GLENDALE, Calif. - It's 6:30 on a sunny morning in this Los Angeles suburb, and Stephen Trafton is in his element.
After taking a brisk walk through the business district here, the 48- year-old chief executive of Glendale Federal Bank has stopped in front of one of his branches.
Scrawled on a window, in garish pink and green paint, is a message that has been in the $15.1 billion-asset thrift's advertisements for the better part of a year.
"If you left Bank of America tomorrow, do you actually think they'd miss you?"
Then he points to a Bank of America branch across the street.
"We put this there so they'd close their curtains," Mr. Trafton said.
Indeed, the BofA branch's vertical blinds are closed, apparently to keep people inside from seeing the Glenfed sign. Mr. Trafton said the blinds had been closed for a "record" three months.
That Mr. Trafton is able to enjoy such jabs is in itself an achievement. Less than two years ago Glenfed was on the brink of failure, dogged by loan losses and dwindling capital.
Mr. Trafton is credited with saving the thrift by leading it through a painful recapitalization and restructuring that left it profitable but smaller - and focused only on California. Gone are pretensions of becoming a national, diversified financial services company.
Now Glenfed is focused on another goal: becoming the most aggressive marketer in retail banking.
"We have marshaled artillery against our competitors in a drive to become the premier retailer in consumer banking," Mr. Trafton said in a January speech.
Part of the transformation involves some of Mr. Trafton's reputed skill at fixing up bank and thrift balance sheets.
For example, Glenfed plans to finish in July the last in a series of problem-loan bulk sales. The deal is expected to leave it with just more than $300 million of nonperforming assets, down from about $382 million at the end of March and $814 million in March 1994.
Also, Glenfed has bought about $1.5 billion of loans over the last 10 months, while originating only $664 million worth. Mr. Trafton said that in the current market it's cheaper to buy loans than to make them.
Furthermore, Glenfed has become a buyer of branches and deposits, signing deals this year to add more than $1 billion of deposits and 16 branches to its 135 branches and $7.7 billion of deposits.
But Mr. Trafton's plans go beyond the buying and selling of assets and liabilities.
For instance, he's embraced attack advertising, a rarity among banks. Glenfed has been running ads in print and on television that ridicule big banks for allegedly shoddy service, while promoting Glenfed as a friendly alternative. Frustrated consumers are urged to switch banks by calling 1- 800-41FEDUP.
Not surprisingly, rival bankers dismiss the campaign. They say it's so hard to get consumers to switch checking accounts that negative ads won't work.
"If it was that easy to get checking accounts, you wouldn't see any beer commercials on TV," the chief executive of one big thrift argued privately. "All you'd see would be bank ads."
But for some consumers, the message is clearly hitting home.
"Their level of service is in my opinion much better than a bank," said Glen Schembari, a San Mateo resident who has his checking account at Glenfed. He said the thrift has shorter lines than the big banks and more personalized service.
Mr. Trafton credited the ads with bringing in 15,000 checking accounts.
But Mr. Trafton is also trying to put some muscle behind the message by selling new products and services. One is a debit card that can be used at credit card terminals. Another is a new small-business lending and checking account that is due out in July.
Glenfed also has high hopes for a "family financial management account" - due out by yearend - that would consolidate all a customer's checking and lending information onto a single statement.
On a more personal level, Mr. Trafton is trying to change the way his employees work.
An early riser who gets to the office by 6 a.m., Mr. Trafton expects the executives who report directly to him to get in by 7. To save money and to make Glenfed appear more down-to-earth, he moved the thrift's headquarters from the top two floors of a 13-story high-rise to a two-story former bank branch.
Furthermore, he's using his love of the outdoors as a source of inspiration. An avid mountain climber, Mr. Trafton compares reaching marketing goals with mountain climbing in a staff video now in circulation. He also uses the image of a cheetah as a staff mascot in videos and on office stationery.
Meanwhile, in the branches, employees are required to cold-call prospects. In some offices, employees are bringing coffee and business cards to people queued up outside the branches of competitors.
Especially aggressive salesmanship is being rewarded with "cheetah checks" for $100 to $500. Rules of decorum are not especially important. Employees have been praised for sticking Glenfed flyers into coin-operated newspaper vending boxes.
Mr. Trafton says he now spends at least one-third of his time in the branches.
"Before, it was a staid organization," said branch manager Gregory A. Bortolussi in San Francisco. "Now it's much more aggressive."
For their part, stock analysts and investors are praising Mr. Trafton's efforts. But many also see an irony in the strategy.
"The areas they're concentrating on are the areas acquirers are looking at for value," said Campbell K. Chaney, a stock analyst in San Francisco with the brokerage firm Rodman & Renshaw Inc.
Mr. Chaney, like many other analysts, expects that Glenfed will eventually be bought by a bigger institution, possibly within two years.
The problem, analysts say, is that Glenfed is too small to compete with the biggest banks and too big to survive as a community bank.
For his part, Mr. Trafton doesn't deny that Glenfed may be bought at some point. But he insists that the thrift isn't for sale right now. And he argues that buyers currently aren't willing to pay what the thrift is worth.
"Sitting back and waiting for a buyer is like being the perennial wallflower," Mr. Trafton said. "The one that gets asked to the dance is the one with the prettiest dress."