The cut of a banker's jib is as important as any profit and loss column to the practiced eye of Steven R. Schroll.

"You don't just look at financial reports," the Piper Jaffray thrift analyst said. "You take the opportunity to get to know management - their operating style, their degree of commitment, and the kind of guidance they give employees.

"There's a fair amount of art and science to it," he said of a career that has lasted more than a decade.

An encompassing approach produces dividends for Mr. Schroll and investors who follow his recommendations. Mr. Schroll most accurately predicted thrift earnings this year in the American Banker's survey of equity analysts, prepared by First Call Corp.

The Iowa native is the only prognosticator to make the list two years running for the same group of stocks - but he is not caught up in the accomplishment. "Comets come close to the Earth all the time," he said. "Occasionally you're bound to see two hits."

Still, Mr. Schroll is hardly random in his approach. "I feel like I'm relatively close to the companies we follow," he said.

When scrutinizing a thrift, he'll spend time with a variety of people, from the chief executive to the facilities manager. "This way, you can synthesize the feedback" to get a truer sense of what's going on, he said.

Chief executives are often big picture guys, and "might be more aggressive" in their projections for the company, he noted. Chief financial officers or comptrollers are concerned with numbers, and likely to make more conservative assessments.

Mr. Schroll also considers how close thrifts have come in the past to meeting their projections. He has a long memory, after 13 years as a bank and thrift analyst with Piper Jaffrey and, before that, Dain Bosworth.

What thrifts are high on Mr. Schroll's list? His strong buys include Bayview Financial, Coastal Bancorp, First Financial Corp., TCF Financial, and Washington Mutual Savings Bank.

Kerry Killinger, chairman of Washington Mutual, said Mr. Schroll is a straight shooter who does his homework.

"He's been very thorough in wanting to understand our strategies," Mr. Killinger said. "And he's been fair in his critique of what we do well and what we might be doing better."

Top thrift managers, Mr. Schroll said, are consistently proactive, recognizing that their institutions must change or be left behind.

Over the past few years, now-thriving thrifts "have taken the steps they need to reduce expenses" in areas that aren't destined for growth, he said.

At the same time, the best thrift managers are pushing into new product areas. And these executives are not afraid to spend to bring nontraditional operations up to speed, Mr. Schroll said.

"The chief executives are looking at the world in a more community banklike way," Mr. Schroll said. "They're not leaving mortgage banking, but the incremental human capital and expansion capital is going into nontraditional products."

New frontiers for thrifts include commercial real estate lending and mutual funds, businesses that require fresh talent, instead of in-house executives. "The better CEOs realize you can only teach an old dog so many tricks," Mr. Schroll said. "You've got to bring in new expertise."

Thrifts are culling talent from commercial bank rivals as well as finance companies and Wall Street, according to Mr. Schroll.

In fact, to hone operations further, he sees many thrifts converting to commercial bank charters in 1997. The move would increase thrifts' value on Wall Street and allow many of them to "really shine" when judged against community banks, Mr. Schroll said.

But it's mergers - much more than charter changes - that rock Mr. Schroll's universe.

Of the 18 thrifts he follows, two will be lost to acquisitions this month. What institutions will fill the void? Mr. Schroll isn't saying yet, but based on past picks, the institutions will have $500 million to $40 billion of assets, and be based west of the Mississippi, where Piper Jaffrey prefers to concentrate.

"Probably the last name I'd pick up is Citicorp," Mr. Schroll said.

Specifically, he wants "a well run company or a company that has the potential to be well run." His picks "have to give clients a chance to make money. If the stock can't do this, then we're wasting our time."

Mr. Schroll said the thrift industry packs enough pizzazz to keep him following its every move for sometime to come. "You never get bored," he said. "There's no time to."

Mr. Schroll's strong buys include Bayview Financial, Coastal Bancorp, First Financial Corp., TCF Financial, and Washington Mutual Savings Bank.

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