Amid a flurry of merger rumors in the investment products marketing industry, one name repeatedly mentioned as a takeover target is Independent Financial Marketing Group.

The White Plains, N.Y., firm has been in the spotlight since a larger rival boasted three weeks ago about doubling its size through acquisitions.

The pledge came from Invest Financial Corp.'s president, Merlin Gackle, who has 241 banking clients. He said he would announce the deals within a month, but didn't name the companies he has targeted.

Roderick Halvorson, Independent Financial's president, denied his firm was the prey of Tampa, Fla.-based Invest despite speculation the two companies were close to a deal.

"There's nothing going down," Mr. Halvorson said.

But he does acknowledge that he and the three other principals of the firm have entertained offers.

"There have been some parties who have come in to see if we're available, but there's no 'for sale' sign out," he said.

It's clear that Independent Financial's client base of 108 banks would make a large target and help any of the five biggest players overshadow competitors in a crowded industry.

Independent also is attractive because it provides annuities and training services to big name banks, including Chase Manhattan Corp., Marine Midland Banks, Keycorp, and Boatmen's Bancshares.

Another large bank, Meridian Bancorp of Reading, Pa., uses Independent Financial to manage its brokerage unit. Independent supplies 47 brokers to that bank.

A host of third-party marketing firms like Independent Financial sprouted a decade ago to help banks break into investment products sales. Larger banks have since begun to manage those operations on their own, diminishing the role of third-party firms.

With fewer bank clients to go around among the estimated 450 third-party marketing firms, many marketing executives see acquisitions as critical to growing their businesses.

Founded in 1983, Independent Financial is the 14th-largest investment marketing firm in the country and the second-largest that is privately owned. Its clients span the country, but more than 40% are in the northeast.

"In the last three years, we've grown faster than any other marketing firm - that's what makes us so attractive," Mr. Halvorson said.

Indeed, the company has signed on 30 new bank clients during the past year, and 50 in the past three years.

Some observers said the company would make a risky acquisition by marketing firms owned by mutual fund or insurance companies.

Bank clients would probably flee if Independent was taken over by a company that emphasized the insurance or mutual fund products of its parent, said Richard Ayotte, president of American Brokerage Consultants, St. Petersburg, Fla.

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