James F. Montgomery, who takes over on Monday as chairman of America's Community Bankers, is not your run-of-the-mill trade group boss.

For one thing, the Great Western Financial Corp. chairman and chief executive is arguably the best-known and most respected executive in the thrift industry. Taking the reins at the thrift trade association isn't going to raise his profile much.

And as head of the group, Mr. Montgomery will have a resource at his disposal that his counterparts at the American Bankers Association and Independent Bankers Association of America can't match - his own thrift. The $44.5 billion-asset institution doesn't hesitate to throw its substantial weight around to make politicians and regulators take notice.

"He will not be a figurehead," said Washington thrift lobbyist Kenneth McLean.

Consider what happened last March.

Mr. Montgomery and other thrift leaders had been sounding the alarm for months about an impending crisis at the Savings Association Insurance Fund. But few in Congress appeared to be listening.

So on March 1, Great Western - the country's second-largest thrift - dropped a bomb. It applied to regulators for national bank charters in California and Florida, announcing that it planned to open bank branches at its 400-plus thrift locations and entice its customers to close their thrift accounts and open bank accounts.

"That really was what started this whole sense of urgency in Washington," Mr. Montgomery said in a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles. "Because after our application there were some 50 others, and now all of a sudden people on Capitol Hill could see that there was a real crisis" with the thrift fund - that "it was going to implode and something had to be done."

The rescue of the savings fund is now well on its way to congressional approval. But Mr. Montgomery has no plans to let up. "I'm not ready to declare victory, because it isn't over yet," he said.

For the past year he has been a constant presence in Washington, lobbying Congress on deposit insurance and another matter dear to his heart and to Great Western's bottom line: reform of the Federal Home Loan Bank System. At the end of this year, the 60-year-old Mr. Montgomery will give up the chief executive title (he will remain Great Western's chairman) so he can spend even more time lobbying.

Why is it that such a big-name thrift executive is willing to spend so much of time roaming the halls of Congress?

It's simple economics, Mr. Montgomery said. His institution "can't survive" paying six times more for deposit insurance than its commercial bank competitors. "There's nothing I could do in Los Angeles at Great Western, in my office, that's near as important as trying to get that fixed," he said.

As for the Home Loan banks, Mr. Montgomery said the $350 million in shares of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco that Great Western is required by law to own is "the largest asset on our books, and it's the one over which we have the least control.

"Getting the Federal Home Loan Bank System reformed, including getting everyone to be voluntary members and putting it on a sound business footing, is a very, very important dollar-and-cents issue for Great Western as well."

Not surprisingly, rumors that Great Western might switch to a state charter and pull its $350 million out of the San Francisco Home Loan Bank have added urgency to the reform debate.

Mr. Montgomery said he has not threatened to leave. But he understands why others might think he would. "It's a question of our size and our visibility and our willingness to do things that make financial sense," he said.

That willingness has been demonstrated repeatedly in the past - starting in 1955 when Great Western became the first savings and loan to go public. Regulators were reluctant to allow the thrift to issue enough shares for a public offering, so Great Western executives sidestepped them by creating the first savings and loan holding company.

In the 1980s, Great Western regularly went toe-to-toe with regulators. In 1981, the thrift switched from a state to a federal charter after California authorities imposed tough conditions on a proposed merger with a smaller thrift. Then, in 1985, it came close to converting back to a state charter because of federal limits on its insurance and consumer finance businesses. In 1988, it tried to leave the doomed Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. but was turned down.

Through all these turbulent times, Mr. Montgomery kept Great Western's business course steady. While other thrifts made risky, eventually disastrous bets on commercial real estate in the early 1980s, Great Western stuck to home loans, and prospered.

Along the way, Mr. Montgomery gradually reshaped his thrift into something that looked more and more like a bank, albeit one aimed at consumers, not businesses.

"He's positioned the company extremely well, given the thrift infrastructure he had to work with," said Bruce W. Harting, thrift analyst with Salomon Brothers.

As a result, congressional proposals to merge the bank and thrift charters won't have much impact on Great Western's business prospects. There's nothing in the commercial bank charter that Great Western needs, Mr. Montgomery said, and nothing in the thrift charter it can't stand to lose.

"We Great Western have been trying to look like a commercial bank to our customers for a long time," Mr. Montgomery said. "We have been very active in checking accounts and bank-like activities with respect to our liability mix. Our assets continue to be heavily dominated by residential mortgages. I don't see any change in that pattern if and when we become a full commercial bank."

Not all thrifts would be able to make the switch so easily, Mr. Montgomery acknowledged, and as chairman of America's Community Bankers he said he will push for a go-slow approach on the charter merger.

"What I would like to see is a single charter for all financial institutions, but I'd like to see us make sure that we do everything we can to make it the broadest charter possible," he said.

"It seems to me that we ought to take our time to make sure that it gets done correctly."

And will ACB, the organization Mr. Montgomery is about to head, still have a place in a one-charter world?

"I think you're going to have a whole group of financial institutions that are now thrifts that look pretty much like they do today," he said.

"I think we're going to want to be together and talk about our problems and opportunities."

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