Home Savings Bank's high-profile effort to convert itself from a stodgy mortgage factory to a fleet-footed consumer bank has claimed its first executive victim.
The nation's largest thrift, a unit of Irwindale, Calif.-based H.F. Ahmanson & Co., said Tuesday that its No. 2 executive, Fredric J. Forster, was leaving because of differences over tactics with chief executive Charles R. Rinehart, who is spearheading the consumer banking drive.
In a prepared statement, Mr. Rinehart said, "The company currently faces the challenge of executing many new strategies."
He added, "Fred and I felt that without complete alignment, our energy and attention could be diverted from the implementation challenge."
In a brief interview, Mr. Forster, who was president and chief operating officer, said he and Mr. Rinehart had drifted apart over the past six months and finally decided to separate.
"Charlie is a good colleague, and has been always," Mr. Forster said. He said their differences involved "an honest and deeply felt thought process as to what was in the best interests of the company."
Mr. Forster said he wanted to emphasize that his departure was in no way linked to a surprise decline in first-quarter earnings. Nonperforming mortgage loans, which have been on the rise for several months at Home Savings, fell in March, Mr. Forster said.
What, then, was the disagreement? Mr. Forster wouldn't elaborate, but analysts and other thrift executives were busy speculating on Tuesday.
One line of thinking is that Mr. Forster and Mr. Rinehart disagreed on how quickly and to what extent Home Savings should de-emphasize the mortgage business as it pursues its consumer banking ambition.
"Any company that is primarily in the mortgage business is having these internal debates - 'How much do we divert resources from our current most important business to build up a new business?'" said thrift analyst Charlotte A. Chamberlain of Wedbush Morgan Securities, Los Angeles.
"Fred wanted to continue to nurse, maintain, and grow the mortgage business; Charlie's view was to push more on the consumer side," Ms. Chamberlain said.
Mr. Forster acknowledged that this explanation was logical, but said it was incorrect.
Analysts also surmised that Mr. Forster was pushed out to make way for newly available consumer banking executives from First Interstate Bank. Whatever the immediate cause, many in the industry said they were not surprised by the announcement.
Mr. Forster, who was hired in 1993 by former chairman Richard Deihl, has never been a part of Mr. Rinehart's inner circle. This became more apparent as mortgages ceded center stage to consumer banking, according to an industry insider.
There have been many indications in recent months that Home Savings' mortgage business is being relegated to the back seat. Mortgage loan volume fell 37% last year at the $50.5 billion-asset thrift, and it slipped from ninth place nationally to No. 16.
In January, Home Savings terminated its newly launched program to buy mortgage loans from wholesale brokers, and just last month also exited the market for subsidized multifamily loans. Both projects were said to be close to Mr. Forster's heart.
Mr. Rinehart has made clear his belief that to survive, Home Savings must boost profitability through a dual strategy of shrinking its mortgage portfolio and building its consumer loan investments. He has said that Home Savings' asset portfolio might shrink by as much as 40% over five years as this strategy is implemented.
Longtime mortgage executive Sam Lyons of Great Western Financial Corp. said he saw Mr. Forster's departure as the inevitable result of a collision between old-line thrift executives and commercial bankers. Thrift executives are accustomed to treating mortgage lending as their only business rather than one of several competing for capital.
"We've seen this in the past, and we'll see more of it in the future," said Mr. Lyons, senior vice president of mortgage banking at Great Western.