At the end of one recent sunny afternoon, Fredric J. Forster was strapping on a pair of in-line skates, preparing to exercise near his home in Corona del Mar, Calif.

A year earlier, Mr. Forster, 53, could never have considered spending time this way. Nor could he have done so during the previous 25 years.

Until April 1996, Mr. Forster had been president and chief operating officer of the largest thrift in the country, $49 billion-asset H.F. Ahmanson & Co. of Irwindale. He left suddenly due to "tactical differences" with the company's chief executive, Charles R. Rinehart, he said.

"At Ahmanson my life was extraordinarily regimented," he said. "I live 47 miles away from Ahmanson, so my life was on the road. But now my schedule is one that I create."

In March, Mr. Forster joined forces with Stephen H. Gordon, a former hedge fund manager known for his aggressive shareholder advocacy tactics, to form an investment banking firm in nearby Irvine called Financial Institutional Partners LLC.

Mr. Forster's career change is testament to the benefits of taking nearly a year off. Many executives-even those who have achieved financial security-feel they miss a rung on the corporate ladder if they are not constantly employed.

But Mr. Forster said taking time off was the best thing he could have done, not only for his career but also for his personal life.

"When I left Ahmanson I had the profound good fortune of being able to ask a different kind of question in regard to my new employment," he said. "It was not 'What do I do now to further my career?' but 'What do I really want to do?'"

Instead of connecting with headhunters, Mr. Forster chose to reconnect with his family.

He and his wife, Aviva; son, Robert, 24; and daughter, Emily, 21, traveled extensively last year, including a trek through the Grand Canyon and a month in Europe.

Shortly after they returned from abroad, Mr. Forster's mother became ill. For the next four months, he visited her regularly in Florida- something he could not have done if still working at a major corporation.

And as if that were not enough, Mr. Forster's father suffered a heart attack. Both his parents died in one day-four days after his father's heart attack.

"It was a tumultuous year in many regards," he said, but it was probably made easier by the fact that he had time to devote to his parents in their final days.

By the end of last fall, Mr. Forster began addressing again the question of what to do with his career. Recognizing the dwindling number of jobs for chief executives in the banking industry and the fact that he didn't want to move, Mr. Forster said, he turned to investment banking.

The new venture is a world apart from Mr. Forster's previous work. Including support staff, Financial Institutional Partners consists of five people, compared with the 9,500 he presided over at Ahmanson.

As clients, the firm is seeking middle-sized banks and thrifts, most with less than $5 billion of assets, he said.

In their first month, Mr. Forster and his partner had 24 meetings with prospective clients. They believe at least 80% of these prospects will sign with the firm, he said.

"The variety of work has been spectacular," he said. "It's like watching the Fourth of July."

Mr. Forster's new role has allowed him to watch with detachment the current battle between his former employer and Washington Mutual Inc. over Great Western Financial Corp. Ahmanson submitted its hostile bid in February, and Washington Mutual then became Great Western's "white knight."

Mr. Forster said Ahmanson officials had discussed making such a bid more than a year ago but decided that their company's stock price was not high enough.

"I've been surprised at the consistent warmth the Washington Mutual offer has gotten from Wall Street, given what they're trying to accomplish," he said. "But I'd say it's a jump ball at this point."

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