Bill Cooper's first move at TCF Financial was to trade in his cavernous penthouse suite for quarters once occupied by the company cafeteria.

"They were paying $4,000 a month for orchids (in the penthouse), and losing money hand over fist," he said.

With the move, Mr. Cooper, chief executive of the Minneapolis company, took his place among a new generation of thrift leaders, an energized, highly pragmatic group that is rapidly changing the face of the industry.

These leaders-five are profiled on pages 8 and 9-have been sweeping away the industry's troubled past and pursuing plans their predecessors never would have dreamed of.

They are throwing away the lavish trappings, moving beyond mortgages, and building high-octane sales staffs. Unlike the chiefs of the old mutuals, the new breed is keenly attuned to the demands of public markets, and quick to strike deals-even hostile takeovers.

Indeed, the battle over Great Western Financial Corp. has put a spotlight on two members of this new breed. A former finance-company executive, Charles A. Rinehart of H.F. Ahmanson & Co., is pitted in the bidding against a former brokerage official, Kerry Killinger of Washington Mutual Inc.

Mr. Rinehart, Mr. Killinger, and many others of the new breed, came to power after the thrift crisis of the 1980s, but have had their own deep- seated woes: the dwindling profitability of their primary business of mortgage lending and investment.

The chief response of the executives-some of whom have come from a banking background-has been to make their companies more banklike by targeting cheap deposits and pricier assets such as home equity loans and credit cards.

The new breed has been forced to deal with cutthroat competition from banks and other financial institutions as well as with the rigors of public ownership.

"The gentleman's club-you insulate me from my shareholders and I'll (insulate you)-an unspoken bond to stick together is gone," said Karen Shaw Petrou, president of ISD/Shaw Inc., a Washington consulting firm.

"In my mind, the whole spirit of the industry has changed," added Anat Bird, chief operating officer of Roosevelt Financial Group, St. Louis.

Perhaps nothing so exemplifies that changing spririt as Ahmanson's hostile bid last month for Great Western Financial, Chatsworth, Calif.

Presenting the bid to analysts, Mr. Rinehart said the numbers just made sense. And his rival bidder, Mr. Killinger, makes a similar numbers- oriented pitch. The Washington Mutual CEO is known for using an aggressive, entrepreneurial, numbers-driven approach to managing his thrift's businesses.

Ms. Bird says the contrast between the old and the new comes to life at the annual thrift conventions.

It used to be that the CEOs "would be all 65 or older," Ms. Bird says. "They would have tons of board members with them. It was a party," she said.

Now, "they're younger," she noted. "They just go to the sessions and leave. They don't have an entourage of 15 people."

In the old days, said Ms. Bird, "there was a great sense of entitlement. It was a job for life," she said. Somehow, it doesn't seem likely that either Mr. Rinehart or Mr. Killinger see their jobs in that light.

* K-Mart Man

William Cooper has little use for bank holidays. "What does Target or K Mart do on Washington's Birthday?" he asks. "Do they close? No, they have a sale." And so it is that Mr. Cooper keeps the offices of TCF Financial humming 12 hours a day, 362 days year (Christmas, New Year's, and the Fourth of July are the only exceptions). The Minneapolis-based company resembles mass retailers in other ways, too. Mr. Cooper, an alumnus of Michigan National Bank, figured out that if TCF makes banking super convenient for small-balance, blue-collar customers, it ends up with lots of cheap deposits and attractive spreads on loans. He offers plenty of products to choose from, not just mortgages and savings accounts. That has made the $7.1 billion-asset TCF a leader in the movement to make thrifts more "banklike." Indeed, the company is about to take the final step and flip to a commercial bank charter. "I don't want to be known as the best thrift in the country, which is kind of like being the best dog in the pound," said Mr. Cooper, 53. "I want to be known as one of the best banks in the country."

