In 1995, with the recession still gripping Los Angeles and real estate values in a deep trough, General Bank was among the local institutions struggling. Its earnings were down and its loan losses were skyrocketing.

Li-Pei Wu, the bank's chairman, knew that General Bank's focus ever since its founding in 1980 had been to serve the Taiwanese immigrant community in Los Angeles. But he also understood that the financial institution would have to broaden its customer base to include other ethnic communities if it was to survive.

So the bank undertook an aggressive effort to attract customers from the Armenian, Persian, and Latino markets clustered around its 13 branches in Southern California.

"On the lending side, our business is now 25 percent non-Asian," said General Bank spokesman Wilson Mach.

General Bank is one of many ethnic community banks in Los Angeles trying to diversify beyond its core group. The seven Korean and the 30 or so Chinese banks in the area in recent years have made aggressive efforts to reach out to other communities to boost their business.

"The tendency in the past was for the Asian banks to stay within their own community," said Ken Ackbarali, a banking expert with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "But we have seen a major change in the last year or so.

"For the Korean banks, it is a pretty close-knit community, but it has gotten to the point where it is very competitive. To grow, the banks have two choices: They can either concentrate on the Korean community and get customers from their competition, or they can reach out to other ethnic groups such as Latinos," Ackbarali said.

Many have decided to reach out. To do that, Korean and Chinese bankers have had to take steps they never considered before.

Outreach tactics

One tactic has been to open new branches in communities with heavy concentrations of other ethnic groups. For example, Wilshire State Bank opened an office last year in Huntington Park, an area that is heavily Latino.

"We are one of the most active banks targeting the non-Korean community," said Joanne Kim, chief lending officer at Wilshire State Bank. "About 60 percent of our customers are Korean and the rest are from the immigrant communities."

At first, Korean and Chinese bankers weren't sure how to entice more non-Asian customers to use their institutions. One tactic they have been using with some success has been hiring senior banking officers from the ethnic communities they wish to serve.

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