WASHINGTON — Herbert Sandler — who along with his wife built Golden West Financial, one of the largest savings-and-loan institutions in the United States, from a modest two-branch California bank, and who used his fortune for philanthropic work that included the founding of the nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica — died June 5 at his home in San Francisco. He was 87.
His death was announced by the San Francisco-based Sandler Foundation, a charitable organization that he and his wife, Marion Sandler, founded in 1991. No cause was cited.
Over their decades of ownership, the Sandlers transformed what was often described as a mom-and-pop operation — with Marion Sandler knitting during meetings — into a successful bank with 285 branches, about 11,000 employees and $124 billion in assets, according to a statement from the foundation.
They served as co-CEOs and worked from side-by-side offices. Mr. Sandler told the San Francisco Chronicle that he focused on ‘‘strategy and policy issues,’’ while Marion Sandler described herself as ‘‘more active in the day-to-day management.’’
The Sandlers gained a reputation over the years as responsible and cautious, so risk-averse that they initially resisted investing in the installation of ATMs.
Considering the machines unuseful for many of their clients, they waited until 1999 to install one, thus managing to purchase the equipment at bargain-basement prices.
‘‘We are team-oriented, highly ethical, extremely competitive, profit-oriented, risk-averse, consumer-focused, and we try as much as possible to squeeze out any ego,’’ The New York Times quoted Mr. Sandler as saying in 2005. ‘‘Hubris is the beginning of the end.’’
In 2006, the Sandlers sold Golden West to the banking giant Wachovia for more than $24 billion. The couple collected about $2.4 billion from the deal, putting half of that amount into their foundation. In 2010, they would join the Giving Pledge started by billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, promising to give their entire net worth to philanthropy.
Two years after the sale, Wachovia’s near-collapse amid the financial crisis of 2008-2009 drew unfavorable attention to the ‘‘option ARM’’ loans, also known as Pick-a-Pay, that Golden West and other lenders offered.
Under the terms of such loans, borrowers could choose how much to pay per month.
The Sandlers weathered bracing criticism for what detractors cast as lending practices that helped bring down Wachovia, which in 2008 was sold to Wells Fargo. A 2008 report in The Times, which the Sandlers protested as deeply flawed, described Pick-a-Pay as ‘‘the Typhoid Mary of the mortgage industry.’’
Herbert Martin Sandler was born Nov. 16, 1931, in the Bronx and grew up in subsidized housing on the Lower East Side.
Mr. Sandler graduated from City College of New York in 1951 and Columbia University’s law school in 1954. After two years of Army service, he joined his father in law and served as a staff lawyer and then trial examiner on the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, an agency that polices corruption and organized crime.
In 1961, he married Marion Osher, whom he had met in the Hamptons. She died in 2012. They leave their two children, Susan Sandler and James Sandler, both of San Francisco; and two grandchildren. An older brother, Leonard, became an appellate justice in the State Supreme Court of New York and died in 1988.
With his brother’s death, Mr. Sandler and his wife deepened their involvement with philanthropic endeavors by endowing a fellowship in his honor at Human Rights Watch.
They became significant donors to the organization as well as to the American Civil Liberties Union. They made medical research another focal point of their giving, founding the American Asthma Foundation and funding biomedical research projects at the University of California, San Francisco.
Their charitable portfolio extended to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research and policy organization in Washington, and they provided critical seed money for ProPublica, founded in 2007 as legacy print media were shedding jobs and accountability journalism was threatened by budget cutbacks.
ProPublica has gone on to win five Pulitzer Prizes, among other awards.
In his philanthropy, Mr. Sandler told The New York Times in 2008, he was motivated by ‘‘outrage.’’
‘‘You go a little crazy,’’ he said, ‘‘when power takes advantage of those without power.’’