H.F. Ahmanson & Co. said Wednesday it has hired the former chief executive of First Interstate Bank of California to replace its president, who resigned last week.
The addition of 47-year-old Bruce G. Willison adds a new level of executive firepower to $49.8 billion-asset Ahmanson's push to become more like a bank and less like a traditional thrift.
Mr. Willison worked for 17 years at Los Angeles-based First Interstate Bancorp. As head of its flagship subsidiary for the past five years, he was a key player in the company's vaunted turnaround.
But he was left without a job when Wells Fargo & Co. acquired the parent company on April 1. Then Ahmanson, based in nearby Irwindale, suddenly developed a vacancy with the unexpected resignation last week of Frederic J. Forster, who cited unspecified differences with chairman and chief executive Charles R. Rinehart.
Mr. Willison said he knew Mr. Rinehart from their common involvement in the United Way. But he said the two only began talking about this job within the past two weeks, when it became apparent that Mr. Forster would leave.
"This clearly shows that Charlie is serious about turning Ahmanson into a consumer, small business bank," said Charlotte A. Chamberlain, an analyst in Los Angeles with Wedbush Morgan Securities.
Ahmanson, the country's biggest thrift, signaled the depth of its determination to become more banklike when it agreed late last month to buy the 61 First Interstate branches in California that Wells was required to divest for antitrust reasons.
Ahmanson also started a big push into nonmortgage consumer lending last year, and Mr. Rinehart has said it would be willing to endure a reduction in assets of up to a 40% in order to get marginally profitable mortgage loans off its books.
Mr. Willison said that one of his first tasks will be to oversee the push into traditional bank functions, including the integration of the First Interstate branches into Ahmanson's 262-branch California network, and an Ahmanson initiative in small-business lending.
He carries strong credentials for both assignments. Had First Interstate been able to merge with its proposed alternative to Wells, First Bank System Inc., Mr. Willison would have stayed on as head of commercial banking for the combined companies. Mr. Willison is also credited with turning around First Interstate's Oregon subsidiary before becoming head of the California bank.
Mr. Willison is the most senior of the former First Interstate executives to take a job at another company. One of his chief lieutenants at First Interstate Bank of California, 41-year-old Jaynie M. Studenmund, an executive vice president in charge of retail banking, on Monday took a similar post at Great Western Financial Corp.