Big game hunting is a passion of John F. Maher, who goes on safari in Africa every few years.

But as chief executive officer and president of Great Western Financial Corp., Mr. Maher is learning something about the sport that he never experienced on those far-off adventures in the wild: what it's like to be hunted.

Observers say the $43 billion-asset company could fall prey to a suitor hungry for market share in California, partially because of Great Western's success at becoming more banklike at a time when the state's economy is beginning to turn the corner. The company is hiring commercial bankers away from competitors, stepping up the number of deposits it holds in checking accounts, and cutting jobs in favor of improved technology.

"The drumbeat of consolidation" goes on, said Mr. Maher, 53, who was named CEO at the country's second-largest thrift a year ago. "We have in place a strategy that will generate acceptable returns on equity, and we'll just have to see how all this sorts out."

The sorting out could come soon,particularly if the company is acquired either by another West Coast thrift, such as Washington Mutual Inc. of Seattle, or by a commercial bank, such as NationsBank Corp., First Bank System Inc., Norwest Corp., or First Union Corp.

Most of these companies have publicly expressed interest in having a California presence.

The other possibility is a merger of equals with neighboring H.F. Ahmanson & Co., although observers said this is less likely because it would probably yield a lower premium for Great Western shareholders.

All of the southern California thrifts have seen their stocks jump to 52-week highs in the past two weeks, driven by merger speculation. Analysts said Washington Mutual, which last year entered California by purchasing American Savings Bank, is sniffing around for another deal.

Great Western's stock is up 9% since the beginning of the year, to $31.25 at Tuesday's close, near its all-time high.

"We think there is a 50% chance they will be acquired," said Jonathan Gray, a thrift analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "Basically, the alignment right now is more favorable for thrift mergers than anyone could've dreamed of five years ago."

The reasoning is simple: Most signs indicate that California's economy is finally coming back to life. With economic engines on the West Coast beginning to hum once again, any bank with truly national aspirations cannot ignore the state, given that it accounts for 13% of the nation's gross national product.

And the options for entry are few. BankAmerica Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. control more than one-third of the market between them and aren't likely to be acquired. H.F. Ahmanson has 7% of the state's depositsand Great Western 6%.

"We can't be blind ... this company would be a very good entry vehicle for someone," said A. William Schenck 3d, a Great Western vice chairman. "But we are not managing this company to sell it. We are managing this company the best we can. That's what gets us up in the morning."

As Mr. Schenck and other top executives conceded, running the company as best they can also makes it more attractive to potential suitors and, of course, leads to a higher takeover price-probably in the neighborhood of $40 to $45 a share.

Working under this kind of speculation is nothing new to many of the company's senior executives. In fact, seven members of the thrift's top management came from First Interstate Bancorp, which was acquired by Wells Fargo last year in a hostile takeover that lasted three months.

"You don't sign up to stay in this industry for another round thinking that that isn't going to happen to you," said Jaynie Studenmund, who was hired last year from First Interstate to become Great Western's executive vice president in charge of retail. "You just fasten your seatbelt, work on the things you can control, and do a bang-up job."

Either way, she said, the hard work will pay off. Both Ms. Studenmund and Mr. Schenck, who joined the company in August 1995 after 26 years at PNC Bank Corp., would receive handsome golden parachutes should a takeover occur, analysts said. Both also have a nice chunk of Great Western stock. According to the company's last proxy statement, Mr. Schenck owns stock valued at about $680,000. Ms. Studenmund's holdings were not disclosed.

But the atmosphere at Great Western's sprawling corporate campus about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles is hardly euphoric. And that's not just due to the prospect of a possible sale.

It is also a response to the rigorous overhaul Mr. Maher and his new team of executives launched 18 months ago.

Great Western is not the same thrift it was when John Wayne was its spokesman in the 1970s.

"I don't think the market realizes what (Mr.) Maher has done," said Thomas O'Donnell, a thrift analyst at Smith Barney. "Since he took over, he has quietly made some very critical moves that will start to accrue in 1997 and beyond."

For example:

Of the company's 38 top executives, 16 were hired in the last 18 months. Nearly all came from a major commercial bank-such as Banc One Corp., Wells Fargo, and First Interstate-and not from a traditional thrift.

Last fall, the company created a consumer lending unit and a business banking unit, and it expects to have new products rolled out in 420 retail branches in Florida and California during the first quarter.

The company spent $70 million on a pretax basis last quarter to reduce the size of its headquarters by 25%, eliminate 800 positions, and install new technology for its mortgage origination business.

Like other thrifts, Great Western is striving to become more banklike by holding higher-yielding assets, earning more fee income, and maintaining lower-cost deposits. Although it sold its student loan business last month and is in the process of selling its mutual fund unit-both banklike businesses-the company's efforts to shed its image as a thrift are paying off.

About 15% of its deposits, for example, are in checking accounts, compared with about 5% in 1990. And more of a sales culture exists now, largely due to Ms. Studenmund's efforts.

"The major difference that I found here was (in) accountability," she said. "I know that didn't exist on an individual level here, and the goals were very loose at the branch level and throughout the company."

That has changed.

She has implemented an incentive plan that pays out quarterly, based on how successful her managers are at meeting weekly goals. Those who don't make the grade, and don't show signs of promise, are shown the door, she said. Of the 19 territory managers that report to her, six were replaced during Ms. Studenmund's first six weeks on the job.

"The majority of people here are rising to the occasion, and those who don't are gone," she said. The total work force is down 30% since 1993, to 12,000.

Whether these efforts will help the thrift maintain its indepedence or simply make Great Western more attractive to a buyer, most observers said Mr. Maher would welcome a sale. A Lehman Brothers investment banker before joining the company in 1986, Mr. Maher may, in fact, enjoy making a deal more than he likes running a thrift. Dealmaking marked much of Great Western's activities in the early-1990s, when it bought from the government more than $16.5 billion in deposits from failed S&Ls. Only BankAmerica bought more failed thrifts.

"I don't think his love in life is to wake up in the morning and try to turnaround a thrift," said an analyst familiar with the company. "He would definitely not stand in the way of selling the company - far from it."

Nevertheless, the large commercial banks have not made an acquisition in Southern California, which could indicate that they are not yet comfortable with the region or with the idea of buying a comparatively unprofitable thrift, observers said. As alternative delivery systems gain in popularity, large banks may believe they can penetrate the market in other, less expensive ways.

And credit quality is not yet pristine at Great Western. It added $78 million in new nonperforming assets last quarter, after selling off a number of nonperformers.

"My focus for this next year will be executing our financial plan-that is my first, second, and third priority," said Mr. Maher. "This will not be a year that will be spent in the clouds."

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