Six days shy of her second anniversary as Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman, Ricki Helfer got what she wanted.

President Bill Clinton signed into law Sept. 30 a legislative fix for the vulnerable thrift insurance fund.

"I feel very good about it," she said. "The bill was an example of the legislative process working well."

You'd think after the culmination of her two-year lobbying effort, Ms. Helfer would kick back and take a few days off. Instead, she traveled to Houston to give a speech before the Independent Bankers Association of Texas and then to Honolulu to speak at the American Bankers Association convention. She spent 48 hours in that island paradise, and on the way home stopped to talk to agency employees based in Irvine, Calif.

On the flight back to Washington she worked on documents the agency had delivered to her.

"I like working hard," she said last week, letting out her signature robust laugh. "I certainly got my wish."

If Ms. Helfer is burned out or looking to greener pastures, she didn't let on in the interview. In fact, she said she does not know why rumors keep surfacing within the agency that she's leaving. She stated once again that she had no plans to leave her job, which carries a five-year term.

That may be because she had to work hard to get the post. Nominated by President Clinton in 1993, Ms. Helfer got caught in partisan crossfire over the Whitewater investigation. Senate Republicans charged that she was too close to the Clintons to head the FDIC, which might have to look into some Whitewater allegations. Ms. Helfer fought back, and promised to recuse herself from any Whitewater-related matters. After an 11-month struggle, she won.

Ms. Helfer, 51, a perfectly coiffed blonde who dresses in tailored brightly colored suits, has the zest of a confirmed policy wonk. A lawyer who's worked both in the private sector and for the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury Department, she talks rapidly and with enthusiasm, and rarely passes up an opportunity to politely grill her staff at FDIC board meetings.

"I really care about how we do, what we do, and that we do it well," she said. "The safety and soundness of the insurance funds and the banking system - these are not small issues."

Her baby is the newly created division of insurance, which puts FDIC economists into the agency's regional offices to help examiners assess the health of banks in the context of broader economic trends. She's said she's working closely with the division as it develops early-warning signals for the banking industry.

"I find it fascinating," she said. "I really love looking at the numbers and understanding the issues."

She also has commissioned the FDIC division of research and statistics to prepare a series of papers on the underlying causes of the problems at thrifts and banks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In January, the FDIC papers will be reviewed by outside experts during a daylong symposium, "History of the 1980s: Lessons for the Future." Participants will include former Fed Chairman Paul A. Volcker and former FDIC Chairmen L. William Seidman and William M. Isaac.

"It will be a good conference," Ms. Helfer said, "and will help us do what we do better."

Her other priority is running the FDIC like a business. To that end, she's put forward what she says are the agency's first-ever strategic and operating plans, and its first board-level audit committee and internal control unit for financial management.

"All of these are important because they set the tone for the level of financial management that the agency will undertake as we go into the next century,"she said.

This year, the agency bought less equipment, spent less on travel and outside legal services, and cut about 12% of its budgeted expenses for the first six months, a savings of $114 million. But next year will be tougher. That's when the agency starts to shed hundreds more employees to reach its goal of about 6,500 by 1999, from its current level of about 7,800 permanent staff.

"This is by far the hardest part of my job," she said. "It's very difficult to say to a staff person who has given years of his or her career to the FDIC ... that we appreciate what you did but we don't need you anymore."

The agency is seriously considering offering another buyout, she said. Its terms would not be as generous as last year's offer of six months' pay and health benefits, accepted by 940 workers. "But I hope it will be enough so that staff will take a look at it" and decide to use the money to retire or find another job, she said.

Even another buyout wouldn't let the agency avoid layoffs, but it might minimize some of their worst effects.

Layoffs, Ms. Helfer said, "are enormously disruptive," because they limit supervisors' ability to choose the staff they want. The federal rules for layoffs tend to benefit the most senior staff, to the detriment of women and minorities, she said. They also often exclude, "the very active, bright, more junior staff who really want to be part of the agency's future," she said.

Morale obviously suffers when an agency is downsizing, she said. But she dismissed news reports of a widespread morale problem. "That's a handful of people with access to the press, not the vast majority of employees, who have been quite supportive of the need (to downsize) although nobody's happy about it."

People close to the agency said the staff is divided into two camps. Ms. Helfer's supporters tend to be the younger employees who are eager for new opportunities to grow and learn. Many of the longer-term employees are said to fall into the other camp - fans of the status quo who resented her efforts to change things.

Ms. Helfer's style may have helped polarize people. She's been a lightning rod for strong feelings, with her detractors privately calling her manipulative and a slave driver, and her supporters praising her competence and energy.

"People like to be stroked, but Ricki's very businesslike," said one associate.

"Ricki doesn't suffer fools easily," said an FDIC official.

Ms. Helfer's supporters and detractors agreed on one thing. Both termed the chairman "very direct."

That directness was in evidence recently when Ms. Helfer spoke to examiners in the FDIC's Boston region. She got a written question from one of the participants asking her if examiners were supposed to go easy on banks.

"I took the question, wadded it up, threw it in the air, and said: 'The questioner doesn't understand what we're trying to do,' " she recalled.

Her response was meant to make clear that the agency does not want examiners to lower their standards, she said.

But several examiners in the crowd said they had been shocked by what they perceived to be her obvious irritation, and what they felt was her lack of interest in their concerns.

Would a male FDIC chairman's response have been viewed differently?

FDIC Chief Operating Officer Dennis F. Geer said that he's worked at five federal agencies headed by male political appointees, several of whom "screamed and threw things but nobody made a big deal of it.

"But Ricki is fair game," he said, adding that he's "never been in a room where she's cut someone to shreds" or humiliated people.

"She's very intense, smart, likes detail, probes and probes - and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable," Mr. Geer said.

Whatever her staff may think of her, some of her supporters rate her overall performance as outstanding.

William A. Longbrake, who recently left his FDIC job as chief financial officer to rejoin Washington Mutual Inc., Seattle, praised her "disciplined, focused" approach.

"The history books will put her down as a very strong chairman who stayed the course and got the job done," Mr. Longbrake said.

Ms. Helfer's supporters and detractors agree on one thing: She's "very direct."

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