SAN FRANCISCO -- Bank of America has snared an originations star to lead its home loan division.

Arthur D. Ringwald, formerly head of production at Sears Mortgage Corp., signed on with the BankAmerica Corp. unit earlier this week.

The hiring fueled speculation that Bank of America may crank up its mortgage lending -- not just in its home market of California but across the country.

"This is a big statement by B of A," said Mark Springer, an executive recruiter based in Southern California. Mr. Ringwald, he added, "has a solid understanding of the issues involved in building a nationwide business."

In Need of a Boost

Bank of America, the nation's second-largest bank, could certainly use a boost in mortgage lending.

In the first half of this year, it ranked as only the 22nd largest mortgage originator in the country, down from No. 5 a year earlier, according to the newsletter Inside Mortgage Finance. The bank produced about $3.25 billion of mortgages in the first six months of this year.

Observers say the decline was caused in part by the protracted recession in California, where the bank's mortgage lending is heavily concentrated. The experience, they say, has prompted the bank to seek greater geographic diversification.

The post Mr. Ringwald fills had been vacant for a year. Graham Williams, Bank of America's last mortgage chief, defected to ITT Financial Corp.

Sweetened the Deal

Initially, sources said, the bank had trouble attracting strong candidates because it wasn't willing to match the pay offered by rivals. But eventually the compensation package was sweetened.

On average, heads of mortgage divisions at big financial institutions were paid $564,300 last year in cash compensation, according to Carl D. Jacobs Associates, Woodland Hills, Calif.

Mr. Ringwald and Bank of America officials were unavailable for comment on the hiring, which was disclosed by a company spokesman.

Emerged from Turmoil

Mr. Ringwald, who joined Sears Mortgage in 1989, helped build that company into one of the nation's top retail originators. Earlier, he held top production posts with Valley National Mortgage Co., Phoenix, and Margaretten Financial Corp., Perth Amboy, N.J.

His move to Bank of America follows some turmoil at Sears Mortgage. Earlier this year, PNC Bank Corp. agreed to acquire the unit of Sears, Roebuck & Co. -- except for its western offices. Mr. Ringwald and an investor group planned to buy those branches, but the deal collapsed in August, leaving his career in limbo.

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