With the stock market surging, mutual thrifts are finding the inability to offer stock options an increasingly serious obstacle to hiring and keeping employees.

A hot stock can be used to steal mutuals' employees, said Charles J. Hamm, president of Independence Community Bank Corp., a $4 billion-asset mutual holding company in Brooklyn, N.Y. The movement of the market in the past two or three years "has exacerbated the problem," he said.

But since Independence's announcement last month that it would start selling stock by yearend, resumes have been coming in at a steady clip, Mr. Hamm said. "Today everybody would like to work here."

Die-hard mutual executives say working for them offers other benefits, so the lack of stock options is no problem. But some banking experts say mutuals may find it harder to hire promising new finance school graduates.

"The bank down the street could talk about stock options or ESOPs," said Richard Weiss, first vice president at Ryan Beck & Co. in Philadelphia. "If I were an accounting or finance grad going to work in the finance industry, I would probably go with a public company so I could get those benefits for myself."

Bankers and consultants say the personnel problem is particularly significant for larger mutuals that have been branching out into nontraditional activities and need specialists for commercial banking and trust services. Competition for experienced commercial lenders, investment advisers, and information technology specialists has been particularly fierce.

"You have to mitigate the damage" of not being able to offer stock options, said Stanley J. Lukowski, president and chief executive officer of Eastern Bank Corp., a mutual holding company in Lynn, Mass. "People who have come to us have had stock options at other companies. It's always on the table."

Mutuals have developed several ways to address the problem. Among the most commonly used alternatives is the so-called phantom stock-option plan, which mimics the results of stock compensation using cash from the thrift's earnings.

Essentially, an imaginary stock is created whose value tracks that of the thrift. As the "stock" rises in value, the thrift can give its officers cash grants matching the rising performance of the fictitious stock.

Other kinds of long-term incentive plans reward senior executives on the basis of corporate performance, as measured by returns or by whether asset or performance goals have been met. Cash bonuses can also be awarded yearly, even to middle managers, apart from any other long-term incentive plan.

Mutuals must also ensure that their salaries are at least in line with those at other mutuals. Some even strive for rough equality with publicly owned banking companies of similar size, which tend to pay slightly higher wages.

Also, retirement plans can take "the sting out of not being with a bank that offered stock options," said James R. Coyle, president of $1.9 billion-asset Staten Island Savings Bank in New York City. Retirement plans help to blur the differences between a stock and a mutual, he said.

Mutual executives say intangibles such as job security and a close-knit community atmosphere make mutuals a good place to work. Not having to answer to shareholders in an era rife with shareholder activism is named as another plus.

"We work very hard on making the culture very attractive," said William E. Swan, president and chief executive of Lockport (N.Y.) Savings Bank.

"The bottom line is that monetary considerations, though important, are not the only ones," said Cornelius D. Mahoney, president and chief executive officer of $330 million-asset Woronoco Savings Bank in Westfield, Mass.

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