At 9 o'clock one December morning, Gerard C. Keegan stepped up to a podium at a midtown Manhattan hotel and pitched his company's stock to potential investors.

Less than half an hour later, the president, chairman, and chief executive of Greater New York Savings Bank was on his way to another meeting with would-be clients, only this time the audience was a roomful of schoolchildren and their parents.

The $2.6 billion-asset thrift was sponsoring a ceremony to thank the kids for submitting drawings for a calendar. Each child received a Greater New York Savings Bank account with a $1 deposit. If parents attending the event didn't bank with "the Greater" already, they could consider it, as Mr. Keegan made his pitch again.

"This is how you create customer loyalty," he explained later. "An Orthodox Jewish woman came up to me and said how thoughtful it was for the bank to have a party like this for her children. Now, you know she's going to tell at least 10 people about how she feels. That's creating value."

Mr. Keegan's efforts to create value at the Greater have helped convert a once-moribund thrift into a vibrant and unique franchise, according to analysts and investors.

Though the thrift is small by New York standards, its strong presence in Brooklyn, one of New York's largest boroughs, makes it an attractive takeover target. The Greater has nine Brooklyn branches and another five in Queens.

With thrifts fetching ever-higher prices, selling the Greater would pay for the 50-year-old Mr. Keegan's retirement several times over. But he kept his feelings about independence close to the vest.

"We will do what is best for our shareholders," he said.

The strength of the Greater lies in its ability to serve one of the country's genuine ethnic smorgasbords. At least 29% of Brooklyn's 2.3 million residents are foreign born, and the thrift has focused on such customers since its founding in 1897.

About one-third of the thrift's $1.8 billion deposits are in passbook accounts, because, Mr. Keegan said, his customers are often suspicious of higher-tech forms of banking.

Customers can also withdraw money in Russian, Creole, Yiddish, or three other languages at the Greater's ATMs. The thrift hires multilingual tellers at its branches, some of which are open Sundays, because many observant Jews - a sizable segment of the bank's market - won't bank on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath.

"We have this commitment to our customers because it's good for business," Mr. Keegan said.

Certainly the passbook accounts are good for the thrift. They pay such low interest that they contribute substantially to earnings. The Greater's cost of deposits is a lowly 3.9%, according to investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

Meanwhile, the thrift's high earnings are helping it to expand. While other savings institutions are merging or closing branches to cut costs, the Greater has embarked on what Mr. Keegan calls a "counterintuitive" strategy: opening new branches. The next branch on the Greater's drawing board is slated to open in 1997 in Brooklyn's Marine Park, the neighborhood where Mr. Keegan grew up and played sandlot baseball on the same team as New York Yankees manager Joe Torre.

"He was a legend," Mr. Keegan said. "I was not."

After attending Brooklyn's St. Francis College and majoring in business management, Mr. Keegan joined the Army and got a close-up view of national unrest when he served as a ceremonial guard at the White House from 1968 to 1970.

Upon his return to civilian life, he immediately applied to Citibank and Greater New York. "I knew I wanted to get into banking," Mr. Keegan said.

Afraid of getting lost in the bigness of Citi, Mr. Keegan chose his current employer - and has been there ever since. He didn't expect to spend his whole career at one company, he said, but the management let him move around enough to keep him motivated. He was named president of the Greater in 1991.

At the time, the thrift was in dire straits. Bad real estate loans brought nonperforming assets up to a devastating 10.5% of assets. Faced with similar problems, most S&Ls in Brooklyn were bought out or shut down.

But years of creating customer loyalty saved the Greater. The thrift sold or charged off nonperformers and had moved into the black by 1993. The Greater reported net income of $19.2 million in 1995, and $13.4 million through the first nine months of 1996. In October it reinstated its dividend, paying it for the first time in six years.

Shares, recently trading at $14, have risen 15.3% since the Dutch bank ABN Amro NV announced last month that it would buy Michigan thrift Standard Federal Bancorp.

For its part, the Greater "would fit in nicely for someone who doesn't have a strong Brooklyn presence," said Thomas Finucane, assistant portfolio manager at John Hancock Funds.

He named Astoria Financial Corp., a Queens thrift, and North Fork Bancorp, of Mattituck, L.I., as two possible buyers.

"But the question is how much an acquirer would screw up the relationship the Greater has with the kinds of customers they get. That's really the bank's value."

As a takeover target, the Greater would "be attractive to someone local," said Bennett Lindenbaum of MGS Funds, Paramus, N.J.

"I'm sure Republic National Bank would be interested. But I don't think someone like NationsBank is coming to New York through Brooklyn. And I don't think Keegan's selling," he added.

Mr. Keegan said he envisions that three years from now, the Greater will be a $3.5 billion-asset thrift with a larger network in Queens and perhaps a few Nassau County branches.

"This customer came to me and said her bank was constantly changing the name on her checkbook. First she had a Manufacturers Hanover checkbook, then a Chemical Bank one, and now Chase Manhattan," Mr. Keegan recounted.

"I told her, 'Get a Greater New York checkbook. It won't change.'"

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