By JASON BOOTH

Staff Reporter

L.A., meet Wamu.

Washington Mutual Inc., the giant Seattle thrift company that has been buying up some of L.A.'s biggest financial institutions, is unleashing a publicity blitz of billboards, TV ads and community outreach events and it's just warming up.

"The magnitude of growth in L.A. has been stronger than I thought," said Washington Mutual Chairman Kerry Killinger, who sat down with the Business Journal to lay out the company's massive L.A. campaign.

"I think the more you are here, and I'm here almost every week, the more appreciation you get for the size of the market, the depth of the market. If you can deliver a distinguishable product, the business opportunities here are enormous," he said.

With homey TV commercials, offers of free checking accounts and a stated emphasis on customer service, Washington Mutual is trying to prove it can fill the void left by the three institutions it has bought or is buying: American Savings Bank, Great Western Bancorp and, in a deal expected to close this quarter, H.F. Ahmanson & Co., parent of Home Savings of America.

Like all major publicity campaigns, this one is the product of months of planning and research specifically to assess the perceptions and needs of banking customers in California, Florida and the Northwest, where Washington Mutual does business.

"Our research showed that the customers were clamoring for an alternative," said Killinger. "There was a relatively high dissatisfaction among the public on the level of service. And if we could offer an alternative by offering a higher level of service and have better pricing on our products, then we would be readily accepted."

Killinger said Wamu's marketing strategy for L.A. involves three target audiences: employees, customers, and the community at large.

"Straight out of the blocks after the Great Western acquisition I committed about four months to getting out to meet with every employee of the company to sell them on what our vision is, what our corporate culture is and what our service expectations are," Killinger said. "That's the most important thing to starting the right type of market positioning. You start internal, not external."

Reassuring Great Western personnel and bringing them into the Wamu fold was especially important because about 20 percent of the 12,000 Great Western employees were eliminated through layoffs, early retirement or attrition following the acquisition. Most of the layoffs were among senior executives and back-office staff. At the same time, 25 Great Western and American Savings branches were closed in L.A. County.

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