Add Travelers Group to the growing list of insurance companies that are seeking to push their wares through banks.
In the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that banks may set up insurance agencies in small towns, the Hartford, Conn.-based insurer has hired a veteran at designing life insurance products to seek out bank clients and customize policies for them. And it recently signed up two additional banks to sell insurance.
"Life insurance is a natural for banks," said Michael Carpenter, chairman of the company's Travelers Life and Annuity Co. subsidiary. "The fact of the matter is most of the insurance companies I know have multiple approaches to the market. You've got to be in a position to sell to consumers where they want to buy."
The insurance industry is on a mad dash to turn banks into a vehicle to spark sales, which have been sluggish for nearly a decade. And many companies, including Travelers, are increasingly willing to risk the wrath of their agents by reaching out to banks, brokerages, and financial planners.
Prudential Life Insurance Co. has reportedly reeled in consultants to study community banks. And sources say Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., is planning to start up a third-party marketing firm to help banks manage their brokerage operations.
The efforts have intensified since the Supreme Court last March affirmed that Barnett Banks Inc. could open a small-town insurance operation. The ruling loosened limits states had previously imposed on banks.
According to the Life Insurance Marketing Research Association, Windsor, Conn., banks generated less than 1% of the $9.5 billion in total life insurance sales last year. But they have captured 15% of annuity sales, a product traditionally associated with insurance agents. And that, sources say, suggests that banks have lots of room to run.
"Selling life insurance through banks is the wave of the future," says Michael Blumstein, an analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co., who covers Travelers. "Any life company that doesn't do this is making a mistake."
Travelers has found some success over the past nine months selling term insurance through three banks, Mr. Carpenter said. He refused to name those banks or the two new additions to its client list.
The executive whom Mr. Carpenter hired to launch the company's sales through banks is Barry Jacobson, 36, a former senior vice president at Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. Mr. Jacobson begins his job July 29, Mr. Carpenter said.
Mr. Carpenter, who described the plans as "an important experiment," is giving Mr. Jacobson plenty of autonomy."It's up to him to figure out what he needs. It's a blank sheet of paper," he said.
At Connecticut Mutual, Mr. Jacobson was "a product guru," designing life insurance and variable annuities for business trade organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he said.
Mr. Jacobson acknowledged he isn't sure yet how to approach the bank market. "We're going to make it up as we go along," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Hartford.
"The bank market has huge potential, but I don't think anyone has figured it out yet," he said.
Consultants and competitors noted Mr. Jacobson has little experience selling insurance through banks. Connecticut Mutual has a division that sells annuities through banks, but Mr. Jacobson acknowledged that he had no direct involvement in that effort.
"He's going to have a lot to learn fast, because the banking industry is a very different environment from a career life insurance agency," said Valerie Jordan, a bank consultant in Belchertown, Mass., with an insurance specialty.
Mr. Carpenter pooh-poohed the criticism. "I don't think there's anybody in the insurance world that is Mr. or Ms. Bank Marketing," he said.
At Travelers, banks stand to play at least a small role for now in an aggressive corporate growth strategy. The company has beefed up the menu of offerings for the 100,000 part-time agents in its Primerica Financial Services unit.