When Richard Diehl's hand-picked successor took the helm of H.F. Ahmanson & Co. last year, few could have predicted the massive changes in store at the country's largest thrift.

During the 26 years Mr. Diehl ran Ahmanson, the company's Home Savings of America thrift subsidiary had grown from a $2.6 billion-asset southern California lender into a $50 billion-asset national powerhouse through single-minded pursuit of plain-vanilla mortgage lending.

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