John R. Torell 3d serves only part time as chairman and chief executive of Fortune Bancorp. But that's enough to have made a big difference at the Clearwater, Fla.-based thrift.

Fortune, which has $2.7 billion in assets, earned $6.4 million in fiscal 1992 after three years of heavy tosses. For the first six months of its 1993 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, Fortune earned $7 million, more than doubling the $3 million profit for the comparable period of fiscal 1992.

The thrift's stock, which was slumbering in a $7-a-share valley around the time Mr. Torell arrived in the spring of 1990, has lately been trading in the $21 range.

"As they say in Queens, |We done good,'" he said.

27 Years at Hanover

The New York reference is no accident. Mr. Torell, 53, is a Connecticut native who spent 27 years climbing the corporate ladder at Manufacturers Hanover Corp. He was president and the reputed heir apparent to chairman John F. McGillicuddy before being ousted in a March 1988 management shake-up. Hanover has since merged with Chemical Banking Corp.

Upon leaving Hanover, Mr. Torell accepted the top post at Calfed Inc., now California Federal Bank. By July 1989, he had resigned that position, with the board of the giant thrift citing "cultural differences." Press accounts at the time suggested his brash, authoritarian management style hadn't been appreciated in more laid-back Los Angeles.

Mr. Torell says he has not mellowed as a result of the experience. "I have aged, but I haven't necessarily changed," he said.

The Fortune Bancorp post may be the perfect compromise for the executive, who has clearly not exported his style to Florida. He is in Clearwater only a few days a month. He resides in the affluent New York city suburb of Bronxville, and communicates with Fortune's executives by telephone and fax from a Manhattan office tower.

Much of his time, he admits, is given over to his private business activities, which he characterized as "real estate finance oriented."

Fortune's day-to-day operations are run by president Roy J. McCraw Jr., whom Mr. Torell lured from First Union corp. Indeed, 12 of the revived company's top 15 executives are recent hires.

"Mr. Torell is more of a big thinker and an assembler of people." said analyst Timothy G. Rayl, with Southeast Research Partners in Boca Raton. Fla. "I give him a lot of credit for changing the company's direction and vision."

Cutting Costs Through Outsourcing

The previous management's ill-fated diversification program - which included golf cart leasing and loans to Donald Trump - has contracted to three business lines: residential mortgages, consumer loans, and small-business banking. Mr. Torell says he has cut costs by outsourcing virtually everything "that doesn't touch the customer," including operations, legal work, advertising, public relations, and investments.

Residential real estate makes up 49% of the loan portfolio, but Mr. Torell said his main thrust going forward is to make other kinds of retail loans and build the small-business portfolio.

To diversify out of residential mortgages, Fortune recently applied to convert to a state-chartered commercial bank from a federally chartered S&L. "I am spending more time changing the mix of the balance sheet than blowing up the balance sheet," Mr. Torell said.

A Problem of Geography

One problem confronting Fortune is that 75% of its 46 branches are in Pinellas County, a low-growth bedroom community with a large population of retirees. The real commercial growth in the region is in neighboring Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located.

"If they indeed want to transform themselves into a retail and commercial bank, they're going to have to have a major presence in Tampa," said Samuel J. Beebe, analyst with Tampa-based Robert W. Baird & Co.

Mr. Torell said he's looking for acquisitions up and down Florida's west coast, including Tampa. Fortune raised $33 million in convertible preferred equity earlier this year, in part to fund such expansion.

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