Better late than never.

Golden West Financial Corp., which has long prided itself on personal customer service, has decided to get hip.

The $37 billion-asset Oakland, Calif., thrift is installing automated teller machines-about 240 of them-throughout its seven-state branch network. Analysts said they expect the machines, which cost $40,000 apiece to install, to be operational beginning in the second quarter.

"Even hibernating bears wake up from their winter sleep," said Charlotte Chamberlain, thrift analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles.

Golden West, which analysts said is easily the largest thrift in the country without a single ATM, made little of the strategy change. It didn't issue a press release or return phone calls seeking comment.

Analysts said they learned of the news from the company installing the machines, Electronic Payment Services Inc. of Wilmington, Del., which has signed a multiyear contract with Golden West.

But the decision to go with ATMs, now widely accepted-if not expected-by customers, is significant, analysts said.

"It's a defensive strategy," said Ms. Chamberlain. "ATMs are so fully woven into the financial fabric of everyone's life, that you simply cannot be a financial institution and not have them."

Analysts suggested that the addition of ATMs is an attempt by the company, the parent of World Savings and Loan Association, to attract cheaper demand deposits. Its cost of funds, which was 5.28% at the end of 1996, is from 40 to 65 basis points higher than those of most of its thrift competitors, all of whom have had extensive ATM networks for years.

Marion O. Sandler, co-CEO of Golden West, acknowledged in the thrift's yearend earnings statement that though the company experienced "solid deposit growth" last year, the strong stock market continued to lure investments from the public and create a "difficult competitive environment."

The addition could also widen Golden West's customer base-which is older and less affluent than a typical commercial bank's-by preventing potential new customers from being turned off, analysts said.

But not everyone thought the move was a departure from the company's past.

"This fits with their philosophy of keeping costs down," said Thomas O'Donnell, a thrift analyst with Smith Barney. "They are continually looking for ways to better serve their customers, and this is an extension of that. They are not a buggy-whip company."

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