Consumers typically have three options for buying insurance online:They can either go directly to a carrier's Web site, an online insurancemall or to the Web site of an Internet-only carrier. For customers of FirstUnion Corp., there soon will be a fourth option.The Charlotte, N.C.-based financial services giant in July acquiredProfessional Direct Agency Inc. after executives concluded that the companyfit within the First Union's strategy of concentrating on high-growthopportunities.

The primary asset that First Union is getting from the $4.3 millioncash deal is the Columbus, Ohio-based company's nationally-licensed onlineinsurance agency, Pivot.com.

First Union's play for Pivot, which targets both businesses andconsumers, was set in motion once First Union recognized Pivot's value inbolstering its Web-based insurance franchise within the First UnionInsurance Group (FUIG) operating unit.

Concurrently, Pivot's parent, North Palm Beach, Fla.-based IntelligentLife Corp.-in assessing it core business strategies over the last fewmonths-determined that Pivot fell outside the parameters of its corebusiness. Intelligent Life's Web site, www.Ilife.com, is personal financeportal that offers banking, investing, tax-planning and small-businessfinancing.

By selling Pivot, which was established in 1998, Ilife.com plans toemphasize its flagship Web site, www.Bankrate.com, says Elisabeth DeMarse,president and chief executive officer of Ilife.com.

Out of focus

In an effort to diversify, DeMarse admits the company strayed from itscore focus of banking. For instance, it had acquired one Web site targetedtoward Spanish-speaking people and another to college students, with bothbased in Miami.

But it recently sold both these Web sites prior to putting Pivot on theblock. It will now devote its efforts to cultivating Bankrate.com, anaggregator site the sells mortgages, credit cards, auto and home equityloans, money market accounts and CDs.

DeMarse calls Bankrate.com an "indispensable option to consumersseeking banking programs that fit their individual needs. With more than 20years in business, this return to our roots will enhance our path toprofitability."

Pivot plans

Industry observers view Pivot as a solid fit with more room to prosperunder the First Union umbrella. The company provides of financial servicesto 15 million retail and corporate customers with assets totaling $258billion.

Placed within First Union's insurance group, a comprehensive bankinsurance operation that serves more than 16 million customers through4,000 licensed agents, the company hopes to take advantage of Pivot's trackrecord of developing alliances with the likes of eCoverage, ElectricInsurance, CNA, Empire General and others.

In the partnership with eCoverage, a Web site offering quote-to-claimauto insurance, Pivot is offering eCoverage's services on its own Web site.Pivot also is furnishing quotes for homeowner's and automotive insurance onthe www.pivot.com Web site through an agreement with Electric Insurance.

Outside the insurance industry, Pivot struck a deal withParentTime.com, a Web site for parents raising children up to six yearsold, where it will market comparison shopping for term life insurance, autoinsurance and annuities at the ParentTime.com Web site.

To support the efforts, Pivot's is equipped with a call center staffedentirely by its own nationally licensed insurance professionals who offeran array of client services.

"We see Pivot as a way to provide turnkey insurance solutions throughthe Internet to other financial services companies that are interested inprivate-label Web sites offering insurance products to their customers,"David de Gorter, president of First Union Insurance Group, says. "Itrepresents a natural fit with our Internet strategy of investing in firmsthat match our core business."

One Pivot calling card that First Union expects to further cultivate isdevelopment of private-label Web sites for Pivot customers, includinginsurance companies, banks, large agencies and affinity groups.

"This feature enables businesses to quickly enter the online insurancemarket with a Web-enabled insurance center, and allows businesses to offercontent, financial planning tools, instant online comparison quotes andbranded insurance products," notes Nick Fisken, an analyst with LittleRock, Ark.-based Stephens Inc. -Stephen Dwyer

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