The record-setting thrift merger announcement this week has turned another spotlight on Washington Mutual Inc. chief executive officer Kerry K. Killinger and his management team.
They have made big acquisitions work before. Their $9.9 billion deal with H.F. Ahmanson & Co. will put them to their greatest test. By reputation, they are primed to pass it with flying colors.
"They have an extremely cohesive management team," said a banker familiar with the Seattle-based company known as Wamu.
"They communicate very often and communicate very well. Every issue is aired out."
Mr. Killinger plays the critical role of facilitator and catalyst, an energetic "coach" on internal matters and one who exudes confidence in dealings with the investment community.
According to that banker who has watched Mr. Killinger in action, Wamu's chairman, president, and chief executive officer hears out the others on his executive committee and hammers out a game plan. "Once they set their eyes on an objective, they all work as a team," the banker said.
They are not expected to add anyone from H.F. Ahmanson to the inner circle.
The core of the team is five executives who have worked together and with Mr. Killinger since he became president in 1986.
"A long time ago we recognized that it's relationships that count," said one member, Liane Wilson, the technology czar. The group has followed a few simple routines for almost a decade, she said.
Eight executives who report to Mr. Killinger meet every morning for coffee at 8. All travel a great deal to keep up with Washington Mutual's geographical expansion, but they make sure to spend Mondays and Tuesdays in the office.
Each month they take a two-day retreat from the office to discuss the strategies and operations.
As a result, Ms. Wilson said, "there is no doubt what the company's strategy is. We communicate every day."
And Mr. Killinger, she said, doesn't play favorites.
"Kerry is very much coach," she says. "He does not have one superstar one day and another another day."
Each team member has a well defined role.
Well before Mr. Killinger gets involved with a potential merger target, for example, it has been studied and possibly approached by Craig E. Tall.
The 52-year-old executive vice president is described as one of the best M&A people in the business. His special skill, a banker said, is to zero in on the issues each side really cares about-and concentrate on getting agreement on those.
"He is a dealmaker par excellence and a great negotiator," the banker said.
A graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Tall joined Washington Mutual in 1985. He became executive vice president for corporate development-mergers and acquisitions-in 1987.
His job is not finished when the deal is signed. Mr. Tall is among the executives who decides whom to keep and whom to fire, and what strategies make sense.
He played that role at Aristar, the consumer finance company Wamu acquired with Great Western Financial last year.
While Mr. Tall and Mr. Killinger handle negotiations, Wamu's chief financial officer, William A. Longbrake, uses his extensive Washington ties and experience to anticipate regulatory and political hurdles.
Mr. Longbrake, 55, has held senior positions at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. He took a break from Washington Mutual in 1995 and 1996 to be the FDIC's chief financial officer and deputy to the chairman for finance.
Described by one analyst as "an abstract thinker," Mr. Longbrake joined Washington Mutual in 1982, within weeks of Mr. Killinger's arrival there, and is well-respected by investors and analysts.
Mr. Tall, Mr. Killinger, and Mr. Longbrake can snag all the deals they want, but it takes Liane Wilson's technology smarts to make sure the companies function like a well-oiled machine.
Ms. Wilson, 55, is a former IBM employee who, along with Mr. Killinger, is credited with great foresight for contracting with IBM to manage Wamu's technology systems. That decision, analysts said, eased the process of converting acquired institutions' branch and backoffice systems to Wamu's specifications.
Lee D. Lannoye, 60, oversees credit quality at Washington Mutual. He joined Wamu in 1988 to head its commercial real estate division and helped steer the company clear of California's commercial real estate bust.
Before joining Wamu, Mr. Lannoye worked for Gibraltar Savings Bank and Bank of America Mortgage.
Also in the inner circle, observers said, are retail chief Deanna Watson Oppenheimer, 39, and Craig S. Davis, 46, who runs the mortgage origination network as well as mutual funds, insurance, and brokerage operations.
Both are critical to Mr. Killinger's long-term goal of establishing Wamu as a national brand in consumer banking and home lending.
Ms. Oppenheimer draws inspiration from Seattle's big consumer brands, such as Nordstrom and Starbucks.
"I'm a Nordstrom customer," she said. "I expect that service level when I go to the grocery store, I expect it when I go to the bank, I expect it when I deal with my travel agent."
She said Wamu pays attention to where it locates its branches, as well as how they look and feel-just like any other retailer does.
"Thrifts to some people are kind of second-class," Ms. Oppenheimer said. But from a marketing standpoint, being a thrift is a boon: "We only focus on the consumer."
Wamu's mortgage czar, Mr. Davis, joined the team when Wamu purchased American Savings Bank in 1997. There he honed his skills with one of the thrift industry's greats, American's chairman, Mario Antoci.
Mr. Davis faces the formidable task of keeping Wamu's mortgage portfolio, which ranks just behind those of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, full. Low interest rates and the refinance boom favor fixed rate mortgages, held mostly by Fannie and Freddie, and make it harder for Wamu to retain and generate adjustable rate loans.
Despite the team's strengths, analysts say Mr. Killinger holds too much responsibility at Wamu. As analyst Thomas F. Theurkauf of Keefe Bruyette & Woods put it, "If a meteorite hits him on the head, is there somebody there to replace him?"
Ms. Wilson said the team rejects the notion that they need a clear No. 2 executive after Mr. Killinger.
"We've quadrupled in size, and I don't think we've stumbled a bit," Ms. Wilson said emphatically, "and the team is who's done it."