SAN FRANCISCO - Ever since Texas banker Gerald J. Ford teamed with financier Ronald O. Perelman last fall to buy First Nationwide Bank, California thrift executives had been puzzled by the slow pace at which the company was pursuing its newly stated goals.

At the time, Mr. Ford, First Nationwide's chief executive officer, said he intended to shed the thrift's substantial but widely dispersed branch networks outside California.

The company preferred to grow by acquisition within the state, while cutting operating costs, Mr. Ford stated.

Despite their relatively quick sale of branches in Illinois and a small purchase of branches in California, relatively little progress toward those goals has been apparent since Mr. Ford and Mr. Perelman's investment partnership bought First Nationwide from Ford Motor Co.

The perceptions changed on Monday, when First Nationwide announced a definitive agreement to buy SFFed Corp., a 35-branch, $4.1 billion-asset thrift company that owns San Francisco Federal Savings and Loan Association, for $250 million in cash.

Also, reliable sources report that branch sales are near in New York and New Jersey and offers are being made on branches in Ohio.

Meanwhile, First Nationwide president Carl B. Webb said the San Francisco-based thrift is in the midst of a cost-cutting drive that is expected to slash its payrolls 15% to 20% by yearend.

"It's consistent with the strategy we set out when we bought First Nationwide," Mr. Ford said in an interview.

That strategy entails a retreat from Ford Motor's unsuccessful attempt to turn First Nationwide into a national retail bank. The auto company ran up against heavy loan losses and high operating costs.

By the time the MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc. partnership acquired First Nationwide for $1.1 billion last October, the branches were an odd- lot collection scattered across a handful of states. Less than a third of the more than 180 offices were in California.

Of the rest, 28 were in Ohio, 26 each in Illinois and New York, 24 in Florida, 21 in Michigan, and four each in New Jersey and Texas. Two days after Mr. Ford moved in, First Nationwide sold the Illinois offices for about $90 million.

Despite persistent rumors that substantial thrift acquisitions were being negotiated, nothing happened until the SFFed Corp. deal.

The delay was apparently not for lack of effort. The merger-and- acquisition scene in California has been remarkably quiet this year, as thrift executives say would-be sellers have been demanding more than prospective buyers want to pay.

Mr. Ford said he began negotiating with Roger L. Gordon, the chairman and chief executive of SFFed, and a 33-year veteran of the company, in early spring. The deal was inked at 1:30 a.m. on Monday, Mr. Gordon said.

Mr. Ford said First Nationwide is eyeing other thrifts in California, but he added no deals are imminent and said he couldn't name any names. Analysts expect he is focusing on midsize thrifts in Northern California, including the $3.1 billion-asset Bay View Capital Corp. of San Mateo; Foster City-based America First Financial Corp., parent of the $2.4 billion-asset EurekaBank; and California Financial Holding Co., parent of the $1.3 billion-asset Stockton Savings Bank.

Mr. Ford said acquisitions would be funded internally from First Nationwide's profits and proceeds from branch sales.

He declined to comment on branch sales that may be in the works. But other sources, who asked not to be named, said serious branch sale negotiations are under way in New York and New Jersey.

According to the sources, First Nationwide's branches are being marketed in six blocks: a group with $600 million in deposits in Long Island and Queens; the four New Jersey branches with $500 million in deposits; offices in and around the Hudson River Valley with $500 million in deposits; and separate sets of branches with $300 million in deposits each in Manhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn.

The sources said deals with one or more buyers could be announced within weeks. Prices are expected to range between 6% and 8% of deposits, netting First Nationwide between $144 million and $192 million. These proceeds, combined with the Illinois sale, would raise about enough to pay for SFFed.

Reliable sources also said First Nationwide is receiving offers for its branches in and around Cleveland, though these negotiations are not as far along as those in New York and New Jersey.

The cost-cutting effort started at the end of the first quarter, when First Nationwide hired the accounting and consulting firm of Deloitte & Touche to help out, Mr. Webb said.

He said the goal is to "eliminate redundant management processes."

Mr. Webb said he expects 510 to 680 First Nationwide employees, out of the total of 3,400, will lose their jobs by the time the project is completed at yearend. Management positions will be especially hard hit, Mr. Webb said.

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