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TWO GIANTS JOIN FORCES | PROFILE

CEO Behind Buying Spree Is Shrewd, Quick Shopper

March 18, 1998|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some people collect stuff, like baseball cards or fine art.

Washington Mutual Inc. Chief Executive Kerry K. Killinger collects savings and loans, and he's elevated it to a fine art.

In the decade since the securities-analyst-turned-banker became president of Washington Mutual, the Seattle-based institution has bought more than 20 other financial companies that have boosted corporate assets more than fourteenfold.

The biggest gulps have taken place in the last 18 months in the competitive California market: In 1996 it bought American Savings and last year purchased Great Western Financial--the latter yanked from the jaws of H.F. Ahmanson & Co., which Washington Mutual said Tuesday it also has agreed to buy.

"Killinger has pulled off a brilliant series of acquisitions over the last 10 years," said thrift analyst Jonathan Gray of Sanford C. Bernstein in New York. "Washington Mutual is moving at a very rapid pace."

The man behind it all is an affable, boyish-looking executive who works at a furious pace and expects the same of his employees.

Yet the 48-year-old Killinger is described as amiable as well.

A visit to Watts last year to celebrate a branch opening found Killinger spending the day with community leaders and then playing the trumpet at a community jazz concert sponsored by the thrift.

He is also considered a shrewd analyst of market trends. Killinger decided in 1994 to offer unconditional free checking. This has since become Washington Mutual's core product in the quest to build its consumer banking business.

But Killinger was careful to craft the program so that human nature all but guarantees that the thrift loses no money by banishing account fees. Instead, customers face an unusually hefty charge for bouncing checks. Those fees make up for income lost to free checking.

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