President Northeast Federal Corp., Hartford

Kirk Walters has traveled a long way from his farm roots in Idaho.

At the age of 36, Mr. Walters is president of the $3.9 billion-asset Northeast Federal Corp., New England's largest thrift, and is widely credited with helping to save it from failure.

Mr. Walters was recruited for the post almost four years ago by George Rutland, chairman of the thrift, who was his former boss at California Federal Bank.

People who know Mr. Walters say his rise is not surprising. Ever since he helped run one of his father's gas stations as a teenager, the banker has exhibited hard-driving energy.

While a student at the University of Southern California, Mr. Walters bought stakes in a Mazerati dealership, a real estate development firm, and a big-screen TV company. After graduating, he joined Coopers & Lybrand as an accountant on major national accounts, then moved over to become a financial analyst at Atlantic Richfield Co.

By the time he got his first banking job -- as a manager of accounting policy at CalFed in 1984 -- he had been in the work force for 10 years and was only 28.

Mr. Walters attributes his work ethic to family training. His father, who had a third-grade education, started out as a farmer and later became an oil and gas distributor for Phillips Petroleum Co. The lesson he kept driving home to his children, Mr. Walters said, was that hard work makes everything possible.

We pretty much grew up in a hard-charging environment, he said.

At Northeast, Mr. Walters has exhibited a decisiveness rare for his years. He quickly' put together a program of change for a company that had strayed from making home mortgages into an ill-fated encounter with commercial lending. Its balance sheet was bloated with brokered certificates of deposit.

Mr. Walters fired much of the staff, let the hot money run off, and diligently unloaded a good portion of the company's commercial loans.

The prescription appears to be working. Northeast's interest rate spread has grown to 252 basis points from a slim 60 when Mr. Walters arrived. Adjustable-rate mortgages now represent 90% of the thrift's portfolio, up from 55%. Retail deposits make tip 95% of the company's funding, up from 60% when Mr. Walters joined.

To be sure, Northeast is still struggling. It expects to lose about $62 million this year. partly reflecting a writedown of goodwill. But analysts believe it is headed in the right direction.

Mr. Walters knows he has more work to do at Northeast, but he is also looking ahead. He makes no secret, for example, of his willingness to accept takeover offers.

"We don't believe in entrenched management," he says.

What will he do if Northeast is bought?

"I'd like to be part owner of a bank," he says.

But anything's possible, he admits, summoning up images of his roots.

"I may just go buy a potato farm in idaho."

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