After swallowing two of Southern California's biggest thrifts, Washington Mutual Inc. is setting its sights on becoming a West Coast powerhouse capable of taking on BankAmerica Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. in the consumer banking arena.

"In our target markets our primary competitors will be Bank of America and Wells Fargo," CEO Kerry Killinger said in an interview with the Business Journal last week. "We see great opportunities to take market share from them within our niche, which is focused on personalized service, and appealing to customers that want that level of service."

Washington Mutual's acquisition of Chatsworth-based Great Western Financial Corp., along with its previous acquisition of Irvine-based American Savings Bank, has turned it into the nation's largest thrift, a behemoth with $88.5 billion in assets.

The merged institutions will be known by the Great Western name in California.

Killinger was in Los Angeles last week to meet with Great Western and American Savings employees, and to begin to "draw together one common vision."

"The No. 1 priority for us over the next several months is to be sure we're bringing together one unified culture in our combined company," said Killinger.

Since acquiring American Savings last Dec. 21 for $1.7 billion, Washington Mutual has gone on an aggressive marketing campaign that yielded 31,000 new checking accounts in the first quarter of 1997, compared with a decline in the number of checking accounts for the like-period a year before, said Killinger.

And in its most dramatic move yet, Washington Mutual beat out H.F. Ahmanson & Co. this spring to acquire Great Western at a cost of more than $7 billion. The acquisition took effect July 1.

Killinger, who keeps an oversized Energizer Bunny in his Seattle office, said one of Washington Mutual's first priorities will be to debut a wide array of new consumer banking products at the Chatsworth-based operation.

New products coming soon to Great Western branches include more checking and money market accounts, consumer loans, mutual funds and annuities, Killinger said. Washington Mutual will also introduce mortgage lending into all Great Western branches over time. Great Western currently only offers mortgages at some of its branches.

Other bankers acknowledge that Washington Mutual will be a strong competitor. But officials at BofA and Wells Fargo said Southern California's fiercely competitive banking market cuts both ways, and that Washington Mutual will face its own set of challenges in trying to increase its market share here.


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