Great Western Financial Corp. has created a unit that it hopes will generate up to $675 million of consumer loans by the end of next year.

The move is yet another example of the thrift industry's efforts to shed its traditional business - savings accounts and mortgages - and move into more profitable product lines.

"What it shows is that they are very serious about making a go of it," said Thomas O'Donnell, an analyst at Smith Barney. "Letting their mortgage portfolio run off a bit and replacing those loans with consumer loans is a very smart strategy."

The $44 billion-asset thrift's nearby rival, Irwindale, Calif.-based Home Savings of America, is also pushing hard in the same direction.

Home Savings, with $50 billion in assets, formed its own consumer lending unit about 18 months ago and originated $147 million in consumer loans in the past year, a Home Savings official said.

Including the loans that came with 61 branches acquired from First Interstate Bancorp after it merged with Wells Fargo & Co., Home Savings' consumer loan portfolio is $633 million - about what Great Western hopes to achieve by the end of 1997.

Great Western does have a history in consumer finance, by virtue of its purchase in 1983 of Aristar Inc., a Miami-based consumer finance subsidiary. That unit has 506 offices in 24 states, mostly in the Southeast.

But it has not grown much in that time, increasing from $1.2 billion in assets in 1983 to just $2.3 billion today, said Caren Mayer, an analyst with Montgomery Securities.

Operating a consumer lending unit from within the thrift, rather than through an outside subsidiary, would further the company's evolution into a retail bank, thrift officials said.

"We have a significant demand for consumer loans in our branches and see a need in the marketplace," said Gary S. Bernard, senior vice president in charge of Great Western's consumer lending.

About 75% of the new unit's employees come from commercial banks, such as BankAmerica Corp. and First Interstate Bancorp. Mr. Bernard spent four years with Bank One Corp. in Arizona, running its 300-branch consumer lending business, before coming to Great Western.

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