Insurance firm, bank put ideals together


A startup insurance company that opened in Baltimore last year with promises to offer more affordable policies to city residents said yesterday that it will begin selling its services at four branches of Harbor Bank of Maryland.

American Skyline Insurance Co., which sells its own auto and home insurance policies, will keep its headquarters on Light Street, but hopes to reach more customers by locating in the lobbies of four branch banks in the city, effective immediately.

"Financial services is a big part of what insurance is all about," said Ernest Hines, president and chief executive officer at American Skyline. "We saw this as an opportunity to be a one-stop-shop for many consumers who don't have access to these type of services."

Executives from both companies thought it was a good idea to share space because they have similar missions and both target customers in urban areas ignored by traditional banks and insurance companies.

"When we started, we saw a large segment of the community that wasn't getting access to banking services. And this wasn't just people who didn't qualify," said Joseph Haskins Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Harbor Bank. "When you look at the insurance availability in these communities, that is lacking also."

American Skyline started with $10 million from lead investor St. Paul Cos., which acquired Baltimore insurer USF&G; Corp. in 1998. Based in St. Paul, Minn., the company is the country's fourth-largest insurer. Venture Fund, a Baltimore private-equity investment fund, also invested money.

The disparity in insurance rates between the city and suburbs has been a subject of longstanding debate. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and others had complained that high rates were keeping people from living in the city.

American Skyline has signed up about 993 customers since it began selling policies in August. The company offers home and car insurance and will begin selling business insurance next month. The insurance firm expects business to pick up in the spring, typically a busy time, Hines said.

Hines and Haskins, who started his bank in 1982, expect the partnership to bring new customers to both businesses. "We're trying to leverage a relationship between us and Harbor to create additional traffic into the bank and allow us to be in several locations throughout the city," Hines said.

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