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Wells Fargo said to explore sale of insurance brokerage unit

In this July 14, 2014, file photo, a man passes by a Wells Fargo bank in Oakland, Calif. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)
In this July 14, 2014, file photo, a man passes by a Wells Fargo bank in Oakland, Calif. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)
By Matthew Monks Bloomberg

Wells Fargo is weighing a sale of its insurance brokerage business, which could fetch about $2 billion, people familiar with the matter said.

The San Francisco-based lender has begun reaching out to private equity firms to gauge interest in Wells Fargo Insurance Services USA Inc., said the people, who asked not to be identified because the matter isn’t public. While the company is planning to move forward with a sale, it hasn’t set a timeline for holding a formal auction, one of the people said.

If Wells Fargo fetches $2 billion for the insurance services unit, it would be the company’s largest divestiture on record, topping the sale last year of its crop insurance business to Zurich Insurance Group, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In 2014, USI Insurance Services bought 40 of Wells Fargo’s insurance brokerage and consulting offices.

Wells Fargo spokesman Alan Elias said the bank doesn’t comment on market rumors or conjecture.

Wells Fargo, the largest retail bank in the U.S. by branch count, is pursuing the new sale as part of a broader push to boost profit by cutting costs and exiting businesses where it doesn’t get the best returns on investment, the people said.

While its insurance services unit – among the largest insurance brokers in the U.S. – remains financially healthy with strong cash flow, it doesn’t contribute much to the bank’s overall return on equity, one of the people said. It’s a relatively easy business for Wells Fargo to carve out, as it isn’t deeply enmeshed with the rest of the company, the person said.

Private equity firms have shown a strong appetite for insurance brokerages, making it a good time for Wells Fargo to bring its unit to market, the people said.

Private equity likes brokerages because they generate a lot of cash, which means they can service the debt incurred in a buyout. This year, KKR & Co. and Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec agreed to buy Onex Corp.’s USI Insurance Services for about $2 billion. Blackstone Group LP said it would purchase human-resources and benefits-administration platforms from broker Aon for as much as $4.8 billion.

Wells Fargo Insurance Services, like other brokers, is an intermediary between people and businesses looking to buy insurance and companies selling policies. It employs some 3,500 people in 27 states, and writes or places about $9 billion worth of risk premiums annually in property, casualty, benefits and other types of insurance, according to its website.

Wells Fargo’s shares were flat on Monday, closing at $55.04, giving the firm a market value of just over $275 billion. It’s spent much of the past year trying to emerge from a scandal over employees creating fake accounts to meet sales goals, a debacle that’s cost the bank millions of dollars in legal fees and its former chief executive officer his job.

Wells Fargo executives are expected to update analysts and shareholders on their strategy at an investor day scheduled for Thursday. They will probably highlight efforts to focus on customer service rather than product sales, and emphasize the strength of the bank’s economic model, Eric Wasserstrom, an analyst at Guggenheim Securities, said in a note to investors Tuesday.

“The one incremental action that we expect is for WFC to announce additional cost reductions,” he wrote, using the bank’s ticker symbol.

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