Travelers Group, a competitor in almost every aspect of financial services, is in no rush to get into the trust business, a senior executive said this week.
The securities and insurance giant received a charter in November from the Office of Thrift Supervision that allows it to compete in the trust business nationwide. But according to Jon C. Madonna, a Travelers vice chairman, that is not in the cards for the New York-based company-at least for now.
"I wouldn't attach a lot to it," Mr. Madonna said of the thrift charter. Mr. Madonna spoke Tuesday in New York at a trust conference sponsored by the American Bankers Association and the Bank Marketing Association.
Travelers is one of several nonbank companies, including Merrill Lynch & Co. and Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co., that have recently sought charters from the OTS, allowing them to refer clients in any state to their trust subsidiaries.
These companies' ambitions in the trust business are a source of worry for bankers. With the ability to market their federal thrift-chartered trust capabilities, brokerages and insurance companies can keep more of their clients' assets under management.
But according to Mr. Madonna, Travelers, the $387 billion-asset parent of Salomon Smith Barney, does not plan to open a trust company anytime soon.
Travelers filed its charter application to take advantage of a regulatory opportunity, Mr. Madonna said. A bill before Congress would do away with new thrift charters.
"Right now we wouldn't do it. It's not on the list," he said.
Not everyone buys that. After all, Travelers offers consumers everything from insurance to stocks to credit cards.
"Perhaps he's still formulating his plans," said Edward D. Higgins, president of St. Louis-based Mercantile Bancorp's trust subsidiary.
Mr. Higgins, the conference's chairman, said he doubted that Sanford I. Weill, Travelers' acquisitive chairman and chief executive officer, would acquire a charter that he did not plan to use.
He speculated that Mr. Madonna may not have wanted to disclose his plans for the trust business to potential competitors at the conference.
But another banker attending the conference said she was not surprised that Travelers is not pursuing trust. The banker said she interviewed for a non-trust job at Travelers six months ago and was told that the company believes it takes too long to sell trust accounts to wealthy and upper- middle-class investors.
The trust business is "not high on the priority list," she said.
Mr. Madonna, a former chairman of KPMG Peat Marwick, joined Travelers a year ago to oversee international business development and personalized business. Much of his speech to the conference was devoted to describing how Travelers cross-sells its product lines to its customers.
Life insurance agents in its Primerica unit, for example, provide free financial plans to their customers, enabling Travelers to sell credit cards through its Commercial Credit Co. Similarly, lenders in Commercial Credit offices direct customers to red phones in their offices that connect to insurance agents.
Mr. Madonna said that bankers cannot cross-sell as effectively because they have "no affinity relationship" or brand identity. Travelers' efforts to sell auto and home insurance through banks have "not been successful," Mr. Madonna said because "the connection (between customers and banks) is not there."
Bankers and other conference attendees said it was unfair for Mr. Madonna to characterize their institutions as lacking savvy for cross- selling. They said regulatory restrictions had held them back from providing products in different lines of business.
"There have obviously been some regulatory issues banks are trying to deal with," said Kenneth C. Krei, executive vice president for investment services at Old Kent Financial Group, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Mr. Krei said Old Kent has combined trust, investment management, private banking, and brokerage to boost sales. The formerly separate divisions now offer a host of products to prospects who are gleaned from a single data base.
"Banks are starting to use the knowledge they have of clients as potential competitive advantages," Mr. Krei said.