Cult of Personality

Fidelity Investments has super-guru Peter Lynch as its pitchman; Charles Schwab Corp. has its namesake. And California Federal Bank? Well, the San Francisco thrift company has Elvis Schmiedekamp.

Since February, Mr. Schmiedekamp's grinning face and distinctive name have popped up on billboards and bus stop advertisements all over California. He has become something of a celebrity in his own company, where he officially is head of customer service. California Federal Bank - or Cal Fed, as it calls itself - is playing what it sees as a marketing coup to the hilt, passing out "I'm a happy Schmiedekamper" buttons.

The radio and outdoor advertisements, which feature a cartoonish rendition of Mr. Schmiedekamp's face, but not his body, peering out from behind the Cal Fed logo, were an effort to increase name recognition and encourage customers to switch accounts from competitors.

As planned, the campaign created an aura of mystery that has caught the public's attention. Initial teaser ads starring Mr. Schmiedekamp prompted a slew of inquiries to radio stations, the company said. One caller asked: Was he perhaps an unnamed Los Angeles mayoral candidate?

"Yes, he is a real person," said Susan Cotton, director of marketing for Cal Fed.

As Mr. Schmiedekamp's popularity rises, the thrift company has begun to use him to boost employee morale. Staff members are getting an Elvis CD that includes audio tracks of the radio ads, and he's scheduled to appear at barbecues at Cal Fed branches this summer.

Mr. Schmiedekamp (pronounced SHMID-a-camp), who joined the thrift almost three years ago from Sears Roebuck in Chicago, has appeared on several radio talk shows and says he frequently gets stopped on airplanes or in restaurants by people who recognize his face or, more commonly, his name.

Despite the hubbub he claims to be maintaining a sense of balance. "I was a little taken aback" by the level of public visibility, he said over the telephone from Cal Fed's call center in Sacramento.

"What I do is customer service - I don't view myself as a celebrity."

JPM, a Retail Heavy?

It's not just the free afternoon popcorn that makes tech conferences a draw.

As J.P. Morgan Chase executives from around the globe poured into their company's annual technology conference this week, at least one senior executive was eying how the presenting companies could give banks a run for their money.

Geoffrey T. Boisi, vice chairman and co-head of the investment bank for the New York-based Morgan Chase, said that retail banking is one of the next areas where he would expect the company to expand.

But expansion of that distinctly regionalized part of the business - now concentrated in metropolitan New York and Texas - could take an alternative form to bricks-and-mortars expansion, he said.

Being exposed to these alternatives "is one of the reasons I like attending these conferences," he said at a reception for media Monday at the J.P. Morgan H&Q Technology Conference in San Francisco.

With the exception of smaller fill-in deals, the company is pretty much done with building its investment banking platform, he said.

Spoils to the Loser?

SunTrust Banks Inc. chief executive L. Phillip Humann is putting a brave face on getting dumped for the merger prom by Wachovia Corp., which chose to go with First Union instead.

In fact, Mr. Humann is positively licking his chops at the thought of grabbing customers who flee Wachovia and First Union after their planned merger, though SunTrust is widely believed to have been a spurned Wachovia suitor.

At a Morgan Stanley Dean Witter conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Monday, Mr. Humann repeated his belief that SunTrust stands to gain once its two big southeastern rivals combine, saying that his company has benefited from past big deals in the region: "We are busy right now preparing hopefully to feast at that table again."

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