales program to allow more of its own people to sell the products. In Florida, where the insurance department recently dropped a ban against bank employees selling annuities, SunTrust will hire salespeople from its investment product marketer, Laughlin Group of Companies.

The Florida annuity sales team, now made up of 20 Laughlin employees, will grow to 80 SunTrust representatives by early next year, a Laughlin spokesman said.

For at least the time being, Laughlin will continue to run SunTrust's annuity program in Georgia, which still makes it hard for bank employees to sell annuities.

Laughlin has worked with SunTrust for five years and has an even stronger relationship with Allstate, which purchased the company last month.

Jamie Corbin, Laughlin's retail product manager, said the selection of Allstate as SunTrust's annuity partner was merely a coincidence.

Laughlin's work on the Sun trust annuity "was done way before" buyout discussions with Allstate began, Mr. Corbin said. "Our main tenant remains that we're product neutral."

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