Downey Savings Left Without Clear Successor : Management: President Anthony Kurtz's departure puts thrift back where it was when he was hired in 1991.


The sudden and unexplained departure of F. Anthony Kurtz from the president's job at Downey Savings & Loan on Friday takes the thrift back to Square One in its long search for a clear successor, industry analysts said Monday.

The youngest among Downey's top executives, Kurtz was 50 when he was hired in September, 1991, along with chief executive Robert L. Kemper, then 62, in a move that satisfied federal thrift regulators. The regulators had been pressuring the Newport Beach thrift to find someone to replace its aging managers.

But Kurtz worked in the shadow of Kemper, a former Wells Fargo Bank vice chairman. Thrift regulators had praised Kemper for his brief stint trying to salvage Great American Bank, a San Diego thrift that eventually failed in 1991. Kurtz was a longtime Home Savings of America executive who had worked with Kemper at Great American.

"Kurtz was not viewed as a strong player on the (Downey) management team," said Campbell Chaney, an industry analyst for Dakin Securities in San Francisco. "I think that what it boiled down to was whether you needed a president when you have a strong chief executive in Kemper."

Investors apparently agreed. Downey's stock rose 62.5 cents a share Tuesday to close at $17.25 on the New York Stock Exchange. "That's a big move for a stock like Downey's," Chaney said.

Kurtz "departed" Friday, according to a one-sentence announcement buried at the end of a press release issued late Friday. No Downey executives could be reached then to explain what had happened.

Neither Kemper nor Downey's general counsel, Donald E. Royer, who issued the press release, returned several telephone calls Tuesday. Kurtz didn't return calls Friday or Tuesday.

Built and run for 35 years by its two co-founders, Maurice L. McAlister and Gerald H. McQuarrie, Downey grew steadily and profitably. It had a number of executives-in-waiting to succeed the strong-willed founders, especially as McAlister and McQuarrie reached normal retirement age.

Federal regulators were pressing the co-founders on a number of issues in 1990 and 1991, including the need to establish a clear line of succession. Some insiders said that regulators all but ordered the founders out.

McQuarrie retired as chief executive in the summer of 1991, remaining as vice-chairman. He died a year later at the age of 70. McAlister, now 67, gave up the president's position but remained as chairman.

Kemper is now 64, and the thrift is once again without a clear successor.

"McAlister and McQuarrie have always been the real brains behind the company," said Michael Abrahams, an investment banker with Oppenheimer & Co. in Los Angeles. "The key problem has been finding somebody with their vision; they have very big shoes to fill."

Abrahams said he believes the bank's directors will pick a successor soon.

The thrift should have plenty of executives to choose from because the consolidation in the banking and thrift industries has left many capable executives without a job, Chaney said.

"It's not a question of whether you can find somebody," he said. "It's the long process you go through to pick someone."

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