At Wells Fargo & Co., customers are beating a path toward retirement.

Investors are embracing the San Francisco banking company's LifePath Funds - and their unique asset-allocation strategies - as a logical way to meet financial needs over periods as long as five decades.

In a rollout few other banks have matched, the LifePath funds amassed $600 million in assets in their first 18 months.

And in an unusual twist for a product whose primary focus is retirement planning, most sales are through retail customers, not corporate benefit plans. Branch sales accounted for $400 million of assets as of Sept. 1.

Steady support from the bank's brokerage team and a sweeping advertising campaign are fueling Wells Fargo's retail commitment. With LifePath, Wells Fargo - one of the first banks to embrace retail mutual funds - is asking investors to broaden their investment perspective to include retirement planning.

LifePath is a "strategic initiative" for the $52 billion-asset banking company, said Donald Luskin, who helped design the products and oversees them as a managing director of Wells Fargo Nikko Investment Advisors.

Consumers, he said, are attracted by the funds' ability to automatically make complex decisions on their behalf.

"Not everyone is a gourmet cook," Mr. Luskin said. "Some people want the meal cooked for them."

The approach is needed in a market whose investors want to plan for retirement but don't know where to turn, industry observers say.

"What consumers obviously need is some direction as to how to invest," said Lou Harvey, president of Dalbar Financial Services, Boston.

LifePath Funds fit the bill as "an intelligent way of going about long- term investment planning," Mr. Harvey said.

The LifePath funds have carved a respectable niche for themselves from among the variety of investment products Wells Fargo Nikko oversees. The unit, a partnership between Wells Fargo & Co. and Nikko Securities, uses a variety of index-fund strategies to oversee billions of dollars for a long roster of clients, including the U.S. Government.

The partnership has served as subadviser for the LifePath Funds since their March 1994, inception, under a contract with Wells Fargo Bank, the funds' adviser.

Later this year, the unit is slated to be sold to Barclays Bank PLC, a move that will, at the least, mean a new name for the Wells Fargo/Nikko unit.

It is expected to continue selling LifePath Funds through Wells Fargo. Industry observers also believe the unit will retain its subadvisory role, since Wells Fargo Nikko developed and steers the LifePath strategy.

The arrangement between Wells Fargo Bank and Wells Fargo Nikko has proven successful so far, industry observers said.

With the bank's support, the funds "are clearly on the path to something good," Mr. Harvey said.

Wells Fargo Bank demonstrated its commitment to the funds this summer, through a promotional campaign that focused on the asset-allocation approach to investing. The asset-allocation strategy that LifePath Funds use culls from a variety of financial tools - stocks, bonds, and cash instruments - to fashion an investment package.

Investors "face so many mutual funds and so many retirement plans," Mr. Luskin said. "What they need is a prepackaged solution."

To reinforce the message, Wells Fargo - whose 616 branches are all in California - recently inserted glossy eight-page asset-allocation brochures in the Sunday editions of the state's five top newspapers.

Consultants estimated that the promotion cost at least $500,000, a significant outlay for a bank mutual fund push.

Though the retail program maintains its momentum, Wells Fargo Nikko is also making the funds available to corporate retirement clients. So far these businesses have poured $200 million into the products: $100 million into LifePath funds and $100 million into trust funds that use the LifePath strategy.

Although the institutional activity is barely half the volume through branches, Mr. Luskin indicated he's not disappointed.

He said Wells Fargo Nikko has signed 80 companies as clients in the last 18 months, and virtually all have made LifePath part of their benefits package.

Five of the LifePath funds are designed for investors who plan to tap their retirement dollars in 2000, 2010, 2020, 2030, and 2040. The sixth is a money-market offering. Fund managers also plan LifePath portfolios for 2050 and beyond.

The funds' investment approach is to be heavily in stocks and bonds in early years, and then cut these percentages in favor of money-market investments as time passes.

To reduce volatility, the funds do not actually buy individual stocks or bonds. Instead, portfolios are tied to index funds that track the performance of baskets of stocks, like those in the Standard & Poor's 500 index.

Wells Fargo believes that some families could invest in more than one LifePath fund. For instance, investors might select the LifePath 2000 or the 2010 to save for their children's college costs, while investing in the LifePath 2030 for their own retirement.

The Wells product, or at least the concept of time-specific investing, appears to have caught the eyes of other money-management firms. Several funds now make claims similar to LifePath's, and some even use the word "Life" in their brand name.

But there's only one true LifePath product, said Mr. Luskin, who called the others pretenders. The other funds simply respond to current market conditions instead of taking a long-range approach like LifePath does, he said.

Competitors will also lack the global reach that LifePath will have once the unit's purchase by Barclays is complete, Mr. Luskin said.

"This will catapult us into the realm of being a truly global company," he said.

Mr. Luskin envisions the LifePath approach being applied in England, France, or any of the 70 other countries where Barclays does business.

No matter how global LifePath gets, the California branches that launched the product will likely remain a stronghold. Wells Fargo "has really done a fine job positioning LifePath," he said. "This has become a really powerful product."

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