Great Western Financial Corp. is within two months of hiring a new head of retail banking, filling a job vacant since March, chief executive John C. Maher said in an interview.

The executive, who will oversee Great Western's branch network and its retail brokerage operations, is expected to come from a commercial bank, rather than Great Western or another thrift, he added.

The reason, he said, is that a retail banker will be better able to lead Great Western in its quest to become more banklike than most thrifts.

In the late 1980s, Great Western began a concerted effort to get more of its deposits from checking accounts than most thrifts do, and to sell more fee-based services.

This effort is largely responsible for making Great Western's cost of funds lower than most thrifts', and for giving it more fee income, Mr. Maher said. He added that this effort was directed by Curtis J. Crivelli, an executive vice president who took early retirement in March. Personal reasons were cited for his departure.

The new executive will assume Mr. Crivelli's title and responsibility and, like Mr. Crivelli, will report to Mr. Maher.

Even though Great Western has been successful so far with its strategy of emulating banks, Mr. Maher said that more remains to be done. In particular, he said, the institution needs to get better at cross-selling mortgage loans to its checking account customers.

Great Western, like most thrifts, books more than 90% of its mortgage loans from mortgage units that are separate from the branch offices in which people open checking accounts. Cross-selling more mortgage loans to checking account customers could be a profitable way to boost mortgage originations.

Mr. Maher said he believes that banks are better than thrifts at cross- selling through branch networks. That's why he wants to hire a banker to oversee Great Western's retail bank.

We "decided that it was in our interest to engage someone with a specific background in what we're trying to do," Mr. Maher said.

The executive search is being handled through the Los Angeles office of the recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles.

Mr. Maher said that interviews with prospects now are under way. But he declined to say who was on the short list of candidates.

Meanwhile, Fitch Investors Service last Thursday raised its debt ratings for Great Western Financial and its Great Western Bank unit, citing improvements in asset quality.

Fitch noted that nonperforming assets totaled $814 million at the end of March, lower than they have been in "several years."

Ratings on Great Western Financial's senior debt and preferred stock were increased to A-minus from BBB-plus. For Great Western Bank, ratings on its senior debt were increased to A from A-minus, while its subordinated debt rating improved to A-minus from BBB-plus, and its commercial paper rating rose to F-1 from F-2.

Chatsworth, Calif.-based Great Western has $39.7 billion of assets and 418 retail branches in California and Florida. It sells mortgage loans through its own offices in 23 states and through mortgage brokers in 34 states.

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