Charlotte Chamberlain has a name for it: "the cult of Kerry Killinger."

"There are people who feel that this guy's management expertise is such that he can do the impossible," says Ms. Chamberlain, an analyst at Jeffries & Co., Los Angeles.

Whether Mr. Killinger, chief executive officer of Washington Mutual Inc., can carry out his latest plan is now the subject of a spirited debate among analysts, investors, and thrift executives across the country.

Mr. Killinger last week launched a white-knight bid for the huge Great Western Financial Corp.-and he proposes to both slash costs and pump up revenues at the merged company.

To supporters, Mr. Killinger is a natural for the job. They describe the 47-year-old as a savvy and exacting manager who pulls off one good deal after another. Wamu, as his company is known, has made no fewer than 22 acquisitions in the past 14 years, becoming a powerhouse in the Northwest.

But skeptics, including Ms. Chamberlain, suggest that Mr. Killinger may be biting off more than he can chew. Washington Mutual doubled itself last December by buying $20 billion-asset American Savings Bank, Irvine, Calif., and would do so again if it snags $43 billion-asset Great Western.

"He's growing 400% and he's taking on a new state-it's an entirely different world," Ms. Chamberlain said.

"Better watch it," says the chief executive of a financial institution outside the fray. "Growing as fast as they are is real risky in my opinion."

Rival bidder H.F. Ahmanson, meanwhile, has openly sought to foster doubts about Washington Mutual's ability to execute its plan. Earlier this week, Ahmanson's chief executive, Charles Rinehart, branded the strategy "absurd" and raised questions about the depth of Wamu's management team.

None of which dampens the enthusiasm of Mr. Killinger's admirers.

Jay Tejera, an analyst at Dain Bosworth Inc., Minneapolis, says that Wamu's experience running a multistate company in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, and Montana gives it the tools it needs in California.

"When you move from a single to multiple marketplaces, that's the big jump," Mr. Tejera said. Mr. Killinger already has installed the electronic reporting and centralized control to run a far-flung system, he added.

He hails Mr. Killinger as manager who zeroes in on the critical tasks, clearly communicates them to his team, and then holds people accountable.

Certainly, Mr. Killinger has turned in some impressive results, with Wamu consistently ranking among the most profitable big thrifts. Last year, it posted a return on assets of 0.95%, verus 0.60% for No. 1 ranked Ahmanson.

Mr. Killinger, a former investment analyst, joined Washington Mutual in 1982 through the thrift's purchase of Murphey Favre Inc., a Spokane, Wash.- based brokerage firm. He rose rapidly through the ranks, assuming the presidency in 1988.

His basic game plan: make the thrift more banklike by offering a range of consumer products beyond mortgages and certificates of deposit. In the past few years, a number of other thrifts have adopted the strategy, hoping to combat declining profitability in their traditional business.

Mr. Killinger and his team are said to have the drill down pat for mergers. But none of the targets have been anywhere near as big as Great Western, which has 416 branches and 12,000 employees.

"The challenges are formidable," said Anat Bird, chief financial officer of the Roosevelt Financial Group, St. Louis. and an admirer of Mr. Killinger.

The biggest hurdle, she said, would be unlocking the revenue potential of the combined Great Western and American Savings branches and customers.

"You'll have tremendous share, excellent market coverage, branches that are not horribly antiquated," she said. "How do you unlock the power of the franchise? In my mind that's the No. 1 difficulty."

Mr. Killinger has shown in Washington and Oregon that he can leverage his acquisitions into significant market shares, but analysts say California's rough-and-tumble market will be a tougher challenge.

Not only will Washington Mutual be up against two master consumer banks- Bank of America and Wells Fargo - it may also have a harder time hanging on to customers, many of whom are refugees from previous acquisitions.

If anyone can rise to this challenge, supporters say, it is Mr. Killinger. And, despite the doubts raised by Ahmanson, Mr. Killinger's management team clearly includes some impressive players.

Take William Longbrake, Wamu's chief financial officer. He recently returned to the company after 18 months as the chief financial officer of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Though he was deeply involved in the execution of early acquisitions, Mr. Longbrake's primary responsibility now is to manage the balance sheet. Mr. Killinger also relies on Mr. Longbrake's excellent ties to regulators.

Craig E. Tall, executive vice president of corporate development and commercial banking, heads Washington Mutual's acquisition team. "This is the guy who sits at the table and negotiates with lawyers and bankers," said Mr. Tejera. "He's a very tough negotiator."

Other key players: Liane Wilson, executive vice president of corporate operations, and Deanna Watson Oppenheimer, executive vice president of corporate marketing and consumer bank distribution.

If Mr. Killinger needs to strengthen the team still further, he would have plenty to pick from at Great Western, including a number of commercial banking veterans.

A source close to the transaction said Mr. Killinger, who worked closely with Great Western's senior managers during the due diligence process, came away with a very high regard for them.

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