California Federal Bank, the thrift owned by financier Ronald Perelman, is considering an initial public offering of stock early next year, the institution's chairman said.

"We're strongly considering it, but it's not definite," chairman and chief executive Gerald Ford said in a telephone interview.

The offering, which could occur as soon as January or February, would be expected to raise $700 million-representing 15% to 20% of the thrift's common stock-and could set the stage for a sale.

Mr. Perelman's underwriter, Goldman, Sachs & Co., expects to price the shares at about twice book value, which would value California Federal at more than $4.6 billion, people familiar with the matter said.

The move would be a milestone in Mr. Perelman's highly profitable nine- year venture into savings and loans. In 1988 he bought five failed Texas institutions from the federal government, eventually parlaying the holdings through transactions into the fourth-largest U.S. thrift, which is overwhelmingly concentrated in California.

"This is a great time to do an offering," said Todd Pitsinger, an analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. "Look at the valuation of institutions currently in the market."

Institutions comparable to San Francisco-based California Federal, such as Glendale, California-based Golden State Bancorp, and Irwindale, California-based H.F. Ahmanson & Co., trade from about two to three times book value.

Mr. Perelman, through McAndrews & Forbes, owns 80% of California Federal's common stock. Mr. Ford owns the remaining 20%. McAndrews & Forbes spokesman James Conroy declined to comment on the offering.

California Federal Bank, which has $30.9 billion of assets, was closed for the Veterans Day holiday, and thrift officials could not be reached. Goldman Sachs also declined to comment.

California Federal's owners said they are prepared to sell if they can get a high price. An offering of a minority equity stake could pave the way for an eventual sale by establishing a value for the thrift's equity, analysts said.

In addition, it permits stock awards to employees and executives, making it easier to give them a direct stake in the business. The thrift could also retire some of its outstanding debt, including about $474 million in preferred stock, plus subordinated debt at the holding company level.

"By raising equity, they can replace high-cost debt," said Victoria Wagner, a Standard & Poor's Rating Services analyst. Sale of a minority stake in California Federal is consistent with Perelman's strategy in other ventures.

Mr. Perelman has a history of taking companies public. In 1996 he made public offerings for cosmetics company Revlon and Consolidated Cigar Holdings. He did the same with recreation equipment maker Coleman Co. in 1992 and comic book publisher Marvel Entertainment Group in 1991.

Mr. Perelman kept at least 80% of common stock of the companies to maintain control and permit sharing of tax benefits among his different enterprises.

In Marvel's case, he bought back shares to reach the 80% ownership level. After selling most of their Texas thrift operations to BankAmerica Corp., Perelman and Ford in 1994 bought San Francisco-based First Nationwide Bank from Ford Motor Co. for about $726 million. In 1997 First Nationwide bought Los Angeles-based California Federal Bank and took its name.

Under Ford Motor, First Nationwide had lost money, the result of a large portfolio of sour real estate loans. The new owners cleaned up the loan portfolio, bought thrifts in California, and sold operations outside the state.

Improvements in operations, plus gains on branch sales and tax benefits retained from the original Texas savings and loan purchases, made First Nationwide enormously profitable. In 1996 the thrift earned $621 million, including more than $419 million from branch sales and a $73 million tax benefit. In the quarter ended June 1997, California Federal earned $73 million.

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