GWESTERN/30inches/1stjc/mark2nd

BENJAMIN MARK COLE

Senior Reporter

Among all the issues surrounding last week's attempt by H.F. Ahmanson & Co. to take over Great Western Financial Corp., one question stands out:

How did Great Western, the nation's second-largest thrift and a larger company than Ahmanson in some respects, including employment become a hostile takeover target?

How did it become the hunted, not the hunter?

Great Western officials aren't talking, but banking experts and industry analysts speculate that the answer has much to do with the company's conservative philosophy and the management style of its president, John F. Maher.

Maher ironically, a big-game hunter in private life busied himself tending to Great Western's gardens, rather than going out on the takeover warpath, analysts say.

"Maher has been trying to sell their mutual funds, building a consumer banking operation, and to complete an internal restructuring," said Campbell Chaney, a longtime thrift analyst now with Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP in Walnut Creek.

"He is not dynamic in relation to some of his peers, such as (Ahmanson's Charles) Rinehart, or Paul Hazen of Well Fargo."

Added Charlotte Chamberlain, an analyst with Jefferies & Co. Inc. in West Los Angeles: "Maher has clearly been pre-occupied with fixing his boat, not throwing a gangplank over and mounting another boat."

That preoccupation, if true, may soon spell the death of Great Western, one of L.A.'s oldest and strongest companies.

While it remained unclear last week whether Ahmanson or another company would emerge as the victor, industry analysts were largely agreed that Chatsworth-based Great Western would not survive.

"Great Western is toast," said Jeff Rollert, bond manager with ALM Advisers Inc. in Pasadena. "The question is when."

That assessment, while commonplace last week, was still surprising given Great Western's aggressive growth over the years.

Founded in 1919 as a local savings and loan, Great Western began its unbridled expansion in 1956 by acquiring Santa Ana Savings. That was followed over the next five years by acquisitions of smaller thrifts in Sacramento, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Oakland and other cities.

The company continued to buy up thrifts in the 1960s and 1970s, gradually establishing itself as a powerhouse in home mortgages.

Its modern era dawned in 1979, when James Montgomery was named chief executive officer.

Montgomery, who remains chairman but surrendered the CEO title to Maher in 1995, expanded Great Western's offering of financial services. His acquisitions included Irvine-based Lincoln Savings Bank, the institution that fell to disgrace under Charles Keating.

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