WASHINGTON - Ask Ricki Helfer about the big issues she faced during her first year as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and she doesn't breathe a word about the Bank Insurance Fund or the Savings Association Insurance Fund.

Sure, cutting premiums for bank fund members and pushing for a rescue of the undercapitalized thrift fund have been at the top of her public agenda.

But in an interview late last month, Ms. Helfer was much more interested in discussing her agency's new strategic plan, the need to "increase our productivity," and the importance of making decisions "on a rigorous cost- benefit basis."

It's no wonder. The FDIC is, by all accounts, much bigger than it needs to be - and Ms. Helfer is under pressure to make it smaller fast. After more than a decade spent cleaning up after bank failures, the agency is searching for a new role, now that banks are posting record profits.

"When I came on board, my goal was essentially to retool and reposition the agency," said Ms. Helfer, a veteran banking lawyer who took over as the agency's 16th chairman Oct. 7, 1994, after a bruising 11-month confirmation battle in the Senate. "My goal is to run the organization like a business."

That business has a new organizational chart under Ms. Helfer - one that places a trio of deputies who aren't FDIC veterans between the chairman and senior staff members.

The agency has also started to slim down from a high of 15,585 employees in 1993. The total is expected to be less than 10,000 by year's end. (Absorbing 1,100 Resolution Trust Corp. employees will bring the the figure back to 11,000 as 1996 begins.)

FDIC staff members are being kept busy with 150 projects meant to focus their energies on the agency's future. What do they think of all this activity - and the woman who has unleashed it?

"I don't think anybody who makes massive changes is liked," said Paul Fritts, who retired in 1993 as the agency's executive director of supervision and resolution. "That doesn't mean she isn't right, but I don't think she'd win any popularity contests at the FDIC."

Ms. Helfer acknowledges that her style contrasts with that of L. William Seidman, her predecessor. Mr. Seidman, who ran the FDIC from 1985 to 1991, shot from the hip, spoke his mind, and didn't care too much for details.

His successor realizes her staff needs time to adjust.

"I think sometimes the staff gets frustrated because I ask so many questions, I require so much by way of information and analysis," she said. "That happens to be the way I believe I can best do the job."

But she's a big hit with bankers. In fact, bankers who have met Ms. Helfer can be downright enthusiastic.

"She asks questions, and she listens, and I think she really wants to know what's going on in the field," said Terry Jorde, president and chief executive of Towner County State Bank in Cando, N.D., and a director of the Independent Bankers Association of America. "I think she's creating a new direction and a better relationship between the FDIC and the banks."

That relationship could disintegrate, however, if she is unable to cut costs from the agency's $1.5 billion annual budget - the subject of Ms. Helfer's speech today at the annual American Bankers Association convention in San Francisco.

"I think that Ricki and others at the FDIC are going to be surprised at how vehement some in the banking industry are going to be about cutting staff and cutting costs," said Bert Ely, the banking consultant and deposit insurance guru.

Mr. Ely, who is based in Alexandria, Va., says the FDIC, which had just 3,644 staff members in 1980, could make do with 5,000 now. Ms. Helfer puts the number at 7,000.

In either case, as long as bank failures aren't costing much, those who pay FDIC premiums are sure to pay close attention to what the agency does with their money.

One indication of the new cost awareness came when the FDIC cut Bank Insurance Fund premiums after the fund hit the legally mandated 1.25% reserve ratio earlier this year.

Banks wanted to see their premiums go down quickly. Ms. Helfer and other FDIC board members took their time, and set the average premium at 4.5 cents on every $100 of deposits - more than is needed to keep the fund at the reserve ratio.

"The analysis that was the basis for the board's action in August is fully set out on the record," Ms. Helfer said. "That analysis is based on the historical loss experience of the agency through its entire 60-year history. It is also based upon an analysis of the increasing factors that affect the volatility of the financial marketplace."

"Analysis" is a favorite word. "I have a highly analytical style," she said.

Ms. Helfer is also a big fan of what she calls "modern management techniques," which she says were behind her decision the 18 division heads report to deputy chairmen instead of to her. The policy deputy is Leslie A. Woolley, a former Senate staff member. Dennis F. Geer is the operations deputy; he used to be an administrator with the RTC and the Commerce Department. The financial policy deputy is William A. Longbrake, who was chief financial officer of Washington Mutual Bank in Seattle.

Mr. Longbrake said the new structure - a "tightening to the center" - has made the FDIC work more like a corporation, and has increased teamwork between divisions.

But it has also sparked some grumbling from FDIC staff members, as well as worries from Mr. Seidman and Mr. Fritts. Both men, who said they are otherwise big fans of Ms. Helfer's work, expressed concern that she may be insulating herself from her staff too much.

"She just has to be careful she doesn't get it layered so there are 15 people between her and the people doing the work,' Mr. Seidman advised.

Ms. Helfer, whose previous jobs - at the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department and in private law practice - did not entail much of a public role, has also tried to insulate herself more than past chairmen from public and media attention.

"I want to do my job, and I want to do it in a sound and effective way," she said. "I consider the public aspect of the job to simply be one more aspect of it, but not my goal.

"I have turned down a lot more newspaper interviews than I have given. I have turned down a lot of speech requests."

She did not, however, withdraw from the painful ordeal that her confirmation became.

President Clinton nominated her for the job in 1993. After sailing through the Senate Banking Committee, the nomination was stalled for months by Senate Republicans, who linked it to the President's Whitewater troubles. They argued that Ms. Helfer was too close to the Clintons to run an agency that might have to investigate their involvement with a failed savings and loan.

After some hemming and hawing, Ms. Helfer said she did not know the first couple well but would be happy to recuse herself from any matters involving Whitewater.

In the end, it took a concerted push from community bankers - who see the FDIC as the defender of little banks, as opposed to the big-bank- oriented Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve - to get the nomination through.

Ms. Helfer hasn't disappointed them. She has repeatedly asserted her agency's "independence" from the Comptroller's office and Clinton administration.

She has even abandoned the endorsement she voiced at her confirmation hearing for consolidation of the banking agencies. Now she argues that "the system has benefited from having a series of complementary perspectives on banking regulation."

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