Two months into his tenure as retail chief at California Federal Bank, Scott A. Kisting has already scored a major victory.

Mr. Kisting's seven years at the former Norwest Corp. proved crucial in Cal Fed's efforts to win a bidding contest this month for 12 Nevada branches divested in the Minneapolis-based banking company's merger with Wells Fargo & Co.

Having a relationship with former Norwest chief executive Richard Kovacevich, who is now Wells' CEO, "helped us because he knew how we would treat his employees," Mr. Kisting said."It was a really traumatic time for the branch employees, and because we agreed to find jobs for all of them, Norwest went out of their way to help us get those branches."

In an interview this week, Mr. Kisting described how he would use his commercial banking experience to reshape the $52 billion-asset thrift, which completed a merger with Glendale Federal Bank in September.

"The heart of our strategy is to create an exceptional experience for our customers whenever they touch us," Mr. Kisting said. "We want to sell relationships, not just products."

This philosophy has been sorely missing from large thrifts such as Cal Fed (whose parent is First Nationwide Holdings Inc.), which have fallen behind many commercial banks in developing sophisticated sales forces, according to James R. Bradshaw, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities of Portland, Ore.

"If Cal Fed can instill the Norwest attitude into their branches, this will be a powerful company," Mr. Bradshaw said. "Thrift branch employees have traditionally been simple order-takers, so other institutions have been poaching their customer base."

Cal Fed, now the largest thrift headquartered in California and the second-biggest in the nation, has all the firepower it needs to compete handily with BankAmerica Corp., Wells Fargo, and Washington Mutual Inc., Mr. Kisting said.

"We have the locations, the scale, and the convenience, so we have no excuses not to be successful," he added.

From developing computerized profiles of customers to instructing tellers always to use customers' names and to say "thank you," Cal Fed's 359 branches are beginning to change, he said. "We're trying to get everyone at Cal Fed engaged in this vision."

Last weekend Cal Fed completed its integration of Glendale Federal.

With the merger behind him, Mr. Kisting said he expects to spend the coming year trying to attract customers from competitors such as BankAmerica, which closed its merger with NationsBank Sept. 30, and Wells Fargo.

"Whatever Norwest is going to do to make Wells Fargo better out here, we are going to have to do first," Mr. Kisting said.

Mr. Kisting said he counts the acquisition of the 12 Norwest branches in Nevada as one of his first major victories. It took more than his ties with Mr. Kovacevich to win the deal, he said.

At first, federal regulators would not even let Cal Fed-or any other thrift-bid for the branches. The Justice Department had opened the process to commercial banks only because of their greater expertise in commercial and small-business lending, Mr. Kisting said.

But he said he realized that the branches were crucial to Cal Fed's Nevada franchise. The deal, expected to close in the second quarter, would boost the thrift's Nevada deposit market share ranking from sixth place to third.

Mr. Kisting presented his institution's case to several Justice Department lawyers in a conference call last month. He persuaded them that Cal Fed is dedicated to expanding its business lending and that the thrift should be allowed to bid.

"I saw it as a personal challenge," Mr. Kisting said.

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