First Interstate Bancorp, some analysts are worrying Washington Mutual Inc. will stumble next.

Despite its success with 21 previous mergers, there's concern that the Seattle thrift's latest and largest acquisition - $43 billion-asset Great Western Financial, Chatsworth, Calif. - may go awry.

Washington Mutual purchased Great Western July 1 for a hefty $7 billion after a four-month contest with hostile bidder H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Irwindale, Calif.

It prevailed, in part because investors believed Washington Mutual could make the deal pay right away by trimming fat at Great Western and boosting revenues. The consensus estimate for 1998 earnings is $4.86 a share, up 31% from 1997's estimate, according to First Call.

Investors are betting there will be a flawless integration, says analyst Campbell K. Chaney of Sandler O'Neill & Partners, San Francisco.

But, he adds, "You can't transfer hundreds of thousands of accounts and not have any glitches." Any significant problems will hurt the stock, Mr. Chaney says, and he predicts a "ticklish" period ahead for investors.

At Wells, technical meltdowns, executive flight, and divergent business philosophies led to a hemorrhaging of First Interstate customers. By the end of the 2d quarter, Wells had lost 12% of its interest-bearing deposits compared to a year ago, and it had written off $150 million to cover deposits it couldn't trace.

If Wamu falters, other California thrifts - H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Golden West Financial, Downey - will be sure to go after former Great Western customers with rich offers, says Mr. Chaney.

"Everybody is fightin' and clawin,"' agrees Bruce G. Willison, president of Ahmanson.

In an interview last week, Washington Mutual's chairman, Kerry K. Killinger, said his team was "watching and learning" from Wells' mistakes. But he added he was "confident" Washington Mutual would get the job done, noting its score so far is "21 for 21."

Great Western is Washington Mutual's second major purchase in just seven months. In December, the Seattle thrift made its first foray into California by buying $20 billion-asset American Savings Bank, Irvine.

Washington Mutual, which now has $92 billion of assets, reports that it completed its integration of American's branch operating systems over the July 4 weekend - "on time and on budget," Mr. Killinger noted.

Integrating an acquired bank involves changing its systems - for tracking deposits, withdrawals, ATMs, debit cards, and a myriad other transactions - to that of the acquiring bank.

At Wells, that conversion was rife with snafus: deposits were made to the wrong accounts, checks were wrongly bounced, and money withdrawn from the wrong accounts.

Washington Mutual says it has a leg up in absorbing Great Western because the two have compatible branch operating systems. Moreover, unlike Wells and First Interstate, Mr. Killinger said, the business strategies of Great Western and Washington Mutual also mesh. Both were trying to become more like banks by offering checking accounts and making more home equity, car and other consumer loans.

Analyst R. Jay Tejera of Dain Bosworth Inc., Minneapolis, adds Washington Mutual has another "huge advantage." Great Western offers fewer products than First Interstate - there are "many fewer moving parts." And, Washington Mutual's deal isn't hostile, so it's had plenty of time to study Great Western's systems.

Mr. Willison of Ahmanson says there are also many similarities between Wells and Washington Mutual that could prove problematic for Wamu.

Both deals are large, involve entry into new markets (Wells' biggest problems with First Interstate were outside California), and senior managers at the acquired institutions left when the deal was signed.

"You lose a lot of knowledge about local markets, customers, and how the organization being acquired worked," said Mr. Willison, who was chief executive officer of First Interstate's lead bank.

Not everyone agrees. Mr. Tejera of Dain Bosworth says the high-level executive departures aren't a short-term concern.

"The more you study Great Western, the more you realize they were a fat and undermanaged company," he said.

In any case, he says he is not worried because he is sure Mr. Killinger has "built in a significant margin of error" in his earnings estimates for the merged institution.

Carl B. Webb is president of California Federal Bank, San Francisco - the other acquisitive California thrift. He describes the task before Washington Mutual as a "huge undertaking."

"They'll break some china, but everybody does," Mr. Webb says. "This is an experienced team. They'll be up to the task." u

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