Cross Marketing Inc., a third-party marketer of investment products, has formed an alliance with the trade group of Wisconsin savings and loan associations.

The Peapack, N.J., firm has joined forces with Wisconsin Financial Services, the for-profit subsidiary of the Wisconsin League of Financial Institutions, to offer investment services to the league's 46 members.

Trade groups are a highly coveted business for third-party marketers because they provide access to a large pool of potential customers. In turn, these marketers give smaller banking institutions the efficiencies of larger ones.

Founded in 1988, Cross' chief product has typically been annuities. Cross is considered a middle-tier third-party marketer, competing against larger companies like Essex Corp., Invest Financial, and LPL Financial.

James J. Fridl, president of Cross Marketing, said the deal complements a 1995 endorsement from America's Community Bankers, Washington.

Wisconsin Financial's clients, Mr. Fridl said, "can choose a suite of services that will allow them to be competitive with the money-centers."

Kenneth Kehrer & Associates, Princeton, N.J., ranks Cross as No. 18 among third-party marketers. In 1996, Mr. Kehrer said, Cross sold $93 million in fixed annuities and $20 million in general securities and mutual funds.

Mr. Fridl said that mix has changed. Though the sales total is still around $113 million, he said, 40% is in fixed annuities.

Trade groups continue to be interested in third-party marketers, Mr. Kehrer said, "to provide services to members and to earn revenues. Most of these trade groups have for-profit subsidiaries and sell insurance through their subsidiaries."

Karl B. Melnick, president of Wisconsin Financial Services, Brookfield, Wis., said his group initially wanted to become an insurance product wholesaler.

"But in talking with league members, we realized half did not have any retail investment program," he said. "So we elected to affiliate ourselves with a third-party marketer so our members could have a complete program rather than just one product."

Mr. Melnick said the league also decided to work with a third-party marketer to help its members hold on to their customers.

"A lot of our league members feel that the greatest competition is the mutual fund companies and the local insurance agencies," he said.

Mr. Melnick said that Wisconsin Financial also plans to sell Cross products outside its membership.

Cross offers 5,000 mutual funds from 200 fund families. The families also include 295 bank proprietary funds and 850 no- loads.

"Third-party firms have long sought the endorsement of trade groups," said Richard Ayotte, president of American Brokerage Consultants in St. Petersburg, Fla. "They have a certain amount of influence over the managers of banks" and "securities is an area that is generally outsourced for small and midsize businesses."

Mr. Ayotte added that of the 68 banking institutions using Cross' programs, 50 have less than $500 million of assets.

"That's exactly why small banks should use them," Mr. Ayotte said. "They offer services and can bring to the table all the parts and pieces of the investment services business that it would be difficult or impossible for small banks to duplicate on their own."

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