Thomas A. Cooper made a name for himself by laying off thousands of employees at Bank of America in the 1980s. Now he's taking a crack at upsizing an institution.

For the past 10 months, Mr. Cooper has been chairman and chief executive of Chase Federal Bank, a $2.3 billion-asset Miami thrift.

"We are trying to get this engine going," said Mr. Cooper, who has attracted such big-name investors as Harvard Management Co. and E.M. Warburg, Pincus & Co.

Mr. Cooper, 57, says he wants to grow the bank into "a real force in Florida."

That marks a big departure from his past work as a shrinker of banks. A self-described "tough guy," he cut about 10,000 people at Bank of America as president in the mid-1980s. He went on to slash some 5,000 jobs at Buffalo, N.Y.-based Goldome Federal Savings Bank.

At one point, he picked up the nickname "Ax."

So why didn't he look for a big cutting job this time around?

"I need to be careful about how to say this," says Mr. Cooper, who began his banking career by trimming down Phildaelphia's Girard Bank. "You get a certain kind of reputation when you are a turnaround person. While the results can be stimulating, it can also be quite frustrating when you are spending the vast amount of your time job-eliminating."

Personal Turnaround

He added, "People think of mc more for the fact that 30,000 people no longer work for those institutions. I made up my mind I was either going to retire or do something different, or I wanted to build something that was on the edge where I thought the industry was going to go."

The edge for Mr. Cooper is the highly competitive Miami market. Ten months ago, Mr. Cooper and six investors snagged two weaklings - Chase Federal Bank, and Financial Federal Savings and Loan.

The thrifts were merged into a $1.7 billion institution. Chase, the larger of the two, was run by Edwin J. Gray, the controversial chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. He has since left the bank.

Mr. Cooper's investor group pumped $125 million into a new holding company called TAC (for Thomas A. Cooper) Baneshares. The funds have since been funneled to Chase, and there's an additional $50 million that can be used by Chase if needed.

Mr. Cooper's strategy is to build a no-frills, nogimmicks, low-cost bank that targets working-class folks with products like mortgages, home equity loans, and loans secured by deposits.

'A Wal-Mart Kind of Bank'

"We would be more than happy to be seen as a Wal-Mart kind of bank," Mr. Cooper said. "We are in the mass-market consumer banking business."

He says people need low-cost services like checking and savings accounts with no minimum balances and no monthly maintenance fees. They also need savings clubs and branches that open early and stay open late, he says.

"We'll open at midnight if that is what the work pattern is in our neighborhood," he said. "It is very much the back to basics, take care of the family banking business."

Charles B. Stuzin, chairman of Miami-based Citizens Federal Bank, said Mr. Cooper's game plan is solid. But he said he isn't nervous going head-to-head with a star like Mr. Cooper.

"I've been in the savings and loan business all my life," he said. "It takes a lot to make me fearful."

Just because Mr. Cooper is building doesn't mean he hasn't pulled out the knife. After the two limping organizations were merged, about 200 employees - or one-third of the total - were let go. This type of cutting is typical for a merger, with management seeking to reduce redundant functions.

Since those cuts, Mr. Cooper has expanded Chase's reach by acquiring. seven branches. The thrift also is originating more loans, he said - $19 million this month compared to about $4 million a month under prior management. In June, the thrift opened more than 1,000 new checking accounts. Before the merger, he said, the thrift didn't open half that many in an entire year.

Mr. Cooper is looking for acquisitions, too, but he thinks that even if he can't find sellers Chase can grow to $3 billion over the next 12 months. He expects the thrift to return 0.75% on average assets and 14% on average equity for its June 30, 1994, fiscal year.

"It's not bad for the first year," he said.

Running a small thrift in Miami is light years from where Mr. Cooper has been. He began his career, in fact, as a Methodist minister, but dropped that after several years.

"I'm not necessarily one that can fit into the bureaucracy that can be associated with the church," he said.

Aptitude for Trimming Expenses

He moved on to banking in 1962, taking a job at Girard Bank. He showed an aptitude for the business and for trimming expenses, and quickly moved up the ladder. When Girard needed an overhaul, Mr. Cooper led the charge. In 1984, after Girard was acquired by Mellon Bank, he was named vice chairman of Mellon National Corp.

A year later he jumped to Bank of America to carry out a restructuring there. He resigned just three years later amid rumors that he clashed with A.W. "Tom" Clausen, then chairman of BankAmerica Corp.

Mr. Cooper, for his part, said he left because of "the potential that there could be a lack of clarity as to who was doing what between Tom Clausen and myself. I thought it would be best not to contribute to any lack of certainty." His continued presence might have been disruptive, he added.

He said the resignation was one of the low points of his career.

"That was tough," he said. "Not to be there and follow [the B of A turnaround] through to its conclusion was a disappointment."

Mr. Cooper went on to become chairman and chief executive of Invest/ISFA Corp., a provider of brokerage, investment, and insurance services. And in 1988 he became chief executive of the troubled Goldome.

Again, Mr. Cooper cut employees, but brought Goldome into the black in 1990. It was too late, however; Goldome's capital was too thin and the thrift was seized by federal regulators in May 1991.

"I got very high marks from the regulators," he said. "I felt very, very good that that was a job I did right."

Now, with Chase Federal Bank, Mr. Cooper is hoping for an unqualified success.

"If we stick to our plan," he says, "the opportunities are tremendous."Thomas A. CooperAge: 57 Title: Chairman, president, chiefexecutive of Chase Federal Bank. Chasehas $2.3 billion in assets and 32branches Career Path:1960: Ordained Methodist minister1962: Joined Girard Bank, Philadelphia1964: Vice chairman of Mellon National Corp.1985: Named president and chief operating officer of Bank of American1987: Named chairman and CEO of Invest/ISFA1988: Named chief executive of Goldome1991: Formed TAC Associates Inc.1993: Acquired Chase and Financial Federal Family: Wife, June, and five daughters and a son."I was a lousy father. Thank God theyhave had a good mother."

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