American Savings' retiring CEO, Mario Antoci, is part of a vanishing breed of old-line executives who believe thrifts can still make money in mortgages.

As president of H.F. Ahmanson's Home Savings Bank during the 1980s, Mr. Antoci bombarded California consumers with a new alternative to fixed-rate loans - an adjustable-rate model that moved in tandem with deposit costs, said analyst Jonathan Gray of Sanford Bernstein & Co.

The adjustables caught on in a big way. Indeed, Mr. Antoci used the adjustable rate mortgages keyed to California funding costs to transform American into a mortgage powerhouse.

Headhunter David DeWilde recalled Monday how hard it was to convince Mr. Antoci to jump ship to American Savings in 1988.

The 21-year veteran of Home Savings was widely regarded as the heir apparent to Home's chairmanship when Richard Deihl retired. Twice Mr. Antoci was offered the top job at American, and twice he turned it down. It took several meetings with investor Robert Bass to change Mr. Antoci's mind, said Mr. DeWilde, chief executive of Chartwell Partners International Inc., San Francisco.

Why was Mr. Bass so keen on Mario Antoci? "Mario kept coming up as the best person," Mr. DeWilde said, because he was steeped in the nuts and bolts of running a thriving mortgage business.

He also had a head for numbers and was an inspired leader - just the mix American needed to rally its dispirited troops, Mr. DeWilde said.

And rally them he did. Mr. Antoci pushed American to second place in the California mortgage market, just behind Bank of America. American made $2.6 billion in home loans in the six months ended June 30.

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