AKRON, Ohio - Felice Larmer concedes that FirstMerit Corp.'s commercial clients are not lining up to buy insurance from the $10 billion-asset banking company.
But FirstMerit is starting to collect referral fees - and may be laying the groundwork for future insurance sales - through a venture it entered just over a year ago with the Cleveland agency James B. Oswald Co. Insurance sales are "very low, but right now that's not the point," said Ms. Larmer, president of FirstMerit Investment Services.
FirstMerit is among the banking and insurance companies seeking to broaden offerings now that barriers between the industries have been lowered. As a result of the venture with Oswald, FirstMerit's commercial clients are aware that it offers and has expertise in commercial insurance, Ms. Larmer said.
James Overholt, senior consultant and manager of financial services programs for Milliman & Robertson, a Chicago consulting firm, said joint ventures are "a real good way to test the waters."
"Too many banks jump in and buy the agency from the beginning," he said.
Ventures like FirstMerit's are not new, Mr. Overholt said. "I've seen it at a number of places."
FirstMerit picked a strong partner in Oswald, the largest privately held agency in Cleveland and 68th largest in the United States. It wrote about $18 billion in premiums last year, including "tons of commercial insurance," according to Ms. Larmer.
"We'll contact one of our commercial clients and tell them that we have a strategic alliance with Oswald," she said. "Then, we'll offer to send a risk manager from Oswald over to sit down and assess their risk. More often than not, we'll find that there are gaps of insurance that should be filled."
The bank then offers to fill the gaps, but the client more often than not goes back to its own agency to purchase the missing insurance. However, FirstMerit collects a quarterly fee based on the number of referrals, in addition to fees for clients that actually purchase from Oswald.
"Even if they don't buy it from us, we've added value. So we're like a consultant," Ms. Larmer said. "Our client spends a half day with us and finds out there are uncovered risks that would have cost a fortune, and we'll get a bigger loan out of it. Or if not, we've improved our relationship."
Still, she admits that strengthening the relationship with clients will not be enough a year from now. "This year we've had around 250 commercial leads and 21 sales," Ms. Larmer said. "We're thrilled with the leads, and the sales should increase."
She added that the bank has to be more assertive in selling commercial insurance.
"Insurance has been ancillary to what we really do," Ms. Larmer said. "Now, we have to look at it as another financial services product that we deliver."
She would not rule out buying an agency, which other banks have done with varying degrees of success.
"But the only way I could envision owning [an agency] ourselves is if we can deliver with the same level of expertise that our partner does," Ms. Larmer said.
John Wepler, vice president of merger and acquisition services for Marsh Berry Inc. of Concord, Ohio, said that strategy is well thought out, because too many banks "purchase agencies for all the wrong reasons." Many buy the first that becomes available, because that is the easiest way to get into the business, he said.
"A good bank buys the best agency," Mr. Wepler said. "If a bank doesn't go after a high-performing, diversified agency, they're going to have problems."
Before it buys an agency, a bank needs to pay close attention to the agency's size, markets, age of shareholders, historical growth, and lines of business, he said.