Norwest Mortgage is canvassing the market for an executive to run day- to-day operations.

The chief operating officer would report to Mark Oman, Norwest Mortgage's chairman and chief executive officer. The search is focusing outside the company, a spokeswoman confirmed.

The decision to seek a new executive surprised industry observers, because Mr. Oman said as recently as last month that there was no pressure to find a successor to Mark L. Korell, who had left in May.

Mr. Oman could not be reached for comment.

The biggest mortgage lender is said to be looking for a chief operating officer with expertise in securitization, a responsibility of Mr. Korell's. He is now president of IMX Mortgage Exchange, a San Ramon, Calif., mortgage technology company.

Mr. Oman is said to have contacted chiefs of several bank-owned mortgage companies about joining the Des Moines unit of Norwest Corp.

The spot will be tough fill because of Norwest Mortgage's size and expectations, executive recruiters said. The company originated nearly $23 billion in the first half, and its servicing portfolio, including subservicing, is over $200 billion.

"There's not a huge candidate pool of people that can step into that capacity," said Mark Springer, president of M.H. Springer & Associates, Woodland Hills, Calif.

It may be hard to persuade a top executive to move to Des Moines, observers added.

Although the search is focused outside, a Norwest spokeswoman did not rule out the possibility of promoting someone. It appears unlikely, however, that the spot will go to retail chief Pete Wissinger, the current No. 2 executive.

Mr. Wissinger, a managing director, on Monday was given the additional responsibility of overseeing loan servicing. The head of Norwest's servicing operation, Michael J. Heid, will report to him.

Mr. Wissinger said in an interview that he was satisfied by the turn of events, although it was unclear whether he would report to the new executive.

By placing retail originations and servicing under one umbrella, Norwest will be able to retain more accounts and improve cross-selling of other services to mortgage borrowers, Mr. Wissinger said.

He said the new arrangement will improve communication between borrowers and the mortgage unit.

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