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.
"We try to hire people who have a good background in their community," said Jack Choi, a senior vice president at Hanmi Bank, a Korean institution founded in 1982 whose loan clientele is now 30 percent non-Korean. "Each year the composition is tilting toward more non-Koreans with loans and deposits."
Right now, one of the biggest non-Korean ethnic groups served by Hanmi Bank is the Middle Eastern community, made up primarily of Iranians and Armenians.
Seven years ago, Hanmi Bank began to make inroads into the Iranian community when it hired Abdi Etessami, an Iranian-American, as one of its senior vice presidents. He has been able to attract more Iranian-American customers to the bank by understanding their needs.Tailored loan programs
Some local Korean banks have expanded their strong base in the garment industry, where many Korean-Americans work. They have tailored loan programs to Latino garment manufacturers and retailers, as well as Middle Eastern businessmen.
Asian community banks are also sending their top officers out to participate in Latino, Armenian and other ethnic community events and organizations.
Mach of General Bank was born in Vietnam, but he took Spanish-language courses for two years at Santa Ana High School. Next, he joined the Latin Business Association, a group of local Latino business people who meet periodically to network.
Also, local Asian banks are advertising in the local ethnic newspapers to attract more customers. For example, General Bank advertises in the local Spanish-language daily La Opinion, and in local Armenian publications during Armenian holidays.
East West Bank, which has grown to $2.3 billion in assets, is trying to position itself as a financial bridge between Asia and California.
"I think a lot of Southern Californian businesses are looking at the Asian market to do business, and they need a bank with our expertise to help them," said Dominic Ng, the San Marino-based bank's president. "We are not only serving the Asian community but more than 50 percent of our commercial banking customers are from the community at large."
East West Bank has opened branches throughout the San Gabriel Valley, which is heavily populated with Armenians, as well as in several Latino neighborhoods.
Yet reaching out to various ethnic communities provides a number of diverse challenges.
"Each ethnic community has a different need," Hanmi Bank's Choi said. "Such as the Iranian Americans; they are more dominant in the garment industry, so we have to understand how the garment industry is working. The Indian Americans are more dominant in the hotel and motel industry. Europeans and other ethnic groups are good at purchasing commercial real estate. So there is some fine tuning needed some times."
Bank executives said that when they open a new branch in an ethnic neighborhood, they make sure the tellers and customer service representatives are fluent both in English and in whatever foreign language is predominantly spoken in that community, to make residents and local business people more comfortable about doing business there.
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