Lured out of retirement with the promise of a free hand in building Dime's mortgage business, Fred B. Koons took a big step in that journey Monday.

The 52-year-old chairman of Dime Mortgage spearheaded the $374 million North American deal, which would transform Dime from a midsize regional player into a national company.

It was he who zeroed in on the North American as the right target for Dime, according to his deputy, Richard Mirro. And if history is any guide, he likely paid a key role in persuading Dime's chairman, Lawrence Toal, to pay up for the deal. The Santa Rosa company has been for sale since 1994, but until Dime came along, buyers thought it too dear.

"When he makes a decision that he wants to win a deal, he definitely steps up and gets it," said Brenda White, managing director at UBS Securities, who has done two prior deals with Mr. Koons.

Mr. Koons' last and biggest deal at Chase-the $348 million acquisition of American Residential Holding Corp.-was much on the minds of mortgage bankers Monday.

Many said the deal illustrated the perils of merging an entrepreneurial mortgage company with a traditional bank. Most of Amres' loan officers fled the new regime within months.

John Robbins, AmRes' former chairman, predicted similar challenges await Mr. Koons at North American.

Mr. Koons didn't sound worried Monday.

He traced the problems at AmRes to overlapping turf between Chase and AmRes. "There is very little overlap" between Dime and North American, he said.

North American's loan officers will continue to set prices locally, he said. But he added, "regulation is a part of life" when a mortgage bank is bought by a bank or thrift.

Mr. Koons spent most of last year on his boat and in the Bahamas, and he's expected to leave the daily grind of mortgage banking in the next year or two. Mr. Mirro, Dime Mortgage's chief operating officer and Mr. Koons' former deputy at Chase Manhattan, is expected to get Mr. Koons' job.

Mr. Koons seemed to confirm that Monday. "Obviously Rich Mirro is here, and he could do my job," he said. But he added that he doesn't plan to leave anytime soon.

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