After years of helping banks set up and run investment sales programs, third-party marketing firms are now rushing to add life insurance products to the mix.

The Laughlin Group of Companies, for instance, plans to increase its insurance salesforce tenfold to 121 agents. Other large marketers, including Invest Financial Corp., GNA Corp., and Independent Financial Marketing Group, also have plans to add life insurance agents and to broaden their insurance offerings.

"This expansion is an absolute must for us," said Laughlin Group's chairman, Paul A. Laughlin.

Such aggressive moves by third-party marketers, say experts, will become more common as these firms grapple for ways to keep existing bank clients and to attract new business.

"If third-party marketers plan to grow, or even just stay in business, then they will have to take a look at" offering life insurance products, said Michael White, an insurance consultant based in Radnor, Pa.

Like many companies that provide services to banks, these firms have been squeezed in recent years as bank clients have either been acquired, or in many cases, have outgrown the need for their services.

Lynn M. Smelt, a senior vice president for Invest, said the company has stepped up efforts to get more of its brokers licensed to sell life insurance.

Last July, the company put on a roadshow to familiarize brokers with the products and added a life insurance component to its financial planning software.

Invest's premium volume was eight times higher in 1995 than in 1994, with most of the growth coming in the latter part of the year. This year, the company said it expects to take in twice as much as last year.

"Banks know what's coming down the regulatory pike, and they want to be well-positioned to offer these products," Ms. Smelt said.

Indeed, since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision allowing banks to sell insurance from towns with populations of up to 5,000, many banks have expressed interest in selling life insurance. Some, such as Barnett Banks Inc. and NationsBank Corp., have plans already laid out.

The Laughlin Group, recently acquired by Allstate Insurance Co., currently is selling insurance through four banks, Mr. Laughlin said. The company said it plans to sign on six more within the next 30 to 45 days, including one eastern bank with more than $40 billion of assets. Mr. Laughlin would not disclose names.

While insurance sales bring in only about 5% of Laughlin Group's total revenue, Mr. Laughlin said he expects it to rise to 50% of revenue by 1999.

"Our annuity and securities business will be maturing in two years, to probably 25% of our business," he said. "But I see insurance (revenue) doubling every year for the next four or five years."

Companies like Independent Financial and GNA Corp., which own or are affiliated with large insurance companies, are hoping to leverage their expertise and relationships to gain more bank clientele.

GNA, owned by GE Capital, is considering offering insurance products through its bank investment programs.

The products could include, but aren't limited to, single-term life, variable life, long-term care, and disability insurance, said Laurence M. Richmond, GNA's vice president of business development financial institutions.

A spokesman for Liberty Financial Cos., which owns Independent Financial, said the firm is looking for ways to market insurance through banks effectively, and will be coming out with a service in the future.

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