Kerry Killinger has made no secret of his company's ambition to grow by acquisition, but he says he has never tipped his hand.

In recent years, the chairman and chief executive of Washington Mutual Inc. has repeatedly said that the Seattle-based thrift wants to be a survivor in an industry that is rapidly consolidating. His strategy is to buy institutions that represent good bargains for his shareholders and that are based in or near the $17.8 billion-asset thrift's operating area in the Northwest.

But, Mr. Killinger said in an interview, he has never singled out any institution as an acquisition target in advance of an announcement on the subject.

"We have never discussed specifics about companies that we might be interested in ourselves," Mr. Killinger explained.

However, Mr. Killinger has come close to doing that, by listing, in response to questions from stock analysts, the names of nearly every midsize or large thrift in Washington Mutual's target area for expansion.

Indeed, his doing so in May in a presentation to the Seattle Society of Securities Analysts has created some confusion.

An industry source who attended the session said that when asked what institutions Washington Mutual might like to buy, Mr. Killinger listed the following thrifts:

*In California, San Mateo-based Bay View, American Savings Bank of Irvine, Glendale Federal Bank, San Francisco Federal Savings and Loan, and Stockton Savings Bank.

*In Nevada, the state's two largest thrifts Primerit Bank and American Federal Savings Bank.

The industry source, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Killinger made it clear that he was just naming possible acquisitions for his company or other companies, not thrifts in which Washington Mutual was particularly interested.

Jay Tejera, a stock analyst with Dain Bosworth Inc. in Seattle, agreed.

Mr. Killinger told American Banker he had made clear that he was naming "the entire universe of publicly held institutions" in areas where Washington Mutual would want to expand.

He said Washington Mutual's acquisition strategy is to gradually reach out from its home base in Washington State, where it is the largest thrift, into contiguous states. It also plans to expand in areas where there is growth in population and housing, he said.

Furthermore, Washington Mutual is open to buying either commercial banks or thrifts, Mr. Killinger said. It also sees more value in buying institutions with more than $1 billion in assets than in buying smaller institutions, though smaller acquisitions will be made if they fill a strategic niche, he said.

Washington Mutual has substantial operations in Oregon and Idaho and has moved in recent years into Utah and Montana. Mr. Killinger said the company also is interested in expanding into Nevada and Northern California.

In Northern California, stock analysts have been putting Washington Mutual near the top of their lists of possible acquirers of Bay View, which is under pressure from some of its largest shareholders to sell out to a larger institution.

Mr. Killinger said that the pace of acquisitions by Washington Mutual, as measured by the number of transactions and their size, slowed in 1994 and so far this year. The reason, he said, is that the prices were too high. He said he is hopeful that prices will come down and Washington Mutual will be able to do more deals.

"As we move forward, we will monitor that and continue to look for opportunities," he said. "Time will tell if we can make additional acquisitions in the near to medium term."

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