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ARK Funds Try to Expand its Horizons

In Baltimore, a city where Legg Mason and T. Rowe Price Associates are the standards in money management, a lesser know fund family is trying to make some noise.

The ARK Mutual Funds, a family of funds sold through Allfirst Bank, a regional bank based in Baltimore, is making a major push to expand its sales in the Mid-Atlantic region and possibly beyond.

Allfirst has a lot going for it these days. Besides having some funds that have posted impressive returns, the bank is owned by a larger bank across the Atlantic - Allied Irish Banks of Dublin, Ireland.

Allied Irish Banks is planning to merge its $100 million Govett family of mutual funds into the ARK funds. AIB bought John Govett & Co. of London in 1995 and currently manages the Govett Funds through AIB Govett, which is based in San Francisco. The ARK funds are managed by Allied Investment Advisors, a Baltimore-based subsidiary of Allfirst. Shareholders of the five Govett funds were told about the coming merger proposal in their latest annual report dated Dec. 31. The report said the independent directors had already approved the reorganization.

The merger could substantially improve ARK's distribution. Govett has thousands of selling agreements across the United States and ARK could reap the benefits of some of those selling agreements. To do so, it would have to sign its own selling agreements with the brokers involved but they are likely to want to do so to preserve the 12b-1 fees they have been receiving.

"It just creates opportunities for us," said Michele Dalton, senior vice president at Allfirst and product manager for the ARK funds.

Under the plan, four of the Govett funds will be merged into similar ARK funds, and one will be added to the ARK fund family, bringing the total number of ARK funds to 21. Allfirst has $6.2 billion in assets under management in the ARK funds, and about 90 percent of it is from institutional investors, said Dalton.

Allfirst currently has about 20 selling agreements with brokers to sell the ARK funds, giving it very little presence beyond its own bank branches.

The bank has two wholesalers that service its 260 branches in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia.

Because of the long bull market, the ARK funds have been able to post some impressive returns. The ARK Small-cap Equity Portfolio had an annualized total return of 137.89 percent last year, making it one of the best-performing funds in the Baltimore-Washington region. Also, the ARK Capital Growth Portfolio had a one-year annualized total return of 39.28 percent last year, and a five-year return of 29.65 percent ending Dec. 31, 1999.

The bank has begun to promote those returns among its retail customers through a marketing push using kiosk posters in its branch offices and special inserts in statements sent to shareholders. Pamphlets that the bank created emphasize the funds' performance and include the phrase, "ARK Mutual Funds. (Now performing at Allfirst.)"

The bank is also spending just over $500,000 this year to advertise on billboards and in print and radio media in each of its markets, including in the Washington Post and the Washington edition of The Wall Street Journal.

One billboard will be displayed throughout the summer on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a popular summer destination for the entire Mid-Atlantic region. The bank is also sponsoring morning commute radio traffic and weather broadcasts in Baltimore and Washington. Through this marketing campaign, the bank wants to increase awareness for the funds and their noteworthy recent performance.

"It was really just to get the name out," said Dalton.

During the second quarter, the bank also started marketing its one annuity product along with its mutual funds with statement inserts and in-branch merchandising.