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Mario J. Antoci

In revamping once-troubled American savings Bank, Mario J. Antoci is tearing a page from a Hollywood script. The chief executive is modeling his $16.5-billion asset California thrift after Bailey Building and Loan Association, the civic-minded institution in Frank Capra’s classic 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

“That was a community-based savings and loan with a CEO that cared for people,” said Antoci, who was lured to American from a rival California thrift, Home Savings of America. “Here, we’ve got a giant organization trying to do the same thing.”

When Antoci took the reins in December 1988, American more closely resembled a horror film. Dicey investments and reckless growth had led to the thrift’s failure and a $1.7 billion federal bailout. But in seeking a turnaround strategy, Antoci decided to hand over substantial decision-making authority to tellers and other front-line staffers. For example, tellers now have the clout to waive service charges up to $25 without management approval. So far, the approach-commonly referred to as participative, or team-based management (see CE roundtable)-seems to be working.

“If you think you can do it alone, you’re bound to fail,” Antoci said. “But when you listen to the front-line people, you learn a lot.”

Antoci said the decision to delegate decision-making authority has sparked initiative and cost-consciousness among American’s staffers. The net result has been better service and heftier profits. For the nine months ended September 30, American notched pretax income of $205.8 million, up 17.3 percent from the year-earlier period.

Under team management, the thrift has eliminated an entire level of management, Antoci said. Previously, some 170 branch heads reported to 17 regional managers. But by vesting more control with the local officers, American was able to jettison the regional managers. These days, the branch heads report to four area officers-the next management level up.

“There’s no way that works unless our branch managers are empowered to make decisions,” Antoci said.

Antoci also cites the willingness of employees and departments to cooperate under the team approach. For example, he said, under traditional bank-management systems, a securities or investment subsidiary-such as ASB Financial, an arm of American Savings that offers an array of mutual fund products-might meet its sales goals by luring investors from other parts of the bank. The target group might even include CD holders that were ready to roll over their accounts into a new investment vehicle. But Antoci offers incentives to managers who lure investors from other institutions, thus avoiding so-called cannibalization.

“In most companies, you have two people who worry about the bottom line, the CEO and the chief financial officer. Here, the level of performance is everyone’s business.”  


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