California community bank executives and thrift leaders are of two minds about the battle for Great Western Financial Corp.
Their attitudes highlight the fact that as much as Great Western and its rival, H.F. Ahmanson & Co., have tried to become more like banks, they're thought of as thrifts by others in the business.
Thrift executives in the Golden State say they are watching the battle for Chatsworth-based Great Western closely. The winner-whether Irwindale- based Ahmanson, the hostile suitor, or white knight Washington Mutual Inc.- would emerge as the nation's biggest thrift.
"We all talk about it, because you have the big guys beating each other on the head," said Rick McGill, president and chief executive officer of Quaker City Federal Savings and Loan in Whittier. "We're sort of like ants on the sideline watching the elephants bounce around. We don't want to get squished in the melee."
"It interests me, if for no other reason than the excitement of seeing the gladiators battle it out," said Gregory C. Talbott, executive vice president and chief financial officer of PFF Bancorp, a thrift company in Pomona.
"It's hard to avoid it," said D. Tad Lowrey, president and CEO of Cenfed Financial Corp., Pasadena. "Everybody's paying attention to it. You don't have many hostile events like this happen."
By contrast, executives at some of the state's smaller commercial banks, who tend to wait eagerly for big banks to merge and then pounce on disaffected customers, yawn at the battle among thrift titans. California's community banks still consider them traditional savings institutions, and therefore less worthy of competitive attention.
"I have given it absolutely no thought," said Robert P. Keller, chairman and CEO of Commerce Security Bancorp in Huntington Beach. "I don't think it affects us to a great extent."
"It doesn't affect us as much as it might other thrifts," agreed Douglas M. Shearer, president and CEO of Camarillo Community Bank.
Community bankers, when asked to name their competition, rarely mention thrifts, despite their strong physical presence and changing product mix.
"The product base of savings and loans, while they are working to become more like banks, still has a long ways to go," said William S. "Tom" Thomas Jr., president and CEO of Santa Barbara Bancorp.
Even with the little bit of market overlap that has developed, the Great Western contretemps is "a nonevent," said Bart Hill, president and CEO of San Joaquin Bank, a business-oriented institution in Bakersfield.
Mr. Hill and other bankers were singing a much different tune last year when Wells Fargo & Co. absorbed First Interstate Bancorp. At that time, community banks were feasting far more than the thrifts on dislocated customers and employees. But then again, these bankers point out, First Interstate was a bank.
"These are thrift customers," Quaker City's Mr. McGill said of the Great Western franchise. "I think thrifts are more likely to benefit from an acquisition either way."
Although other thrift executives agreed with Mr. McGill, many are rooting for Ahmanson, because the in-market merger would probably result in far more shuttered branches and fired workers. Such a merger would also create a much fatter target for aggressive advertising in Southern California.
Washington Mutual, though it bought Irvine-based American Savings Bank in December, is still a stranger to Southern California-and has a reputation as a tough competitor that is pushing into full-service banking. Ahmanson, parent of Home Savings of America, is a known quantity.
"Who would we rather compete against, Ahmanson or Washington Mutual? I would have to rate them as a draw," Mr. McGill said. "I'm not sure I have a great preference one way or another."