Deanna Oppenheimer, president of Washington Mutual's retail-banking group and one of the highest-ranking women in the banking industry, will leave the company March 1 for unspecified...

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Deanna Oppenheimer, president of Washington Mutual’s retail-banking group and one of the highest-ranking women in the banking industry, will leave the company March 1 for unspecified “new business ventures,” the Seattle-based thrift said yesterday.

Oppenheimer’s resignation comes two weeks after the nation’s largest thrift announced it has hired a new president and chief operating officer from New York banking behemoth J.P. Morgan Chase.

A WaMu spokesman said Oppenheimer’s departure is not related to the arrival of Stephen Rotella, who starts work Monday.

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“She’s going to be with us through March 1 specifically to provide dedicated time to hand off the retail-banking group to Steve Rotella,” said spokesman Alan Gulick. The thrift has not decided whether Oppenheimer will be replaced.

Oppenheimer, 46, was not available for interviews yesterday, but said in a company release that her decision to leave “comes after many months of careful consideration.”

Many analysts and investors regard the large and rapidly growing network of retail branches, which Oppenheimer headed for 10 of her 20 years at WaMu, as the company’s crown jewel.

“They’ve really carried the company over the last year or two years, with the miscues that have gone on in the mortgage operations,” said Jim Callahan, an analyst at Morningstar.

WaMu observers have been shocked by stumbles in its mortgage business, which led to a second-quarter earnings drop of 52 percent, followed by a third-quarter decline of 34 percent from a year earlier.

The company cut more than 8,000 jobs from January through September, but its retail bank has pursued aggressive growth with plans to open 250 branches a year for the foreseeable future. Oppenheimer has overseen that growth, and in 1999 launched a customer-friendly branch concept that is now patented.

WaMu’s strategy will not change with Oppenheimer’s departure, the company said in its release. Callahan doubts Oppenheimer was pushed to leave. “She has executed to a tee,” he said. “Washington Mutual is a good company right now because of its retail-banking strength.”

Still, he said it is possible that Oppenheimer’s jump could be connected to Rotella’s arrival.

Richard Bove, an analyst at Punk Ziegel, believes Oppenheimer is leaving to make way for a new strategy under Rotella. Despite WaMu’s statements to the contrary, Bove said the change in management could signal a coming slowdown in its retail-branch growth.

WaMu Chairman and CEO Kerry Killinger is giving up the title of president to Rotella, whose COO title is new to the company.

Also yesterday, WaMu said it plans to switch the brand on its debit cards from Visa to MasterCard beginning in late 2005. The switch will affect approximately 10.5 million cardholders.

The move will make WaMu the largest issuer of MasterCard debit cards, which will give it more influence on the product’s direction, said spokeswoman Libby Hutchinson. The thrift would not disclose terms of the deal, but experts say financial incentives almost surely were involved.

“MasterCard is playing catch-up in this market,” said Robert McKinley, chief executive of CardWeb.com, a payment-card research firm. “This is a big shot in the arm for its debit-card program.”

WaMu does not have credit-card customers, because its contract with Citibank for credit cards expired last month and the cards that were in its name now belong to Citibank. The thrift plans to start offering its own WaMu-branded credit cards through MasterCard beginning in late 2005 or early 2006, Hutchinson said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com