The war for Great Western Financial Corp. has gone technological.
The two opposing bidders-Washington Mutual Inc. and H.F. Ahmanson & Co.- have traded charges in recent days over whose computer systems are better suited to the proposed takeover.
Analysts said each side has maneuvered skillfully, indicating that the technology aspect of the battle will play out for as long as it takes to decide the ultimate winner.
As part of its strategy to beat back Ahmanson's hostile approach, Great Western ran newspaper advertisements last week portraying Ahmanson as "low tech" and ill-equipped to conduct a smooth systems integration.
Ahmanson chief information officer Nancy Markle countered that her company has adopted such leading-edge technologies as artificial intelligence, workflow management, and document imaging; learned from the experience of 35 acquisitions in five years; and boosted its talent level with former First Interstate Bancorp employees.
Ms. Markle also stressed the similar product lines at Ahmanson and Great Western: "We have all the systems that support their product lines, so for us it would be a pretty easy conversion."
The debate stems from earlier claims about cost reductions. Ahmanson and Washington Mutual each estimated it could cut the combined, post-merger technology budget by $50 million.
Because this number is only 9% of Ahmanson's total expense-reduction estimate and 14% of Washington Mutual's, the ability of either thrift to hit its technology target is not considered crucial to the consummation of a merger.
"I don't believe that technology savings themselves are a dealmaker or breaker," said Alan Riegler, principal in Ernst & Young's financial services management consulting division.
But technology skills and the speed of systems conversions "will certainly have an effect on how quickly the winner realizes the overall savings," he added. And such factors would influence long-term profitability.
Washington Mutual said it would have a much easier time consolidating Great Western's systems because the two thrifts use the same vendors in three major processing areas.
Those common suppliers are Hogan Systems, a unit of Computer Sciences Corp., in core account processing; Electronic Data Systems Corp. in item processing; and Alltel Information Services Inc. in mortgage processing.
Great Western and its Seattle-based "white knight" also said they are working on data warehousing projects that use similar technologies.
On this basis, Ahmanson's systems seem less compatible with those of its Los Angeles-area neighbor. While it also relies on Alltel in the mortgages area, Ahmanson operates its own core and item processing systems.
Washington Mutual and Great Western contend that combining so many disparate systems would be time-consuming and tend to repel customers.
"I see a vast amount of difference" between the two potential pairings, said Michael F. Moore, senior vice president and chief information officer at Great Western. It is most pronounced in core processing, he said, which is "typically 75% of integrating two organizations."
Mr. Moore said Ahmanson's core processing system does not have the same "data structures and files and fields" as the Hogan systems used by Great Western and Washington Mutual.
Liane Wilson, executive vice president at Washington Mutual, added a critique of Ahmanson's current systems: "What's not being talked about is the cost of technology that might need to be put into Ahmanson."
A consultant familiar with all three thrifts conceded that Ahmanson would face a challenging conversion, but a Washington Mutual combination "is not likely to be a slam dunk either," in part because the Hogan software used by Washington Mutual is newer than Great Western's.
A senior executive at a competing California institution advised looking at more things than just technology: "In the end, this is not about who is going to be able to merge check processing-or some other system-faster. It's about the type and quality of services delivered to the consumer after the smoke from consolidation clears."