When the battle could tip either way, you want a commander like Richard M. Greenwood.

That's been just the situation at Glendale, Calif.-based Fidelity Federal Bank, the troubled $3.7 billion-asset savings bank Mr. Greenwood has been trying to save.

Installed as chief executive three years ago, he has held the company together while every conceivable force at work in Southern California community banking has hit full bore. He's mollified angry investors, held regulators at bay, and calmed nervous employees.

The experience, he says, has been like steering toward the finish line in a car whose wheels point different ways.

Few would dispute that without Mr. Greenwood, California would have one fewer thrift.

"Rick is one of those people who is very calm, thoughtful, and analytical the more complicated things are," said James Lehmann, president of Banc One Corp. and a friend of almost 20 years. "In a complex situation, where things get confused and the outcome isn't clear, he instills confidence in the people around him. You just develop this confidence in him."

"He's unflappable," said Marvin Moskowitz, chief executive of Prudential Home Mortgage, whom Mr. Greenwood first worked for in the late '70s at Citibank's mortgage division. "He's a calculated-risk taker, and he doesn't shrink from taking risks."

Simply put, Mr. Greenwood was groomed over a 25-year career - by bankers like Mr. Lehmann and Mr. Moskowitz - to perform under stress.

"Stress has a way of clearing away all the clutter," Mr. Greenwood, an avid scuba diver, said. "It helps you focus on the matter at hand."

Mr. Greenwood should be thinking very clearly these days.

Matter No. 1: Fidelity was left holding the biggest bag when the bottom fell out of the multifamily market in Southern California two years ago.

While Fidelity's nonperforming assets dropped significantly in the past year, the bank still has a $2.3 billion portfolio of multifamily loans, most of them in some of the worst-hit markets - in terms of both lack of equity and earthquake damage - in Los Angeles. This high concentration of multifamily credits, and the accompanying regulatory attention, pose the biggest threat to Fidelity's capital.

Mr. Greenwood said that because of the threat of further reserves (he tussled with the Office of Thrift Supervision over reserve levels last year) and writedowns associated with these multifamily credits, he could not promise that Fidelity would hold on to its "adequately capitalized" rating this year.

Most analysts, however, are optimistic about Fidelity's prospects, citing particularly the thrift's earnings prospects as the 11th district cost of funds index, to which more than 90% of Fidelity's assets are tied, stops lagging. It has had core earnings in the last two quarters and eked out a small profit in the first quarter.

Analysts at both Hoefer & Arnett and Wedbush Morgan Securities believe that if the regulators are willing, and the economy's prognosticators are correct, Fidelity should pull through.

"The issue is whether or not the regulators keep poking them with a stick," said Charlotte Chamberlain of Wedbush Morgan. "If they poke hard enough, they're going to bleed to death."

Matter No. 2: Mr. Greenwood is trying to transform the sales culture at Fidelity to make the branch system as attractive as possible to a potential acquirer.

It is the effort to turn Fidelity into a full-service consumer banking company, with an emphasis on investment products, that Mr. Greenwood is most proud. All branch employees have insurance sales licenses and two- thirds have investment sales licenses. Employees are judged only on how much business they do with a customer, not on which type.

The strategy is working, he said. He said he saw how "effortless and unawkward" it was for branch employees to sell a full complement of financial products when he worked in Europe. He was determined that when he got the chance to do it in the United States, he would.

The bank also changed its mortgage origination philosophy last year, shifting away from the wholesale business but refusing to originate money- losing "teaser" ARMs. The change reduced expenses and helped out on the margin side. And though Mr. Greenwood was criticized for not taking advantage of the hot ARM market in California to build market share, he's since been proved correct in his estimation that teasers "are not a very intelligent thing to do."

Matter No. 3: He must give investors a payday. Until August, Fidelity was a subsidiary of Citadel Holding Co., and until August it had little hope of survival.

In a deal that was designed by Mr. Greenwood and J.P. Morgan & Co., Fidelity was spun off and recapitalized with a $108 million stock sale, largely with money from Wall Street, at $5.25 a share. Then, late last year, it sold off nonperforming assets with a book value of $446.9 million (for $354.9 million). All told, Fidelity has gotten rid of $750 million in bad assets.

But two problems arose. One was the continued deterioration of Fidelity's multifamily portfolio, spurred by increasing interest rates that hit adjustable-rate, low-equity borrowers already struggling to make payments.

The second was Fidelity's new stockholders, who bought the thrift with the idea that it could be cleaned up and sold as soon as possible.

Fidelity's investor list reads like a Who's Who of the plucky, activist shareholder community. Among them are Leon Cooperman of Omega Advisors Inc., Michael Price at Heine Securities (the man who forced Michigan National Corp. to sell), James K. Schmidt at John Hancock Mutual Funds, and New York money manager Harry Keefe.

These shareholders could not be reached for comment.

Fidelity's stock, traded over the counter, is now at $3.25 bid. Not surprisingly, Fidelity's largest shareholders are not happy.

"I have some very active shareholders," said Mr. Greenwood. "I don't think our losses were any greater than what we projected. They just happened faster than we projected... I think we're still in the realm of possible ranges we told them to expect."

Rumors are rife that some shareholders are weighing a lawsuit against J.P. Morgan in its role as adviser on the Citadel/Fidelity transaction.

Mr. Greenwood said there's been "a lot of verbiage back and forth," but said he couldn't comment on whatever intentions his shareholders might have in regard to J.P. Morgan. Executives from Morgan couldn't be reached for comment.

With all this, some bankers in Southern California privately wondered why Mr. Greenwood would pick such a place for his first CEO job.

"You'd have to like being punished," said one Orange County banker familiar with Fidelity.

But Mr. Greenwood has made a career out of challenging situations, and has always succeeded.

A native of Fargo, N.D., Mr. Greenwood studied international business management, and learned Japanese, before taking his first job in 1974 with NCNB Corp. in Charlotte, N.C. Over the next 20 years, he worked for Citibank - in the United States and Europe - Arizona's Valley National Corp., and Los Angeles' Calfed. All his jobs, especially the last two, involved managing highly complex and often troubled portfolios.

In the summer of 1992, Citadel hired him to fix things.

"At Calfed, I started to develop some concrete ideas about what banking is all about and what it should be doing if it is going to succeed as a business," he said. "I was eager to apply them. Fidelity was so great because the problems they were having meant everyone from the board on down was willing to change."

He sums up his experience at Fidelity this way:

"The last three years have been the most rewarding and terrifying of my life."

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