Thomas J. Owen resigned yesterday as chief executive officer of Perpetual Savings Bank, the area's largest savings and loan, saying the institution that his family has guided since the Great Depression needs fresh management as it recovers from a series of recent financial setbacks.

"We need somebody new who is not clouded by the history" of Perpetual, said the 55-year-old Owen, who is staying on as chairman.

Owen's resignation comes as Perpetual struggles to survive the tough new regulatory environment imposed on the thrift industry by last year's S&L rescue program, which forces thrifts to strengthen their operations and return to the basic business of home mortgage lending.

Owen testified repeatedly on Capitol Hill last summer against the provisions of the rescue bill that would force institutions like his to retrench.

"I lost the fight," Owen said yesterday. "Now, it's time to take a fresh view and refocus. ... It won't be exciting, but it's what the regulators want."

Owen's resignation as chief executive was Perpetual's second major announcement regarding top-level management. One month ago, Perpetual's president, Ross C. Towne, said he was taking an administrative leave from the Vienna-based thrift, and sources said Towne is not expected to return. No replacements have been named for either executive.

Before the recent management upheaval, the thrift was hit hard by the slowdown in the area's commercial real estate market, reporting $63 million in real-estate related losses in the first two quarters of this year. The losses followed a stringent examination of Perpetual's loan portfolio by the Office of Thrift Supervision, which oversees S&Ls.

Owen said yesterday that Perpetual plans to steer a new course back to home mortgages and consumer lending to comply with the federal thrift rescue legislation and avoid further deterioration of its loan portfolio. Under the plan, Perpetual will divest itself of most of the subsidiary businesses that Owen built in the 1980s, including all commercial real estate lending, corporate lending, auto leasing and real estate joint ventures.

Despite its new back-to-basics business plan, Perpetual's problems are far from over. The thrift said it expects to announce additional losses in the third quarter from troubled real estate loans, and Owen said yesterday Perpetual may also experience some problems in its corporate lending portfolio.

Perpetual also said it may not be able to continue to meet minimum capital requirements -- standards that determine how much cash a thrift must provide to protect against losses. Although Perpetual is in compliance with the capital guidelines, it will fail to meet those standards in the coming months if it does not successfully sell off certain subsidiaries.

But how quickly Owen is able to wind down his operations will depend largely on the market, which is glutted with real estate assets. If Perpetual fails to meet the capital requirements, it will be required to submit a business plan to the Office of Thrift Supervision and will be restricted from engaging in certain business activities. Despite the potential regulatory problems, Owen said there will be no fire sale of assets.

Reflecting its mounting problems, Perpetual's stock and bonds have been battered. The stock, which rose 12 1/2 cents yesterday to $2.62 1/2, had traded as high as $11.12 1/2 in the past year. Perpetual's bond rating was lowered by Standard & Poor's Corp. in March, an action the credit rating firm said reflected "Perpetual's weakening asset quality."

For Owen, a longtime advocate of diversification in the thrift industry, the forced change in business strategy is a bitter pill to swallow. He took full advantage of deregulation in the 1980s to build the Perpetual thrift into a more bank-like operation. He was among the first thrift executives in the nation to add corporate lending, insurance, investment and brokerage services for his customers.

In his 13 years as chief executive, he built Perpetual into a financial powerhouse, expanding it from a seven-branch thrift with $750 million in assets to a 70-office regional thrift with $5.7 billion in assets. During that period, Perpetual became a dominant force in home lending, with $1.7 billion in mortgage loans outstanding.

The change in business focus announced yesterday follows an unsuccessful effort to sell Perpetual. Earlier this year, the company's board of directors hired the investment banking firm Goldman, Sachs & Co.. to evaluate possible offers. Owen said yesterday that he believed Perpetual "had one hell of a franchise" and would be an attractive investment for a bank holding company, which could then convert Perpetual from a thrift to a commercial bank.

However, efforts to sell coincided with a downturn in the local real estate market and a crackdown by regulators on banks and thrifts along the East Coast. Owen called the timing disastrous and said there was little progress in the search for a buyer.

Owen said Perpetual has no other choice but to downsize for the first time in its 109-year history. Last summer, it abandoned a plan to expand in Tidewater Virginia and put its eight branches there up for sale. In February, it put its insurance subsidiary up for sale and last month it sold its Tysons Corner headquarters building. The thrift also has decided not to fill about 200 positions.

Owen said that as chairman, he will continue to oversee Perpetual's strategy. However, Owen will not hold that position for long, according to sources, who said he plans to retire from the board when his contract expires in two years.

Owen said the Perpetual board has identified several candidates for the chief executive's slot and could have a new executive in place within a month. Sources said a number of local banking executives have been approached, including Robert Pincus, head of Sovran/D.C National.