Guardian Bancorp, Los Angeles, let go of its founding president and vice chairman last week, their jobs becoming the latest victims of Southern California's community bank crunch.

Paul M. Harris, chairman Guardian Bancorp and its $750 million-asset Guardian Bank, said the firings of the top personnel boiled down to a change in direction for the company and its need to cut overhead. "The bottom line is that we have too much in salaries," Mr. Harris said. "We're dramatically trimming overhead. I've cut my own salary 50%."

Real Estate Woes

Guardian Bank is one of a number of Los Angeles community banks in the grip of the region's commercial real estate slump, a grip that shows no signs of weakening.

Mr. Harris said that Guardian Bancorp president Arthur W. Tate and Guardian Bank vice chairman Ronald W. Holloway had been with the company since its 1983 inception and were instrumental in its growth into one of Los Angeles' biggest and most successful community banks in the late 1980s.

But much of the success was built on real estate, Mr. Harris said, and the two executives' experience was in that arena. He said Guardian is now focusing on commercial lending and launching a Small Business Administration lending program and mortgage banking outfit.

"We did very well in good times," Mr. Harris said, expressing a sentiment by many Southern California bankers these days. "But we need to be less dependent on real estate lending."

Guardian ranked among the country's most prolific real estate lenders in the country, according to a May 1992 survey of real estate portfolios by the American Banker. A full 45.16% of its equity was wrapped up in real estate at that time.

The two men's duties will be assumed by Guardian Bank president Howard Fletcher, 45, a former Security Pacific Bank officer who was hired by Guardian in May to turn the bank around.

Mr. Harris said the bank had recently hired a new chief credit officer, Howard Shields.

Partings Said to Be Amicable

Mr. Tate and Mr. Holloway could not be reached for comment. An industry source said the partings were amicable.

"I think they realized the situation wasn't for them," the source said.

Guardian Bank must still work through a substantial portfolio of soured credits. Its nonperforming assets equal more than 20% of total loans and almost 8% of total assets. The bank lost $4 million in the March quarter and $2.2 million in the June quarter. The company's stock is trading at about $3.50 on the American Stock Exchange, down from its 52-week high of $7.12.

Mr. Harris said that although Guardian isn't under regulatory orders to add to its capital base, it is exploring ways of raising new equity.

"I think it's prudent to explore that right now," he said. "We want to have a fortress balance sheet."

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