As far as stock analysts are concerned, Great Western Financial Corp.'s John F. Maher is something of a mystery.

Slated to be Great Western's next chief executive, Mr. Maher has worked in senior positions at the Chatsworth, Calif.-based thrift for most of the past 22 years.

Yet stock analysts say they don't know much about him.

"It's difficult to assess his management style since I haven't seen it," said Jonathan E. Gray, a banking analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York.

But the story is likely to be decidedly different from now on.

Mr. Maher, 51, said he plans to become a visible spokesman to investors. He'll need to.

As he takes the reins from James F. Montgomery at yearend, Great Western will lose a high-profile advocate who was closely associated with its successful strategy of becoming more banklike than most thrifts. Mr. Montgomery, 60, was well known in the investment community.

Therefore, it's not surprising that on almost every substantive issue Mr. Maher said he plans to continue down the path laid out by his predecessor.

"I think the differences are more in style than in substance," said Mr. Maher, who is now Great Western's president, in a recent interview.

Mr. Montgomery said last month that he would give up the CEO's title to spend more time on lobbying Congress and regulators about policy issues.

Mr. Maher said he has been a partner with Mr. Montgomery in developing strategy for Great Western over the past two decades.

The Berkeley, Calif., native first joined the institution in 1973 as chief financial officer after working with the thrift on acquisitions as an investment banker.

He left the CFO post in 1976 to go back to investment banking, but kept a hand on Great Western's rudder as a member of its board of directors. He then returned to Great Western in 1986 as president.

It is because of his background in investment banking that Mr. Maher said he relishes the opportunity to spend more time with investors and stock analysts.

"I'm comfortable with it," he said. "I enjoy dealing with institutional investors."

Mr. Maher added that this duty has in the past fallen more to Mr. Montgomery because it is part of the chief executive's job description. Mr. Maher said he began taking over more of this responsibility during the last year when he began holding more meetings with institutional investors.

As a result, stock analysts may not know who he is, but institutional investors certainly do, he said.

However, getting better acquainted with "the sell side" is now a top priority. He started down that path on Monday by speaking before the New York Society of Security Analysts in New York.

But going further could come at a cost.

Mr. Maher, who said he loves to go fly-fishing and skiing in California and Colorado with his wife and four kids, acknowledges that even now he can't find as much time to do these things as he would like.

Finding the time could soon get even tougher.

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