office view of the Olympic Range for one of a gray federal office building - just to be part of Chairman Ricki Helfer's quest to reshape the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. At the time, he'd known Ms. Helfer only four months. It was an abrupt switch, to be sure. But Mr. Longbrake, who is 52, had done something similar once before, leaving a top job at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in 1982 to become chief financial officer of a struggling Seattle thrift. This time, he said, Ms. Helfer's plans for the FDIC presented a challenge he couldn't turn down. "What was of interest to me in the case of Ricki was she wasn't interested just in presiding, or running the FDIC in its traditional institutional role. She was interested in taking it to a new plateau," Mr. Longbrake said. "It was that vision that was captivating." Mr. Longbrake's title at the FDIC is chief financial officer and deputy to the chairman for finance. But as the only member of the agency's leadership team with serious management experience outside government, he is also the man most responsible for making good on Ms. Helfer's promise to run the deposit insurer more like a business and less like a bureaucracy. That's no simple task, and Mr. Longbrake, like his boss, can at times lapse into nearly impenetrable management lingo when describing the changes in store for the agency. But he's also capable of shifting gears and speaking simply and frankly. For years, he said, the FDIC has operated like "a feudal kingdom." The agency's division directors were the barons, and the chairman was the king. "If the king is strong, the barons pull together, and if the king is weak the barons rule the roost." During the past decade, in Mr. Longbrake's view, the king was, for various reasons, weak - or at least unable to spend a lot of time managing the agency. As a result, he said, "You would find divisions fighting each other for territory as opposed to working together." In May, Ms. Helfer reorganized the FDIC to put Mr. Longbrake and two other deputies - Dennis F. Geer and Leslie A. Woolley - in charge of all the division chiefs. This caused some grumbling within the agency, but Mr. Longbrake said it encouraged staffers to reach across divisional lines to get things done. "I would be lying if I said that happened automatically in all cases," he said. "There are enough times that it has happened that you can see that progress is being made." Mr. Longbrake tells of the agency's reorganization in the same quiet way he speaks of most everything. He doesn't raise his voice or gesticulate. During an interview in his office earlier this month, the lights briefly switched off because the FDIC's energy-saving motion sensors didn't detect any signs of life. That mellow, impossible-to-ruffle manner appears to have served him well. It is juxtaposed with a willingness to take risks, as evidenced by his two big job changes. In 1981, after working his way up through the research and policy ranks, first at the FDIC and then the Comptroller's office, Mr. Longbrake became acting senior deputy comptroller for policy. With a new administration and a new comptroller coming into office, his days as top policy adviser were numbered. But he quickly won the favor of the new boss, C. Todd Conover, and was appointed senior deputy comptroller for resource management. "It was one of those critical points where, in the government, you're brokering your future on being flexible to respond to the next-in-line political appointee," Mr. Longbrake said. He quickly decided he didn't want to spend his career doing such "brokering," and began looking for another job. It just so happened that a friend, Lawrence Connell, former chairman of the National Credit Union Administration, had taken the job of president of Seattle-based Washington Mutual Savings Bank and was looking for help. Mr. Longbrake was not an accountant, and had never before worked in the private sector, but Mr. Connell nonetheless offered him the job of executive vice president and chief financial officer. And Mr. Longbrake readily left the relative security of a government job to work at a thrift that was flirting with insolvency. A drop in interest rates and a conversion to stock ownership saved Washington Mutual from failure, but turning the thrift around wasn't easy. "It was very exciting, because every minute of every day you had to make decisions, and initially you did whatever you could to survive," Mr. Longbrake said. Mr. Longbrake apparently thrived on the pressure - and kept his calm. "He just created an atmosphere of confidence," said Mr. Connell, who is now president and chief executive of Atlantic Bank in South Portland, Maine. Although he began and ended his tenure at Washington Mutual as chief financial officer, finances weren't all Mr. Longbrake did. "The only part of the bank I never was responsible for was the marketing department," he said. In the mid-1980s, he was considered for the top job at the thrift. In 1988, Washington Mutual's board instead picked another executive, Kerry Killinger, to be chief executive. But Mr. Longbrake stayed on as Mr. Killinger's No. 2, as Washington Mutual Bank - as it's now called - grew to be the nation's sixth-largest thrift and a perennial darling of stock analysts. "I just always felt him as a strong partner rather than in a subordinate relationship," Mr. Killinger said. Mr. Longbrake seconds this assessment, but said that after six years he was getting restless. During a business trip to Washington late last year, a mutual friend introduced him to the new chairman of the FDIC. Mr. Longbrake and Ms. Helfer hit it off, and within a few months he and his family were headed east. Along with trying to break down the "feudal" barriers between divisions, his priorities at the FDIC have included coming up with performance measures - similar to those he used at Washington Mutual - to determine whether different parts of the agency are doing their jobs well. "If you don't have measures of that sort, then you leave people to their own devices, and they may or may not make the right kinds of decisions," he said. "Or they may take the low-risk road." Also under his purview is the FDIC's quest to become an adept manager of banking industry risk rather than just the agency that bails banks out when they fail. Not all of Mr. Longbrake's tasks are that vague. As chief financial officer, he is in charge of investing the FDIC's burgeoning reserves - and the returns he earns could have a direct impact on the size of banks' insurance premiums. Also, if the health of the banking industry fails, he'll play a big role in deciding how much to stash away in the FDIC's loss reserves - a move that would have an immediate effect of premiums. But what gets him most excited is the idea of melding the FDIC's "raw material" into an effective, polished organization. He said he sees the Federal Reserve System, with its "striving always for excellence," as a good model. "That's just pure management, which has always been fun for me," he said. "To say, here you've got a goal that you want to achieve, now how do you get there." Mr. Longbrake has devised measures to gauge the agency's performance.

Limited Time Offer

Save $400 off your subscription. Special offer ends April 30, 2017.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.