(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2, "How option ARMs killed WaMu.") Twelve years ago, Washington Mutual was on a can't-miss roll. The Seattle-based thrift had made 22 bank buys since 1983 and increased its lead over the competition in mortgage lending in all Northwest states. It was riding high on the commercial success of the "Rodeo Grandmas," a television advertisement featuring four women aged 68-92 who adoringly yodeled and roped viewers into "corralling" WaMu's new concept of free checking for its customers. Executives still subscribed to the Nordstrom philosophy of answering their own telephones and would even suggest that you call them at home if you needed a mortgage comment or statistic -- or if you had found a new place in Washington state's Puget Sound to catch Dungeness crab. While its operations had evolved from a boutique Seattle bank to a big state bank to an even bigger Northwest lender, it still managed to accu...
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