Despite having an attractive Southern California branch network, Bank Plus Corp. may have a difficult time finding a buyer.

The $4.3 billion-asset thrift, based in Los Angeles, announced this month that it had hired Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. to explore the possibility of a sale.

"I love their retail network, but they are just too expensive for the asset mix they have," said Babette E. Heimbuch, president and chief executive officer of Firstfed Financial Corp. Bank Plus has a 38-office network in the Los Angeles and Orange County markets.

"We haven't made any decisions," she said.

Firstfed, a Santa Monica thrift company with $4 billion of assets, was named by several analysts as the most likely potential buyer.

Bank Plus' stock is relatively cheap, trading at about eight times estimated 1999 earnings. The average multiple among the top 50 U.S. thrifts is 12.

But most of Bank Plus' loan portfolio is multifamily residential mortgages. Some, sources said, are backed by property of questionable value.

The company has also shifted its focus to subprime credit card loans, a relatively risky business line for a thrift.

Market watchers named Golden State Bancorp., which is merging with the parent of California Federal Bank, and Downey Savings and Loan Association of Newport Beach, Calif., as other potential bidders. Officials at those organizations declined to comment.

Making the search for a buyer all the more difficult is the low and flat yield curve and a market that has been hammering thrift stocks.

"The yield curve has definitely caused people to become very cautious about looking at thrifts right now," said Jeffrey T. Runnfeldt, an analyst at Van Kasper & Co. in San Francisco.

Bank Plus said it sought out Keefe as a financial adviser after large shareholders urged the thrift to either seek a buyer or replace its management team.

In an interview the day of that announcement, Bank Plus CEO Richard M. Greenwood said Keefe would also look for potential acquisition targets. The notion did not sit well with shareholders.

In an Aug. 20 letter to the Bank Plus board, Kalamazoo, Mich., institutional investor LaSalle Financial Partners criticized Mr. Greenwood. It said the thrift should seek a buyer as soon as possible that is "willing to offer shareholders the most value."

"Considering the capital previously squandered by the company, we are surprised that the board is subjecting itself to further liability" by considering an acquisition, wrote Richard J. Nelson, co-head of LaSalle Financial. "We believe that management does not have the ability to make such a transaction a financial success."

LaSalle Financial owns 7.3% of Bank Plus.

Bank Plus spokesman Neil L. Osborne said the board of directors is "certainly well aware of LaSalle's views and takes them seriously."

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