Question: When you were a child, is this what you envisioned you'd be doing when you grew up?
Answer: No. Being the oldest son, I felt I should follow my father into the health sciences. He was an M.D. and had a Ph.D. in biochemistry. So I have an undergraduate degree in neurobiology. But I realized after spending some time in the lab that I am very squeamish about smell and I knew I wouldn't survive in the sciences. I talked to my father about it and he said, "I was wondering when you'd talk to me about this, because I didn't think you were cut out for it anyway." With some luck and happenstance, I ended up at a summer job at a bank branch in college and some people there took a liking to me and recommended me to a junior program for corporate lenders. I've been in banking since then.
Q: Would you encourage your oldest son to go into banking?
A: I've never encouraged him to be a banker. It's a tough vocation.
Q: What makes it tough?
A: Because of all the changes bankers in my generation have had to go through. None of the banks I have worked for exist anymore. From the mid- to late 1970s to today, the banking industry has been turned upside down and we are still going through a kind of metamorphosis. With that, there's lack of stability. Good bankers are generally even-keel people and we seek out stability. So when the industry is unstable, it's an uncomfortable place to be.
Q: First Financial Group has also gone through its share of mergers and acquisitions.
A: Yes. You see a flurry of mergers and acquisitions coming out of a down cycle and we're no exception. We acquired South Coast Commercial Bank and National Mercantile Bancorp, which owned two banks in Century City and Torrance. Our new company headquarters will open this month in Westlake Village.
Q: Do you expect to see more mergers and acquisitions in the future?
A: Normally, in this kind of environment, banks would be very active in looking for acquisition opportunities. But the entire sector has been so beaten down by Wall Street in terms of stock prices that none of us have currency to be able to buy other banks. And so the cycle we're going through is unique in that it's very pervasive in the banking sector.
Q: You just opened a branch in Glendale, though. Are you in expansion mode?
A: We're always in an expansion mode. But in this kind of economy, it would be foolhardy to grow too fast. Having said that, we're one of the few banks in a position to hire people, albeit carefully and judiciously, because our financial standing is very strong. Bankers in Southern California are feeling nervous because they're reading some not-so-positive news about their employers. That's an opportunity for me. We're also looking for opportunities to open new branches and buy other banks.
Q: The No. 1 issue among Korean-American banks is a shortage of qualified bank executives familiar with both cultures. Did you ever consider working for a Koreatown bank?
A: I'm very happy where I am. I wouldn't be a good fit for a variety of reasons. For one, I speak little Korean. I'm totally Americanized. My style may not fit in with a Korean-American banking environment, in that I tend to be very direct.
Q: When did you emigrate from Korea?
A: In 1963, when I was 9 years old. My father was invited to become a research professor at University of Michigan and he brought his whole family. This was before the immigration boom from Korea in the later decades.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: When we arrived in Ann Arbor, my parents had three boys 9, 7 and 5 years old. Later they had my younger sister and brother. Most of my memories of childhood are my brothers and I playing Little League baseball. Lots of good memories in summer months. Baseball from sunup to sundown. We did things that were mainstream Americana even though we weren't. But we didn't know that. We were too young to understand that we weren't.
Q: When did you come to understand that you weren't "mainstream Americana"?
A: It wasn't until we were much older. Growing up, the issue wasn't about retaining Korean heritage as much as it was about catching up to the American kids. My parents made us assimilate as quickly as possible. I don't recall being discriminated against, but that's probably because we didn't dwell on it. If you feel like you're victimized, you have been. I don't feel like that I've been very fortunate.
Q: What was it like when you got started in banking?
A: I was the only Asian in the commercial lending space in San Francisco. I didn't have a lot of mentors since typically, friendships and mentorship happen among people with similar backgrounds, race being one of them. I just didn't have much of that.
Q: How did you make it to the top?
A: I had a goal for every decade of my life. My goal was to become a CEO by my 40s. I got lucky. I was 45 when I became the CEO of Camarillo Community Bank, but it happened very unexpectedly. The chairman of Camarillo Community Bank was also a shareholder of City Commerce Bank, where I was an executive vice president. He and his son came to our shareholder meeting once a year. When it was my turn to speak, they really liked me. At the meeting, the father turned to the son and said that he would hire me as the CEO of Camarillo Community Bank at one point. A year later, I was the CEO.
Q: This wasn't something you could have planned.
A: No, my motto is to always have a plan you can execute. In this case, I just had to be prepared for the right opportunity. It goes back to how I can't say that I've been disadvantaged or discriminated against.
Q: What is the best part of being in your chair?
A: It's always better to be able to make decisions than to have decisions made for you. But I love the fact that my board and I work well together and we're on the same page as far as strategic objectives are concerned. And I've been blessed with talented and hard-working senior executives. Most of them have been with me for a while. I have a fantastic executive assistant who has been with me for seven years and as my wife says, she keeps me out of trouble. My IT manager has been with me for 15 years. Of course, we have stressful days and there are evenings I don't sleep well, but that's just part of life. There's no such thing as a perfect job or a perfect situation.
Q: What was the toughest stretch of your career?
A: In the late 1980s, I headed what was called the special project division for Colorado National Bank. I worked on problem loans. We did a great job and took the bank from a troubled one to a high-performing situation and they were about to reward me with a promotion to a position in Colorado Springs. My wife and I went house-searching and we were excited about this next phase in our lives. And then we got called one Sunday night. The bank was acquired unbeknownst to most of us. That created a very difficult stretch of time where most of my associates were terminated.
Q: So what did you do?:
A: I was one of a handful of people they kept but it wasn't the same bank. I knew it wasn't the kind of organization I wanted to be a part of. One snowy afternoon, I was looking out the window from my high-rise office, and I got a call from a headhunter about a position in Santa Barbara. That's when I joined City Commerce Bank.
Q: What is your proudest achievement in life?
A: My children. We love it when Brian and Courtney come home, and especially when they bring their friends, and we get a chance to have a houseful of kids again. My wife and I, we hear all this noise in bed and we say it's noisy and we can't sleep, but we like it. It just brings back the good memories of all of us together. We're very lucky in that we get to go through parenthood again with Anni.
Q: Do you have many opportunities to spend time together as a family?
A: We just came back from a family reunion from Idaho, where my wife's side of the family established contact with relatives in Norway. So we had a great time getting acquainted with a whole bunch of Norwegians, who are my wife's cousins. My kids are in a unique position, straddling the fence between cultures Korean and Norwegian. And they absolutely love it.
Company: First California Financial Group Inc.
Born: 1954; Daegu, South Korea
Education B.A., University of California, Berkeley; M.B.A., Pepperdine University
Career Turning Point: Becoming chief executive of Camarillo Community Bank, now a part of First California Financial Group
Most Influential People: Vikki, wife of 25 years; his parents
Personal: Lives in Camarillo with wife and 9-year-old daughter; two older children
Hobbies: Tennis, scuba diving, golf
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