* Price's Pick

Edward H. Sondker knows all about the pressures that shareholders can exert. In fact, he owes his job to a 1995 coup d'etat at Bay View Capital Corp. led by investor Michael Price, who demanded that the San Mateo, Calif., thrift boost its share price or sell. Then-CEO John E. Brubaker was fired, and Mr. Sondker, who had run Michigan National Bank's West coast operations, was hired. Though Bay View had been a public company for some years, Mr. Sondker found old-line executives still felt "profits weren't very important." Through new hires and small employee forums throughout the thrift, Mr. Sondker is working to change Bay View's culture. At the same time he is steering the thrift into some nontraditional high- margin businesses. He recently snapped up both a consumer finance and a commercial finance company. As Mr. Sondker well knows, he faces plenty of pressure to make the plan work. Though Mr. Price has sold off a big chunk of his Bay View stock, Mr. Sondker has many other institutional shareholders to satisfy. About 70% of the $3.3 billion asset thrift is owned by institutions. By one key measure, he is certainly delivering. Bay View's stock price has doubled from under $25 before he was hired to the low 50s these days. "You set the example," he said. Still, changing the deep-seated thrift culture takes time, Mr. Sondker acknowledged: "The ship has turned the right direction, (but) it's not moving as quickly as I would like."

* The Banker

When Lawrence J. Toal jumped to the thrift industry in 1988 from Chase Manhattan Corp., he was immediately struck by the different pace. "There was less of a sense of urgency, less of a sense of competitiveness," he recalls. Mr. Toal, now chief executive officer of New York's Dime Bancorp - the East Coast's largest thrift - has shown by example how to rev up the industry. His own company now dukes it out daily with Chase, Citicorp, and other consumer banking titans. Last year, in a decidedly unthriftlike move, Dime launched an advertising campaign by the avant-garde Coen brothers, who made the movies "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo." The campaign expressed "the verve of New York," Mr. Toal said, and boosted noncustomers' awareness of Dime by 50%. Mr. Toal, 59, learned tricks like that during an impressive 26 years at Chase, where he managed retail branches, credit card operations, and European consumer banking. Before joining Dime in 1991, he put in a stint with Philadelphia Savings Fund Society.

* Tne Fighter

Jay Sidhu rarely shies away from controversy. Three years ago, the chief executive officer of Sovereign Bancorp fought a highly public battle with its chairman, Fred Jaindl, who wanted the thrift to sell. Mr. Sidhu, convinced that the Wyomissing, Pa., thrift had a bright future, ultimately prevailed. Mr. Jaindl, a major shareholder, left the board and sold much of his stock. Mr. Sidhu, 45, knows he can't rest on his laurels now. "A company has to earn the right to remain as an independent company" every year, he said. "That means they must be growing their earnings by an average of 15% a year." Sovereign, with $10 billion of assets, is hitting that mark. Last year earnings rose 22%, and analysts expect another strong performance this year. Mr. Sidhu joined Sovereign in 1986 as chief operating officer. With an MBA in hand, one of his first steps was to methodically study the best thrifts and banks in the country, including Golden West, Wachovia, and Banc One. He concluded that Sovereign's formula for success would be high asset quality, extremely low interest rate risk, low costs, and clear professional growth for employees. While some of that may seem basic, it's a big change for Sovereign. When Mr. Sidhu arrived, he found "some very good people, but hardly any attention being paid to profitability."

* The Engineer

Though he comes from a prominent thrift family, Charles John "Bud" Koch followed the path of many new-breed executives by starting his career in another field: engineering Trained as an industrial engineer, Mr. Koch, 50, plied that trade for several years at such companies as Westinghouse Electric Corp. before joining Charter One Financial Corp. 1976, the year his father became chairman. His father, meanwhile, had spent most of his career working as an aeronautical engineer with defense giants Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas. "We brought big-company experience to a very small institution," Bud Koch says. The results: the Kochs were thinking about strategic planning, and the profitability of different lines of business, long before many in the field. They boosted Charter One's assets from about $200 million when they joined to $13.9 billion at yearend 1996, and expanded into a variety of consumer loans beyond mortgages. Though sometimes mentioned as a takeover target, Charter One has been cranking out solid profits on its own. It posted a return on assets last year of 1.22%, well above the industry norm of 0.65%. Does Mr. Koch yearn for the good old days of mutual ownership? "Personally I love being a public company," he said. "The pace is much faster."

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