Over the past three years, roughly 40 banking trade associations - state, regional, and national - have endorsed the services of investment product marketing firms. Their aim: to help members sort through the time- consuming, even mind-bending chore of finding a brokerage partner.
Such endorsements can be a boon to banks, greatly simplifying a potentially complicated decision that hundreds are expected to tackle in coming years. Even so, banks need to carefully weigh their choices.
A trade group's stamp on a marketing firm means "you're fairly sure it's stable and reputable," said Brian Garrett, chief executive at East County Bank, Antioch, Calif. But "the endorsement doesn't necessarily answer whether a marketing company and a bank are compatible."
That's a lesson he learned through experience. Three years ago, the $41 million-asset bank signed on with CoreLink Resources, Concord, Calif., a marketing firm endorsed by the California Bankers Association.
Mr. Garrett said he soon realized that he wanted his employees to play a broader role in investment sales than CoreLink was comfortable with. "The two parties don't always see things the same way," said Roger Loar, president of CoreLink.
After a year, Mr. Garrett switched his investment program to Affiliated Financial Services, Englewood, Colo. The firm was endorsed by the Western Independent Bankers, and Mr. Garrett, an active member of the regional trade group, had helped interview the firms that competed for the patronage.
Compatibility isn't the only issue. Before relying on endorsements, experts say, banks need to be sure that the trade association has done its homework.
When a trade group endorses an investment marketer, "it is acting as a surrogate for the bank," noted Richard Ayotte, president of American Brokerage Consultants, St. Petersburg, Fla. And that, he said, means the trade group should have quizzed vendors extensively before bestowing its blessing.
Among the basic questions:
*What is the marketing firm's financial condition?
*How many financial institutions use its services, and how large are they?
*How extensive is the product menu?
*What training, marketing, and technology services are available to client banks?
For investment product marketers, the upside of a trade association endorsement is simple: "It's like getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," Mr. Ayotte said.
Associations, for their part, view such endorsements as a way to give member banks some extra value for their membership dues.
Western Independent Bankers, for instance, promotes its deal with Affiliated Financial Services as "a premium of membership," according to Nancy Sheppard, executive director of the San Francisco-based trade group.
Members who sign up with Affiliated get higher payouts on sales of annuities and mutual funds, Ms. Sheppard said. For a $100 million-asset bank, the arrangement could bring $8,970 straight to the bottom line.
Associations also earn fees on their endorsements, Mr. Ayotte noted. "There's nothing wrong with that. The association goes to some expense to arrive at their endorsement, and if they're doing it right, they continue to have expenses" from monitoring the investment marketer and pitching services to members.
Still, Mr. Ayotte acknowledged, "it's a fair question" for bankers to ask about the association's cut.
He also urges bankers to ask their trade association which other companies they considered before making the endorsement, and what factors prompted them to choose the vendor they did.
"If the response is 'They were the ones who were willing to pay us the most,' that would be a terrible red flag," Mr. Ayotte said. "Their motivation should be to help institutions and save them money by going out and doing the legwork for them."
The Florida Bankers Association put Invest Financial Corp., Tampa, under great scrutiny before awarding an endorsement to it last month, according to John E. Milstead, the association's executive vice president.
For instance, he said, Invest - which Nashville's First American Corp. is to acquire April 30 - had to prove that it could offer banks first-rate help in explaining investment risks to customers. And it agreed to offer association members a discount on its services.
Likewise, Ms. Sheppard said the Western Independent Bankers took its endorsement so seriously that it spent two years sorting through 400 candidates. Because the association was choosing services that could be offered to its entire group, she said, "we needed to make sure we had a standard that was higher than for an individual purchase."
Bankers who have acted on their associations' endorsements said they're reasonably satisfied with the results.
A nod from the Texas Bankers Association led First National Bank of Bryan to its first investment partner, Austin-based NAP-Aragon, in 1994.
"It gave us comfort that the trade group had interviewed them and done due diligence," said Timothy N. Bryan, vice chairman of the $185 million- asset bank. "It got us past the character issue, if you will, and into analyzing the operations."
Though the relationship recently ended over a nagging dissatisfaction with NAP-Aragon's back-office support and the departure of some well-liked account representatives, Mr. Bryan said he doesn't fault the Texas Bankers Association.
First National's new vendor is Primevest Financial Services - which the bank had considered in 1994 on the strength of an endorsement from the Independent Bankers Association of Texas.
Primevest's support from the Independent Bankers "certainly made them a nominee," but Mr. Bryan said the endorsement wasn't the decisive factor the second time around. "We have expertise internally now, and we're better able to decide ourselves."