Like fish feeding in the wake of whales, California thrifts are feasting off the leavings of the Wells Fargo-First Interstate deal these days.

The Wells merger created a $108 billion-asset bank, second only to Bank of America in the state. But it also created a potential gold mine of disaffected former First Interstate customers.

Eager to become more than just mortgage factories, thrifts have gone trolling for these big-bank refugees with offers of free ATMs and high CD rates, not to mention ice cream socials, backyard barbecues, and some downright cheeky advertising.

The campaigns have been aimed principally at Wells, but Bank of America, regarded as a juicy target, has not escaped.

Beneath the circus atmosphere is the deadly serious business of prying loose checking account customers from the grip of commercial banks.

With checking accounts, thrifts get cheaper money to lend, and, they hope, potential borrowers for their auto, home equity, credit card, and personal loan businesses.

The mix of cheaper funding and higher-yielding consumer loans is the cornerstone of the new thrift strategy to boost the anemic profitability of their traditional CD and mortgage business.

And in the inevitable disruption surrounding Wells' purchase of First Interstate Bank, thrift executives smelled a golden opportunity.

"Dissatisfaction with big banking's posture toward individual customers is at an all-time high," said Tracy Britton, director of marketing at H.F. Ahmanson & Co.'s Home Savings of America, Irwindale, Calif.

"We perceived there was a huge opportunity, and tried very hard to capitalize on that," said Ms. Britton.

Home is hardly alone. Glendale Federal Bank and Great Western Bank, Chatsworth, are going after the same customers.

For months, Glendale Federal, the state's fifth-largest thrift, has taunted both Wells and Bank of America with what it calls Operation Unharness. The efforts by Glendale and others have now reached a fever pitch as the branch closings and conversions accelerate.

Glendale has been using billboards that show Wells' trademark coach inside a red circle with a slash - the "no" sign - and tell former First Interstate customers to "Buck the system" or "Hit the trail" by calling 1- 800-41-FED-UP. Other billboards have featured Bank of America inside the "no" symbol, and slogans such as "You deserve better."

Meanwhile, Great Western marked the Aug. 10 closure of several First Interstate branches due to the Wells merger with a CD and checking account sale on Aug. 9 and 10.

During the "Money Moving Days," Great Western advertised an above-market CD rate to lure customers to its branches. Once there, the thrift hoped to also sell them checking accounts offering free use of others' ATMs.

Great Western pulled in more than 40,000 new customers and $742 million in CD, checking, savings, and money market deposits, according to Jaynie M. Studenmund, executive vice president for retail banking.

Home Savings also has been offering a checking account with free use of others' ATMs, which allows the thrift to leapfrog over Bank of America's and Wells Fargo's extensive ATM networks. The offer began July 1 and runs through the end of this month.

Ms. Britton wouldn't say how many accounts the campaign has netted, but said the thrift has exceeded its "very aggressive" goals. In California, 45% of these accounts came from former Wells customers, she said.

Even as the thrifts claim resounding victory, Wells shrugs off the raids as minor. Spokeswoman Laura Doubet said Wells Fargo has not seen any significant runoff from the thrift marketing efforts.

Both may be right. For the giant Wells, the defection of some several thousand customers may be barely noticeable. But for the thrifts, the numbers can look large.

Still, analysts said prying depositors loose from banks is no easy task.

"The traditional wisdom is that it takes death or divorce to get somebody to move their checking account," said analyst Charlotte Chamberlain of Wedbush Morgan Securities, Los Angeles.

Consumer inertia is even deeper these days, she said, because paychecks are often electronically credited and mortgage payments debited from checking accounts. Most people are loath to disturb these arrangements, she said.

It's so hard to dislodge checking account customers that Campbell Chaney, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw, San Francisco, questioned whether the expense thrifts are incurring to bring in the new deposits is too high.

Thrift executives maintain they're on the right track. In an age when big banks push efficient, automated service, thrifts say their hands-on service is sure to win converts - and profitable new business.

"Probably one of the biggest single complaints we hear about the Wells Fargo-Interstate transaction, and one that we have been able to generate thousands of accounts from, is the notion that you cannot call your local Wells Fargo branch. You call an "800" number and you end up over the desert in Nevada," said Stephen J. Trafton, chief executive of Glendale.

When Glendale customers call their neighborhood branch, they get someone who's actually there, Mr. Trafton observed. Moreover, Glendale uses parking lot barbecues, ice cream socials, and even piano players to encourage customers to come into its branches. After all, once you get a customer inside your branch, you can sell more products, Mr. Trafton said.

"We wish the Bank of America and Wells Fargo well," said Mr. Trafton, "because they'll keep churning out dissatisfied customers for us."

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