Kerry Killinger Builds His Dream Bank

Article excerpt

Washington Mutual--WaMu for short--is the nation's largest thrift. If you haven't run into this mega-mortgage machine, it may run into you

Washington Mutual CEO Kerry K. Killinger is a born juggler, adept at handling many tasks at once. But one day he found himself at home, juggling two seemingly incompatible items-a hammer and a portable phone.

He had the phone in one hand because investment bankers were updating him on a pending acquisition. He had the hammer in the other because workmen attempting to install his new Sub-Zero refrigerator were stymied. The wallboard behind the refrigerator was bowed, preventing the appliance from fitting.

Phone to his ear, Killinger stepped into the breach and... Wham! Wham! Wham!

...corrected the problem with a few strategic blows. The refrigerator slid neatly into the adjusted space.

Killinger, 52, is no stranger to home building nor to acquisitions. In both, he likes "fit."

Broker becomes banker

When Killinger was a securities analyst and brokerage executive with Murphey Favre, Inc., Spokane, Wash., he spent evenings and weekends rebuilding old homes and turning them around for a quick profit. Later, as the broker's executive vice-president, he helped engineer the Spokane firm's acquisition by WaMu in 1982, and began his climb up WaMu's own corporate ladder.

The executive, who still enjoys fixit jobs at home, admits that his projects these days are smaller than they used to be. He's too busy building on a grander scale, continuing a string of acquisitions that have transformed Seattle-based WaMu into the nation's largest thrift, the seventh-largest banking company, and a mortgage powerhouse that tops both the servicing and origination sides of that business.

When it comes to fit in mergers, Killinger prefers a cleaner one than he settled for with his fridge. He won't tolerate fragmentation of corporate culture, for instance. "That prevents you from getting the results that you need" to keep shareholders and the market happy," he says.

Likewise, Killinger prefers to take WaMu where he thinks it is wanted. The announcement in late June that WaMu would acquire Dime Bancorp underscored WaMu's determination to grow and to do it in places where the firm's noted research tells it that its approach will fly.

"We know how to enter metropolitan markets and do it successfully," says Killinger.

Indeed, Killinger brags, "this is a company that does not make major mistakes. We do that by learning daily lessons."

Is WaMu really that good?

"I think they are that good," says Tom Brown, CEO of financial services hedge fund Second Curve Capital and its affiliate, bankstocks. corn. In general, Brown says, WaMu "keeps it simple and executes the basics really well."

The investment community is impressed that Killinger came up in the financial services business as a broker, rather than as a lender.

"He doesn't look at the banking world as a banker--he looks at it as an outsider," says Thomas O'Donnell, who follows WaMu for Salomon Smith Barney. That, says O'Donnell, is why, when he took the reins at WaMu back in the late 1980s as president, he was able to spot three clear needs for the company:

1. Need for improved credit--WaMu was suffering from the vestiges of the thrift crisis. Today it has a respected credit record.

2. Need to make acquisitions--WaMu is now an acquisition machine, having made dozens since Killinger took over.

3. Need to control rate-risk--"They've come to realize that mortgages are their main business," says O'Donnell, and rate risk is a greater challenge to home lenders, than is credit risk.

At $220 billion in assets, WaMu isn't your average S&L. It has developed leading franchises in consumer banking and mortgage banking that are becoming a national affair.

"Our goal is to be the dominant mortgage lender in the U. …