Seafirst Bank-"the crown jewel in BankAmerica's tiara," one observer calls it-has dominated its competitive Pacific Northwest market for decades.

Led by chairman and chief executive officer John V. Rindlaub, Seattle- based Seafirst handily beats its largest local rival, Washington Mutual Inc., in deposit market share.

Now, with an agreement to buy H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Washington Mutual is bringing the struggle to BankAmerica Corp.'s core California market. As a result, BankAmerica will be studying how Seafirst has worked its magic up north.

"For the first time in several years in California there is going to be another viable consumer banking franchise, and it is one that John Rindlaub is a veteran at competing with," said R. Jay Tejera, an analyst with Dain Rauscher in Minneapolis.

"Seattle is the only market where these two institutions have overlapped and really butted heads," said James R. Bradshaw, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore.

Seafirst has come out on top partly because of its prowess in cross- selling to its retail customers and catering to cutting-edge midsize companies with international operations.

Despite his obvious success in the face of tough competition, Mr. Rindlaub shies away from speaking about rivals.

"Our biggest concern is understanding and predicting what our clients want and need," he said in a recent interview. "Our biggest concern is not our competitors."

But if any bank should feel comfortable resting on its competitive laurels, it is Seafirst.

In the combined market of Seattle and neighboring Tacoma, Seafirst holds 28% of deposits, compared with Washington Mutual's 18%, according to Pacific Crest Securities. Seafirst has a nearly 23% share of the market statewide, while Washington Mutual trails with 15.4%.

The merger with Ahmanson, expected to close in the third quarter, would vault Washington Mutual to No. 2 in California, with 17% of deposits and about $150 billion of assets. BankAmerica would still be No. 1.

BankAmerica and Washington Mutual "will get to know each other very intensely in California over the next year or so," Mr. Bradshaw said.

Seafirst, acquired by BankAmerica in 1983, has an extremely successful customer-oriented selling program. It is an area that has become a priority for the company's entire consumer strategy.

"We really pioneered that up here, but now it has been rolled out through the BankAmerica footprint," Mr. Rindlaub said. "Now it isn't a Seafirst thing anymore.

Indeed, Seafirst has proved itself a master at creating broader relationships with its customers and getting more of their wallet. It averages more than three banking relationships per customers household- close to the 3.6 mark at $89 billion-asset Norwest Corp., Minneapolis, widely considered an industry leader, according to Mr. Tejera. And Seafirst easily tops BankAmerica's Golden State average of roughly 1.7.

Seafirst's high cross-selling ratio is partly driven by Mr. Rindlaub's determination to leverage its relations with middle-market companies.

Just offering them credit is "like having blinders on," he said. Instead, Seafirst uses a program called Bank at Work to try to meet the banking needs of top management and rank-and-file employees at Seafirst customer companies.

Judging from the testimony of one Seafirst commercial account, the strategy works.

When Gerald B. O'Meara, who until January was president of Vancouver, Wash.-based Columbia Machine Inc., became dissatisfied in 1995 with the service at the former First Interstate Bancorp, one meeting with Mr. Rindlaub won him over to Seafirst.

"John Rindlaub and Seafirst provided us with that hometown-banking, customer-friendly relationship," Mr. O'Meara said. But because half of the concrete-machinery manufacturer's $65 million in annual revenues is earned overseas, the fact that Seafirst had a large parent company was just as important to Mr. O'Meara.

BankAmerica, with operations in 38 countries, is the only bank with a big international presence that is also big in Washington State.

Mr. Rindlaub did not rest after snagging Columbia's commercial account. He and his employees offered the firm favorable terms for direct deposit and eventually signed Mr. O'Meara as a private banking client.

"John's well-developed customer skills made us feel like we were dealing with a small entity, and because of BankAmerica we also got really good coverage on a global basis," Mr. O'Meara said.

Mr. Rindlaub does not like to single out Seafirst from the rest of the BankAmerica franchise. He says the relationship with the parent company has supercharged his bank's capabilities.

Because Seafirst is well known in the Pacific Northwest "we've been able to leverage off of our local involvement and presence," he said. "But we are delivering the power of BankAmerica."

The symbiotic relationship is exemplified by the constant contact between Mr. Rindlaub and his boss, H. Eugene Lockhart, president of BankAmerica's global retail bank.

"I talk to Gene about once a day, but I'll probably get 10 notes, memos, or e-mails from him every day," Mr. Rindlaub said. "He communicates very directly, very informally, and very urgently."

Besides running Seafirst and BankAmerica's Northwest operations, Mr. Rindlaub, who came to the company in 1989 from Bankers Trust New York Corp., has also been put in charge of developing the global retail bank's information technology strategy.

"I make sure that our technology direction and spending are closely aligned with our overall business strategies," Mr. Rindlaub said.

Though its technology focus is making sure that computer systems do not go haywire on Jan. 1, 2000, BankAmerica is also developing a workstation that can show salespeople every facet of the bank's relationship with a particular customer, he said.

"It entails being able to see a customer's issues across the entire company," Mr. Rindlaub said. "We want to be able to say, 'Gee, this customer is not only a branch client, but he or she has a mutual fund, and a credit card, and a mortgage with us.'"

Developing customer relationships is obviously a passion for Mr. Rindlaub. When he starts to feel overwhelmed by the travel, the paperwork, and the general management requirements of his job, Mr. Rindlaub said, he drops into a Seafirst branch.

His job is demanding, he said, but "what really makes all of this worthwhile is seeing one of our relationship managers interacting with a client.

"Seeing the steps they go through to take care of our clients is a magic formula for me."

With his success in Seattle, it is no surprise that BankAmerica has on occasion offered Mr. Rindlaub an opportunity to move to San Francisco to work at headquarters. But he is not ready to leave.

"When I looked at all the community, commercial, and client ties I have built here," he said, "I thought I could provide the most continuing value to BankAmerica by staying."

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