These days, Kerry K. Killinger has the look of a shark circling a school of bait fish.

The 47-year-old chief executive officer of Washington Mutual Inc. has earned a reputation as a skillful and persistent acquirer, quadrupling the Seattle-based company's assets in the past three years, to $44 billion.

So it's no surprise that he made a strong impression when he showed himself to his potential prey last week at a mergers and acquisitions conference here.

"It was like Jaws coming into the room," said an executive of a midsize California institution at the conference, which was hosted by the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. "You could almost hear the music: Da dum ... da dum."

The episode underscores that Mr. Killinger has become a major figure on the consolidation scene. In late December, Washington Mutual closed its biggest acquisition to date, a $1.7 billion deal for American Savings Bank. With the purchase, Mr. Killinger declared his ambition to be a force in the strategically important California market.

Most recently, Coast Savings Financial Inc. and Great Western Financial Corp., both in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, have topped the list of those rumored to be of interest to Mr. Killinger.

In a 45-minute talk at the M&A conference, Mr. Killinger reiterated his intention to expand Washington Mutual's Southern California operations.

"We like this market because it's very fragmented and is the last market in the country that is still going through significant consolidation," Mr. Killinger said. "It's been delayed here simply because of the lingering recessionary factors-but that's about to change."

Indeed, the conference, attended by about 60 executives of thrifts and banks, as well as some of the top investment bankers and lawyers doing business here, had the feel of a base camp with troops preparing for combat.

"I think we'll see some battles here, as the economics become more compelling," said David C. White, regional president of Comerica Bank California. "The industry has been mostly gentlemanly-up until now."

He said he expects Comerica, a $35 billion-asset company based in Detroit, to double its $4 billion of assets in the state within the next five years.

Based on its recent track record, Washington Mutual will likely move even more quickly.

In the past decade or so, it has done 21 deals, Mr. Killinger said, growing from a market capitalization of $70 million to its current $5.9 billion, from one state to nine, from 50 offices to 550, and from $6 billion of assets to $44 billion.

Asked directly whether he expects to do another deal in the state this year, he said: "It's very difficult, if not impossible, to forecast, but we are constantly looking."

The stock prices of Coast, Great Western, and other thrifts in the area have soared in recent weeks, due to takeover speculation fueled in part by Mr. Killinger's bold words. Hugh McColl, CEO of NationsBank Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., has also said on several occasions that he would like a California presence.

Mr. Killinger said he expects to grow his commercial bank subsidiaries through acquisitions primarily in northern California.

On the consumer banking end, however, Mr. Killinger said he is "willing, able, and ready to execute expansion through acquisitions of consumer banks throughout the West."

The only dampening effect on merger activity would be if prices get too high, Mr. Killinger said. If prices rise above the $1,000-per-customer level, acquirers may find it cheaper to expand in alternative ways, such as through more aggressive advertising, he said.

Washington Mutual would step up its stock repurchase program if it can't find suitable opportunities, he said.

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