John Hancock Funds Inc. is making a push in the bank channel.

The Boston-based fund company is focusing on gaining more sales through selected banks as it attempts to become more than a minor player in the distribution channel, its new bank channel chief said.

"We want to develop the product breadth of key accounts," said Peter Mawn, head of the financial institutions group at Hancock.

Mr. Mawn, who joined Hancock in October from Fidelity Investments, has taken over the role filled by Ted Breen, who left last month. Mr. Breen and Hancock have declined to say why he left.

Hancock's fund sales through banks increased to more than $200 million last year, from $150 million in 1997.

And the company has doubled its bank wholesaler corps to 10 since 1997. But it remains a minor player in an arena where the top players rack up several billion dollars in sales per year.

Bank sales accounted for a sliver of Hancock's $5.3 billion in fund sales last year.

Increasing fund sales is important for Hancock because of lagging investor interest in fixed annuities - its biggest-selling product through banks-because of lower interest rates.

Total fixed annuity sales came close to $500 million in 1997 but "suffered" in 1998, failing to make the $500 million mark, Mr. Mawn said. He declined to give exact numbers.

One reason Hancock's fund sales through banks are so low is that it is a latecomer to the channel. The company did not assign wholesalers to concentrate on financial institutions until 1997.

"We're late to the game; we realize that," Mr. Mawn said, "so we've got some makeup to do."

To increase business through the 50 banks accounting for most of its sales, Hancock plans to invest more in training bank brokers and marketing its funds jointly with banks, Mr. Mawn said.

In the past, the company's distribution approach followed a "shotgun strategy," Mr. Mawn said. "We would talk to people who talked to us."

Hancock must improve its day-to-day dealings with customers, a brokerage chief said.

The company has a history of changing wholesalers and failing to keep in regular contact with his bank, said Ed Hipp, president of retail brokerage at Centura Bancorp, Rocky Mount, N.C. "The good news is that they have a very good fund complex," Mr. Hipp said, "but our experience has been that their distribution has been flawed."

However, Hancock had been improving in that department even before Mr. Mawn took over, Mr. Hipp conceded.

Among the banks that sell Hancock's funds are Regions Financial Corp. of Birmingham, Ala., First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., and Wells Fargo & Co. of San Francisco.

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