When the executive committee at Safeco Corp. a year ago decided to pursue an online sales strategy that would involve its independent agents, industry observers who support the Internet's ability to eliminate "the middle man" thought the company was missing the point."Now we look like prophets," says Bill Tormey, director of marketing, for the Seattle-based insurance and financial products company. Safeco is launching nationwide online sales of auto term life policies early this year, and executives insist that independent agents are central to the company's approach.

"We absolutely believe we need an agent involved in the process," Tormey says.

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