A former banker has entered the e-commerce business-to-business world with a new company that helps brokers search online for 401(k) plans to suit their corporate clients.

David Gilbert, who was chairman of the board at California Federal Bank in San Francisco from 1992 to 1997, started 401Konnect Inc. in January. The company helps brokers use the Internet to sift through the growing array of 401(k) providers among mutual fund companies and insurers.

"It's a very fragmented market with very poor information flow," said Mr. Gilbert, president of 401Konnect in Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Gilbert has spent time cutting his teeth in the technology sector since leaving the banking company. Most recently he was chief executive of Cats Software Inc. and Banking Decision Systems.

As the number of 401(k) providers has grown, so too has the use of intermediaries, or brokers, in selling the plans to companies that in turn offer them to their employees. About two-thirds of 401(k) plans purchased in 1997 were bought through intermediaries, according to the most recent data from Spectrem Group of New York.

401Konnect helps brokers choose plans from the 401(k) Provider Directory, a proprietary database of 89 providers.

Brokers plug information about plan sponsors' needs into 401Konnect's system, which identifies providers that could meet those specifications. 401Konnect then requests proposals from providers. The service is free to brokers, but in about three months providers would pay to be listed in the database, Mr. Gilbert said. The fee will be based on qualified leads and has not yet been set, he said.

The company is one of several that use the Internet to help brokers, plan sponsors, or both to find 401(k) providers for their customers. These companies essentially act as middlemen to make information gathering and communication more efficient.

It is "too early to say whether there's winners or losers out there," said Gerry O'Connor a consultant at Spectrem. But it is "obviously an efficient way of getting information out."

Being listed in these directories can be a boon for 401(k) providers since it increases their potential to attract business.

"It's like being in the Yellow Pages. You have to be there because you get a certain amount of business out of it," said Daniel H. Carlson, vice president of retirement product management at Philadelphia's Delaware Investments. His company is now listed only in 401Konnect's database. But as more pop up, the company will evaluate them, he said.

The Center for Due Diligence in Chicago is another company offering online analysis. It has supplied competitive analysis on 401(k) plans to providers for about 10 years. But the company is expanding its service to include an online component, said Phillip Chiricotti, its president.

It also recently opened up its service to brokers who can use the Web site to search for 401(k) providers by name or program feature, he said.

"A lot of brokers don't really understand the ins and outs of the products they sell," Mr. Chiricotti said.

The service costs $5,000 a year, which includes frequent updates, past analysis and research, and a password to the Web site, www.401kduediligence.com. Discounts are available depending on the number of brokers that use the service and to brokers whose firms buy the software.

Another company, 401kExchange.com, tailors its service to plan sponsors, brokers, and plan providers, said Donald Lanman, vice president of marketing.

Brokers, for example, can visit the company's Web site and for no fee plug in information such as the plan size and number of participants. 401kExchange.com selects up to 15 providers that appear to meet the sponsor's needs and requests proposals from them. It then does a detailed analysis of up to 10 plans, which brokers can personalize and give to clients.

The head of one bank brokerage was skeptical about the need for such services.

Joseph Cooney, chief executive of the brokerage arm at First Security Corp. in Salt Lake City, called the concept "intriguing" but said he does not see much use for it at his company.

First Security, like many regional banks, has a division within its corporate trust department that handles larger 401(k) plans, Mr. Cooney said. The brokerage arm handles only the smaller plans, and most brokers do little 401(k) business.

"There's a lot of time and effort and energy extended up-front, and if it's a new [account] as opposed to a transfer, it's really not worth the broker's while until the amount of assets in the 401(k) can really build up," Mr. Cooney said.

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