He goes by the cuddly nickname "Bucky," but Wendell A. Sebastian is one of the credit union industry's most aggressive executives.

Over the past five years he has transformed once sleepy GTE Federal Credit Union in Tampa into one of the industry's fastest growers. In an earlier life as general counsel of the National Credit Union Administration, he ruthlessly slashed regulations - and regulators.

Even his eyebrows, which resemble upside-down V's, look aggressive.

But the operating philosophy he espouses doesn't sound like Attila the Hun. Mr. Sebastian, 51, says he has always tried to use cooperation to achieve goals.

"When you get consensus, and get people to work together, you get to accomplish more," he says. "You also have to be willing to listen to others. There are an awful lot of people who have good ideas, and if you're open to them and don't think you know all the answers, you can learn a lot."

Nevertheless, he says his reputation for having a fiery temper is justified.

"I'm a trial attorney," he says. "I know that sometimes people I talk to feel like they're being cross-examined."

Though he was trained as a lawyer, he has proved himself an effective credit union executive at GTE Federal. Assets have more than doubled since 1990, to $440 million.

In the three months ended June 30, GTE Federal earned $1.12 for each $100 of assets, slightly more than the $1.11 average return on assets for all credit unions with more than $100 million in assets.

Its loan-to-deposit ratio is 84.6%, versus 68% for its peer group, according to Callahan & Associates, a Washington-based consulting firm.

Meanwhile, capital has grown and the ratio of delinquent loans to total loans has shrunk.

Those numbers provide a stark contrast with the situation Mr. Sebastian found when he came on the scene.

Then, the credit union was saddled with an aging, nonborrowing membership, and its single sponsor, GTE Corp., had been scaling back for years. The credit union's loan-to-deposit ratio was below its peer group, its 0.66% return on assets was two-thirds that of its peer group, and it was getting pinched by an earnings squeeze.

"A credit union doesn't work well without a high loan-to-share ratio, and for that you need borrowers," Mr. Sebastian says.

One way GTE Federal got borrowers was fairly common: It expanded its membership base to include different employers outside of GTE. The credit union now has 150 such groups in a 100-mile area around Tampa.

It is always on the prowl for more, said one Tampa credit union official.

Ned L. Hines, chief executive of Railroad and Industrial Federal Credit Union, said the only "real competition" his group has with GTE and other credit unions is when it goes for select employee groups. "And that's fierce competition," he said.

Mr. Sebastian's other tack was an unusual one in the industry: growth by merger. GTE Federal has acquired seven institutions since 1989, taking in $100 million of assets and 40,000 members.

The credit union didn't seek out any of the acquisitions, Mr. Sebastian says. GTE Federal was either approached by small credit unions that wanted to merge because they had only limited services or closed sponsors, or approached by the NCUA, which wanted to shutter some troubled institutions.

Further growth by merger could prove difficult, given the commmitment of NCUA Chairman Norman E. D'Amours' to small credit unions, he said.

"NCUA's stance on mergers has changed dramatically," Mr. Sesbastian says. "From 1989 to 1993 the NCUA looked for a merger when a small credit union was in trouble or if it failed to maximize its resources. Now they don't. I see less opportunity" for merging in the future.

Acquisitions have helped GTE Federal boost assets and capital, extend its branch system, and bring in younger members who are more likely to take out loans.

On the down side, the mergers have alienated some of the credit union's core constituency. "Some real old-time GTE people say it's not their credit union anymore," Mr. Sesbastian acknowledges. "To reach its dispersed membership, GTE Federal has been aggressive in using electronic delivery methods such as automated telephone systems and a PC-based home banking product.

Mr. Sebastian himself is ready for the age of digital money.

"I never use cash," he says. "I carry my debit card everywhere. I pay all the bills I can through prearranged debit."

GTE Federal also has been progressive in using employee incentives. Everyone in the credit union is involved in a bonus system pegged to the credit union's performance.

"We changed the culture here," he said. "There wasn't a lending culture here before, but there is now."

Mr. Sebastian's path to the credit union business was circuitous.

As a young man growing up in Chicago, he studied to be a Catholic priest. "My dad died when I was quite young, and the role models I had were priests," he says. "I thought I would want to be one."

Ultimately, he says, he was turned off by the bureaucracy of the church and decided to study law.

After a stint as a Cook County public defender, Mr. Sebastian got a job as Illinois Secretary of State Mike Howlett's executive assistant. While working for him, he met the man who would be his mentor and whom he would follow across the country: Edgar F. Callahan, the ex-high-school football coach who was then Illinois deputy secretary of state.

"I still call him coach," Mr. Sebastian says. "'Coach' defines Ed Callahan. He's an inspirer, and he can form a team to run anything."

The admiration between the two is mutual.

"He pushes you as far as you can possibly go," Mr. Callahan says of Mr. Sebastian. "He just challenges, challenges, challenges."

In 1981, Mr. Callahan was made chairman of the NCUA, and he took Mr. Sebastian with him. The duo, along with Charles W. Filson, who served as director of examination and insurance, turned the federal credit union regulatory environment on its ear.

They loosened the field-of-membership restrictions binding credit unions. They recapitalized the insurance fund. They implemented yearly examinations for credit unions.

Veteran NCUA staff still have bad memories of the Callahan years, which involved cuts in both budgets and staff. One NCUA official said Mr. Sebastian and Mr. Callahan "led by decibel level." Another said Mr. Sebastian was feared throughout the agency.

But another agency official, while conceding that Mr. Sebastian could be a pain, found admirable qualities in him as well.

"He has his good side," the official said. "He's very loyal and he can be charming."

But Mr. Sebastian says he did leave some bad feelings at the agency. He recalled the day 75 people were dismissed through a reduction in force.

"That was not popular," he said. "At the end of the day, I was in a crowded elevator and no one said a word. It was 80 degrees outside, and it felt like it was 40 degrees in the elevator.

"It is not easy to do that and not easy to have that done to you, but you can't run an efficient shop and allow overstaffing," he said.

To the relief of many, the three left the agency in 1985 to found Callahan & Associates, a credit union consulting firm. GTE Federal was one of Callahan's clients, and in 1989 Mr. Sebastian was asked to replace its retiring president.

Initially he turned down the offer, but he reconsidered once he was back in Washington on the night of President Bush's inauguration.

"It was very cold in D.C., and I remembered the weather in Tampa and I thought about the offer some more," he said.

Since then, he has enjoyed living in the sun after years of northern winters. Although he made a failed bid to be NCUA chairman in 1993 - he lost out to Mr. D'Amours - he says he is content to stay where he is.

"I plan to live happily ever after in Tampa," he says.

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