SAN FRANCISCO -- California Federal Bank named Edward G. Harshfield, a specialist in problem institutions, as its president and chief executive Wednesday.

The Los Angeles-based thrift also said it would replace Michael W. Arthur, its controversial chairman for the past two months, with David Gilbert, a Massachusetts-based bank consultant.

Crisis Seems Eased

The announcements appeared to ease a crisis that has pitted California Federal's board against some of its major shareholders. The conflict reached a boiling point in recent days as investors went public with their grievances.

Stockholders said they have been angry since July when the board forced out Jerry St. Dennis, the former chairman, who had engineered a successful recapitalization of the nation's sixth-largest thrift.

The board also fired the thrift's president and chief executive, William L. Callender, but asked him to remain until a replacement could be selected. He is to retire after Mr. Harshfield, a Chicago resident, arrives Oct. 18 to assume his duties.

Major shareholders seemed especially pleased with the removal of Mr. Arthur, who had been named during the summer as interim chairman.

Investors had accused the 54-year-old Los Angeles consultant, who had no financial institution experience, of taking a cavalier attitude toward them.

Chairman's Credibility

Mr. Gilbert, 47, a banking industry veteran who specializes in data processing, is said to have greater credibility with investors.

Albert Fried Jr., a New York investor who owns about 6% of California Federal's shares, called the management changes "very positive steps" that "should open lines of communication" between shareholders and directors.

Analysts view Mr. Harshfield, 56, as a strong hand who will quickly fill the senior management vacuum created in July. A former executive at Citicorp and Household International. Mr. Harshfield in recent years has developed a reputation as a financial institution trouble-shooter.

In his last two jobs, he was brought in by regulators to be chief executive of troubled institutions. In 1990 and 1991, he headed Beverly Hills, Calif-based Columbia Savings and Loan, a thrift that specialized in junk bond investments, before it was seized by federal regulators.

2 Executives' Roles

Later, he was appointed CEO of First City Texas National Bank Houston, after a federal takeover.

California Federal noted in a statement that Mr. Harshfield would have all operating authority, while Mr. Gilbert would restrict his activities to board and corporate governance issues. Mr. St. Dennis' refusal to share authority with the board was a factor in his dismissal, according to sources close to the board.

Analysts view Mr. Harshfield as a short-timer who will either engineer a sale or set California Federal on a steady operating course before moving on.

Shareholders have accused the board of dragging its feet on selling the thrift.

Share Price Down

California Federal's stock price fell 50 cents a share, to $13.375, in afternoon trading Wednesday.

In an interview, Mr. Harshfield said it was too early to say whether a sale is the best alternative. He called himself "a rational businessman" who wants to gather more information before determining a course of action.

He added that he had no opinion about the conflict between shareholders and the board. But he said the two sides have a common interest. "What everybody is trying to do is find the right value" for the thrift, he said.

The new CEO said he has a two-year contract, as well as other "traditional" benefits, including stock options. He called his appointment open-ended. "I don't have the idea that I'm coming out for any specific amount of time," he said.

Asked whether he would buy a house in the Los Angeles area, Mr. Harshfield said he would rent until he has sold one of the homes he owns in Chicago, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C.

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