James F. Montgomery announced Tuesday that he will step aside from day- to-day management of Great Western Financial Corp.

While retaining the title of chairman, Mr. Montgomery will hand the chief executive's reins to John F. Maher, 51, president of Great Western, at yearend.

Mr. Montgomery, 60, chief executive officer of the nation's second- largest thrift company since 1979 and chairman since 1981, told the annual shareholders meeting near its headquarters in Chatsworth, Calif., that he will concentrate on lobbying.

Mr. Montgomery, who has been a vocal advocate of regulations favorable to thrifts, said he will devote most of his time at Great Western "to several major national policy issues that are critically important to this company's future."

Analysts said the management shift is unlikely to result in substantial operational or strategic changes at $43.6 billion-asset Great Western, the parent of Great Western Bank.

In a statement, Mr. Montgomery said there should be a "continuation in our basic strategic direction."

Mr. Maher has been president of Great Western Financial since 1986. He and Mr. Montgomery have worked closely since Mr. Montgomery became president and chief operating officer in 1975.

Analysts described Mr. Montgomery as having successfully piloted the institution through the real estate debacle of the late '80s and early '90s. Though it lost money, the company did not go under or go through a recapitalization that hurt stockholders the way other California-based thrifts did.

The analysts also applauded Mr. Montgomery's strategy of diversifying Great Western into more fee-producing, low-interest checking accounts than other thrifts, and by aggressively going after the lucrative consumer finance business.

"They are far more banklike than most thrifts, and that sets them up for a brighter future," said Thomas O'Donnell, an analyst with Smith Barney Inc.

But one analyst said the change could make Great Western a more likely acquisition target.

James Marks of Hancock Institutional Equity Services in San Francisco said Mr. Montgomery could make $20 million if an acquirer bought out his 0.58% stake in the company, which includes both stock and options.

Mr. Marks added that Mr. Montgomery might covet the opportunity to continue his lobbying activities as a vice chairman of a major regional bank, a position he could easily get if Great Western were acquired.

Analysts have long viewed Great Western as one of the more desirable targets in California for an out-of-state bank. Its banklike business mix and network of 1,200 offices in 25 states - including deposit-taking branch networks in California and Florida - would likely make it attractive to a large commercial banking company.

Possible suitors include Banc One Corp. and NationsBank Corp.

This fall, Mr. Montgomery is in line to become chairman of America's Community Bankers, the leading trade group for thrifts, a Great Western spokesman said. Mr. Montgomery is currently vice chairman of the group.

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