It sounds like something from the Chinese classic "The Art of War," but it's Kerry K. Killinger's stolid Midwestern mantra for success.

"Stay a bit on the humble order; it'll help you minimize your blind spots," the chairman of Washington Mutual Inc. advised.

Mr. Killinger, 48, needed a clear head in 1997, his most acquisitive year yet at the helm of the Seattle thrift.

Within months of reaching a long-held goal of expanding into California- by buying American Savings Bank, Irvine, last December-he waded into the nasty battle for Chatsworth, Calif.-based Great Western Financial in the spring.

He walked away in July with Great Western's 416 branches in California and Florida, and assets of $43 billion, beating out hostile bidder H.F. Ahmanson & Co. The price tag: a cool $8 billion.

No longer just a hot regional player, Washington Mutual is the nation's largest, most-watched thrift, with assets of $95 billion-and aspirations to be much bigger.

"This has been a very successful year in responding to opportunities that we didn't expect," Mr. Killinger said.

His fans have come to expect that kind of understatement. It appeals to investors, who view him as a can-do executive who translates ambitious blueprints into concrete action.

Since July, Mr. Killinger has been on the road spreading the Wamu gospel in meetings at every one of the thrift's offices on the West coast and in Florida.

That move shows how Mr. Killinger is attuned to people, said James F. Montgomery, Great Western's former chairman.

"He reminds me of me 20 years ago," said Mr. Montgomery, one of the most respected thrift executives of his day.

Digesting Great Western has kept Wamu from doing more deals since July. But "each month that goes by, we're closer to the finish line" for integrating Great Western, Mr. Killinger said, and closer to returning to the acquisition fray.

When he returns, Mr. Killinger promises he'll be looking out for one blind spot-overpaying in a still-bullish market. Many predict his first target next year will be California's other large prize-his onetime rival, Ahmanson.

Such a takeover bid would likely be hostile, putting Mr. Killinger's pricing strategy to the test.

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