Executives at Washington Mutual Inc., the nation's largest thrift, are breathing a sigh of relief.
In interviews last week, the executives told how they completed the integration of 529 branches and loan offices of Home Savings of America into the Wamu system. Wamu acquired the Home Savings offices in October when it bought the parent company, H.F. Ahmanson & Co.
Working from their so-called command center in Seattle, executives wrapped up three years and three mergers worth of integration work on Memorial Day weekend.
"When you talk to customers about yet another name on their bank, they get pretty weary and become less and less patient," said Michael Amato, senior vice president of consumer banking in Southern California. "It's a relief to finally see the end of that and get back to business."
The final conversions mark the end of a busy time for the integration team of the $165.5 billion-asset thrift company. In the summer of 1997, Washington Mutual converted the 158 California offices of American Savings Bank, which it acquired in December 1996. In July 1997, the thrift bought Great Western Financial Corp. and converted its 1,150 branches and loan offices during the July 4 weekend last year.
Home Savings' branches and loan offices were converted in three phases: Texas in February, Northern California in April, and the southern half of the state between May 29 and May 31.
Each parcel of branches had to be led through Washington Mutual's so- called master plan, a 2,000-step, weekend-long process. It begins with balancing out accounts and installing new computer equipment on a Friday evening, and ends with the doors of the branch opening to customers on the day following the weekend.
"We get the hourly status of each step in each branch," said Liane Wilson, Washington Mutual's executive vice president of corporate operations. "It's a huge communications and coordination effort, but it pays off."
The Home Savings conversions were staggered to keep from overwhelming the team of executives dedicated to the task. But the time between conversions also allowed Washington Mutual to correct and learn from any glitches that arose. Early in the Great Western conversion, a problem with a vendor barred customers in Florida from accessing their accounts over phone lines.
"We learned we have to stay on top of our vendors much more," Ms. Wilson said.
One improvement was the speed with which various system conversions occurred, she said. On April 30, for example, Wamu converted roughly 600,000 Home Savings mortgage servicing accounts. Compared with the Great Western mortgage conversion, Washington Mutual managed to change over twice as many accounts and shave a day off the process, said Dyan Beito, senior vice president of Northern California consumer banking.
Washington Mutual reported no major glitches in this latest integration. However, some former Home Savings customers said they were peeved that they could no longer download account information onto financial software such as Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft Money.
"It's a big deal for me," said James Burch, a health care company data base manager in Costa Mesa, Calif. "With Home, I used to go in once a week and download my transactions. Now I can't."
A spokesman said the thrift still allows customers to download transactions onto their personal computers, but that the process is much more cumbersome than it was at Home Savings. Washington Mutual plans to fix the problem within the next two months, the thrift said.
Not only do service offerings, computer systems, and accounting methods need to be melded in a merger, but so do disparate cultures, Ms. Beito said.
The biggest difference in culture is that the mission and drive in the Washington Mutual organization does not filter down through the ranks. Rather, all employees, from executives to tellers, hear the Wamu philosophy directly from the lips of chairman, president, and chief executive Kerry K. Killinger.
"With Washington Mutual, you hear right from Kerry, 'This is who we are and the way we do business,'" said Ms. Beito, a former Great Western executive. "At Great Western and at Ahmanson, you didn't hear it from the CEO."
Analysts said that while morale may appear strong today, it could take a year or longer before fallout from the culture change appears. Washington Mutual's sales-oriented culture may grate on some former Ahmanson employees, said R. Jay Tejera, an analyst with Ragen MacKenzie Inc. in Seattle.
"The more incentive-based compensation structure and go-go culture of Washington Mutual may not sit well with employees who signed up under a different regime," Mr. Tejera said. "You could see a chunk of employees that may leave over the next year."