Seeking to reassure investors that its turnaround is on track, Guardian Bancorp hired a new chief executive and said its ambitious program to jettison nonperformers is progressing.

Analysts, meanwhile, speculated that Guardian, one of the largest community banks in Los Angeles and a glaring example of the troubles faced by independent banks in that region, is for sale.

James F. Lewin, a Security Pacific Bank veteran, was hired as chief executive of Guardian Bancorp, the $473 million-asset holding company for Guardian Bank.

Mr. Lewin had resigned from the holding company's board just two weeks before. He was a close associate of Howard Fletcher, who was dumped as chief executive late last month because some board members took exception to his management style.

Mr. Lewin, as a board member brought in by Mr. Fletcher, resigned "in haste," said chairman Paul Harris, who asked Mr. Lewin to come back as CEO.

Michael J. Welch, another board member who resigned at Mr. Fletcher's firing, is also coming back on board.

"We felt that they had left in haste, and we went to them and asked them to come back," said Mr. Harris, who co-founded the bank 10 years ago. "Mr. Lewin has the time and the experience to do the job."

"My immediate tasks with the company are to actively assist in recruiting a president and chief executive officer for Guardian Bank and to explore ways to enhance shareholder value," Mr. Lewin said in a statement.

One analyst who follows Guardian but who asked not to be named took Mr. Lewin's statement to mean he will talk to potential acquirers.

If Guardian is for sale, it wouldn't be the first. About a dozen community banks in Los Angeles and Orange counties have either put themselves in play, sold branches, or both. Mr. Harris confirmed that one option to be considered by Mr. Lewin will be sale of the company.

Guardian Bancorp raised $18 million this year in a fights offering to shore up its dwindling capital base and satisfy federal regulatory orders. Mr. Fletcher, brought on in 1993 to help turn the company around, was instrumental in persuading investors the bank could survive.

Mr. Fletcher laid groundwork for the sale of $50 million in nonperforming and nonaccrual assets that have been a serious drag on the company.

He was in the midst of a bankwide restructuring that included layoffs and an overhaul of its back-office operations when he was fired.

Nonetheless, Guardian continued to lose money this year even as Los Angeles community banks with similar problems noted a weakening of the recession's grip.

It lost $18.45 million in the first six months of 1994, including a $12 million loss in the three months ended June 30.

The bank charged off $17 million in mostly real estate-related loans and other assets in the second quarter.

Mr. Harris said the $50 million sale should be completed by Sept. 30.

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