James E. Stutz, the new president of Fidelity Federal Bank, is no stranger to the firing line.

Shortly after getting a job as a teller at the Glendale, Calif.-based company in 1964, Mr. Stutz became its first teller to hand over cash to robbers - and wound up doing so three times in 14 months.

The experience included being bound and gagged and having a .44-caliber Magnum aimed at his head. But Mr. Stutz, 53, says that in some ways fighting through the financial woes of $3.3 billion-asset Fidelity Federal in the past three years has been worse.

"The terror of going through a holdup is one thing, but it's over quickly," Mr. Stutz said. "Dealing with the issues of this company was probably more draining."

Mr. Stutz, who was promoted June 1 from executive vice president of retail banking, said he thinks the difficult days are behind him. "We hope our profits are much greener in the future," he said.

Mr. Stutz takes the president's title from Richard M. Greenwood, who is staying on as chairman and chief executive.

Fidelity's problems have been serious. A previous management team made the thrift one of the most multifamily-focused of all Southern California lenders just before the bottom fell out of the market in the early 1990s.

Loan-losses soared, and to stay out of trouble with regulators, Fidelity was forced to raise capital three times in as many years, which substantially diluted the stock of existing shareholders. These shareholders included such notables as Michael Price's Heine Securities, J.P. Morgan & Co., and Keefe Partners. Some of these investors have privately and publicly carped at Fidelity's handling of the offerings, and bailed out of their holdings at substantial losses.

What's more, management turmoil has led one former executive to sue, alleging the thrift misled investors in a recent offering. That suit is still pending, along with a copycat shareholder suit. Fidelity has denied any wrongdoing.

Fidelity lost $69 million in 1995, $128 million in 1994, and $66 million in 1993. Over the past five years it has cut what had been a more-than- 1,000-person employee base nearly in half and has stopped originating loans for its own portfolio.

Although Mr. Stutz started his banking career at Fidelity Federal, he left in 1971 to work for San Diego's Homefed Bank. It was at Homefed that he made his mark as a retail specialist with an unusual knack for boosting sales. Homefed, which had $19 billion in assets, failed in 1992. Mr. Stutz joined Mr. Greenwood at Fidelity Federal in 1994.

Mr. Stutz's goal is to make Fidelity Federal's employees equally adept at selling mortgages, consumer loans, certificates of deposit, and investment products.

Results, so far, are mixed. Loan originations in Fidelity's 33 branches are running about 65 a month. All the loans are being underwritten by other companies. But investment product sales are strong, constituting more than 40% of Fidelity's $2.7 million of first-quarter fee income.

The hope is that making Fidelity a sales machine will boost its attractiveness to a potential acquirer, and also provide a near-term revenue lift.

Meanwhile, a plan to dispose of problem assets through bulk sales is proceeding ahead of schedule, and the thrift is now well capitalized; a December offering raised $134 million.

Mr. Stutz was part of a team that led Fidelity through its toughest period. As a result, he sees no immediate change in his day-to-day responsibilities, even though he will hold a more senior title.

But he does see a big change for Fidelity's profits. He expects a profitable 1996; the thrift reported first-quarter earnings of $1.5 million.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

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