While a shrinking thrift industry searches for profits and a new role beyond residential lending, at least one group within the industry - chief executives at large thrifts - is doing well.

Benefiting from sharp increases in stock prices due to a mix of economic and political factors, thrift CEOs received big raises in 1995. As at other companies, CEO compensation is increasingly linked to stock prices.

At the nation's largest thrift company, H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Irwindale, Calif., CEO Charles Rinehart's compensation package of $4.2 million was 69% larger than in 1994. More than half the package consisted of cash.

At California Federal Bank, CEO Edward Harshfield drew $1.23 million, almost entirely in cash. His compensation was 44% higher than in 1994. At Washington Mutual, CEO Kerry Killinger received a total compensation package of $2 million, up 39% from the year before. Of that, about $800,000 was in cash.

Each of these thrift executives did better than the typical head of the larger bank-owned or independent mortgage banking companies, such as Residential Services Corp. of America, Fleet Mortgage, Norwest, and Countrywide, according to a study by compensation expert Carl D. Jacobs. Thrifts are more complex institutions - they take in deposits and make consumer loans in addition to home loans - but mortgage lending remains their primary business.

In 1993, an exceptionally good year for mortgage banks, the median compensation package for chief executives at bank-owned mortgage companies or independents was $1.16 million. In 1994, the median fell to $846,411, as production slumped.

Some analysts questioned the rationale for the pay increases at the big thrifts. "If they can get their earnings up to 15% ROE, I think they should be paid the world," said James Marks of Hancock Institutional Equity Services, San Francisco. But that hasn't been the case at most of the big thrifts; returns on average equity have been 11% or less, or declining trends.

With such returns, "why should someone be rewarded just because the general market goes up?" Mr. Marks said.

Thrift returns, especially in California, have been dragged down by bad commercial real estate, multifamily and single-family loans made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Executives say earnings have also suffered because their core mortgage business has become less profitable, as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac grab more market share.

Meanwhile, investors bid thrift stocks up an astonishing 53% last year. They were banking on favorable economic and political developments, according to Charlotte Chamberlain, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities, Los Angeles.

"In 1995, the fundamentals went one way and the stock prices went another way," Ms. Chamberlain said.

Investors were betting, first, on a balanced-budget deal, which would have lowered interest rates and increased interest margins on thrift loan portfolios, Ms. Chamberlain said. They were also counting on Congress to merge the deposit insurance funds, which would have made thrifts more attractive to bank acquirers, she said.

Unlike Mr. Marks, Ms. Chamberlain said she does not consider executive compensation at thrifts to be out of line.

Mr. Rinehart, who tops the compensation list among publicly held thrifts, is the architect of a high-profile strategy to make Ahmanson's Home Savings of America more like a consumer bank.

Of the $4.2 million he earned, $2.41 million was in cash - salary, bonus, and a long-term incentive plan payout. He was also awarded restricted stock valued at $370,427 and stock options presently valued at $1.28 million.

Spokeswoman Mary Trigg said Mr. Rinehart benefited in 1995 from a pay raise in late 1994 that anticipated his election as chairman of the board in February 1995. His salary will remain fixed at $760,008 this year, she said.

He also received an unusually large award of stock options because of a change in the way these options are granted at the thrift, Ms. Trigg said. She added that comparison with a peer group that included other big California banks and thrifts was used in setting Mr. Rinehart's compensation

Mr. Rinehart's 69% pay raise tracked the increase in stock price. Shareholder returns at Home Savings rose 70.6% in 1995 over 1994.

James F. Montgomery, who retired at yearend as chief executive of Great Western Financial Corp., Chatsworth, Calif., also did pretty well in 1995. Though his $1.7 million salary-and-bonus package was pretty much unchanged from what he got the year before, option grants presently valued at $1.28 million boosted his overall 1995 compensation to $3 million - 30% more than he received in 1994.

Included in this package were the value of Mr. Montgomery's personal use of corporate aircraft and of below-market rates on two home loans totaling $2.45 million.

Ian D. Campbell, senior vice president of corporate communications at Great Western, said Mr. Montgomery's salary has been unchanged at $950,000 for several years. His bonus is linked to the thrift's earnings per share, and the options grant was related to his retirement, Mr. Campbell said.

In 1996, and for the following four years, Mr. Montgomery, who continues as chairman of Great Western's board of directors, will receive $485,000 annually as a consulting fee to "focus his efforts on major national policy issues critically important to the company's future."

Mr. Campbell said the former CEO is working to eliminate the disparity in deposit insurance premiums paid by banks and thrifts. If Great Western's premiums are reduced to bank levels, the thrift would save a substantial sum, Mr. Campbell said.

Mr. Montgomery is also working on this issue as chairman of America's Community Bankers, the national thrift trade group.

Golden West Financial Corp.'s husband-and-wife CEO team, Herb and Marion Sandler, each received compensation worth $1.7 million last year. In each case, $931,176 of the total was in salary, and most of the rest in option grants that will yield $723,000 if Golden West's stock appreciates 5% annually during the 10-year option term.

Despite a 58% increase in shareholder return, the Sandlers' compensation packages actually dropped 10% from the level a year before. However, Mr. Sandler realized another $5.5 million through the exercise of options on 127,300 shares last year.

California Federal Bank's CEO, Mr. Harshfield, received $1.2 million in salary, bonus and other compensation in 1995, up 44%. Shareholder returns increased 46% in 1995 over 1994.

Mr. Harshfield has not received additional restricted stock or options since his initial grant upon joining CalFed in 1993. The 300,000 options on shares he received then will be worth $1.9 million if CalFed's stock appreciates at 5% annually over the 10-year option term.

Mr. Killinger, who is moving aggressively to convert Washington Mutual into a commercial bank, received $946,746 in salary, bonus, restricted stock and other compensation in 1995. He was also awarded stock options that will be worth $1.1 million if the Seattle thrift's stock appreciates 5% over the 10-year option term.

Overall, Mr. Killinger's package was up 39% from the year before, while shareholder returns climbed 77%. The institution had one of the sturdier returns on equity among thrifts last year at 13.3%.

Standard Federal Bank, Troy, Mich., also increased the compensation of its chief executive by 39%. Almost all of Thomas R. Ricketts' increase came in option awards, which the thrift calculates will be worth $1.2 million if its stock appreciates 5% annually over the 10-year option term.

Mr. Ricketts' salary, bonus, and other compensation were almost unchanged at $1 million in 1995. But Standard Federal delivered a return of about 14% last year.

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