Career commercial banker James W. Lokey has taken on one of the most precarious jobs in the thrift business: working for Maurice L. McAlister.

On Tuesday Mr. Lokey became the chief executive officer of Downey Financial Corp., Newport Beach, Calif., a $5.2 billion-asset thrift that has been run by four chief executives in the last six years.

Mr. Lokey, a former First Interstate executive, will be reporting to Mr. McAlister, the 71-year-old chairman, founder, and largest shareholder of Downey.

Mr. McAlister, who keeps a close rein on his thrift from semi-retirement in Arizona, said Mr. Lokey "will bring us the commercial banking experience that we need to go forward."

Those words may best explain the surprise resignation last week of Downey's CEO of less than three years, Stephen W. Prough, and the quick switch to Mr. Lokey, who brings valuable experience in middle-market commercial lending.

Downey, observers suggested, was looking for a seasoned executive with a commercial bank background who could take the company to the next level. Mr. Prough, though largely applauded by analysts for his performance, had a thrift background: He ran $3 billion-asset Western Financial Savings Bank, based in Irvine, Calif., before coming to Downey in the spring of 1994.

"My sense is that clearly Downey wants to achieve a better balance between an S&L and a bank, and that they were looking for someone that had significant commercial banking experience in a number of areas," Mr. Lokey said.

Mr. Lokey has that broad experience. He worked for 23 years at First Interstate Bancorp, the last five as executive vice president of commercial banking in Southern California, focusing on lending to companies with annual sales from $10 million to $250 million.

He remained in that position with Wells Fargo & Co., which acquired First Interstate last year in a hostile takeover, until the end of December. Then he resigned-to take some time off, he said.

Mr. Lokey, 49, said he's not worried about the quick succession of CEOs before him at Downey or the prospect of working under Mr. McAlister.

"I was aware of the situation and did have discussions with Mac (McAlister) and board members about it, and I feel very comfortable with it," Mr. Lokey said.

Mr. McAlister, who didn't use an executive search firm to fill the position, may have known as early as nine months ago that Mr. Lokey was his man.

Last spring Michael Faucher, a Downey senior vice president and former co-worker of Mr. Lokey's at First Interstate, introduced the two over lunch. Mr. McAlister chatted with Mr. Lokey several times in the succeeding months and then suggested he do some consulting work for the company.

The CEO job offer came early this month.

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