Joanne Kim took a job at L.A.'s first Korean-American immigrant bank as a loan secretary when she was 24. The goal was to support her husband through his college years. The only reason she took the job instead of a secretarial position at a freight company was because it was closer to where she lived. It was an unlikely beginning for her banking career, which recently culminated in her appointment as the chief executive of Wilshire State Bank, with $2.1 billion in assets. She fell in love with banking in her 30s, when she started putting in longer hours to support her two young children after her divorce. "More than anything, I enjoy watching my clients succeed with what we lend them," she said. "I love making other people rich." She met with the Business Journal recently in her office at the headquarters of Wilshire State, the third largest of about a dozen banks that serve the Korean community in L.A., to talk about her childhood in a family torn apart by the Korean War, her experience as a woman executive in the male-dominated Korean banking sector, and her favorite time of the week Friday nights at home, listening to Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" with a glass of wine.

Question: As a child, did you envision that you would become a CEO?

Answer: No. When I graduated from college in 1977 in Seoul, opportunities for women in the business world were nonexistent. You could be an executive secretary, but not a manager. You could be a teacher or a doctor, but I didn't want to be either. I also didn't want to stay home when I got married. So we moved to the U.S. in 1978, and the first day I arrived, I was looking for a job.

Q: How did you get into banking?

A: When we moved here, I encouraged my husband to go back to school because he never got his college degree. So I got to support the family while he attended Cal State Los Angeles. Within a month, I got two job offers. One was in banking California Korea Bank, the only Korean-American bank here at the time and a predecessor to what is now Hanmi Bank. The other job offer was a freight-forwarding company. The only reason I didn't take that job was because it was near LAX and I didn't have a car at the time. So I took the banking job, and I've stayed in banking for 30 years.

Q: Have you stayed in the Korean-American banking industry your entire career?

A: No, I've moved around quite a bit. When my boss at the California Korea Bank set out to form Wilshire State Bank in 1980 with a group of investors, he took me with him to be his executive secretary. I eventually moved up to become a junior loan officer, working with small mom-and-pop businesses like liquor stores or groceries. In 1986, my husband and I got a divorce. I quit work and went to Korea for a couple months. When I returned, I joined a mainstream community bank called Mid City Bank. I was the only Asian female officer; it was definitely a good old boys' club, mostly white. That's where I learned my communication skills and grew a thick skin. I realized then that if I didn't fight back, people would step all over me. My co-workers back then made me very strong.

Q: Could you give an example of what you had to do to fight back?

A: Promotions did not come naturally. As a top performer, I had to demand that my compensation and other forms of recognition right down to the size of my office were in line with my performance. If I didn't ask for these things, they would never have given them to me voluntarily.

Q: When did you return to a Korean-American bank?

A: Mid City Bank was closed by the FDIC in the early 1990s, along with a lot of banks with construction loans that went sour. I joined Hanmi Bank as a vice president and became a headquarter branch manager. In 1999, Wilshire State Bank recruited me as chief lending officer when they brought on Hanmi's then chief executive, Soo Bong Min, as its own CEO.

Q: Were you ever tempted to pursue any other career?

A: The first few years working at the bank, I didn't consider it as a career it was just a job. I love history and wanted to get a Ph.D. in Western history. When I told my boss this, he asked me how many languages I speak. At that time, I didn't even speak English all that well. He said to become an expert in Western history, I should speak at least three languages, such as French, German and Italian. He encouraged me in the meantime to take some classes related to banking. So I took some graduate-level accounting and management classes, which have helped tremendously since I don't have an M.B.A.

Q: What is it like to be the CEO of a bank that you saw created when you were an executive secretary?

A: I'm very comfortable here. I know this bank like the back of my hand. But this is not necessarily all positive. The minute you get comfortable is when a risk of failure gets embedded. You have to constantly stay on top of everything.

Q: Who has most influenced your career?

A: Two people. First, Jack Abe, who was the second CEO of Wilshire State Bank. I worked under him for three years and learned nearly all my lending fundamentals from him. Soo Bong Min is another person. He picked me out of the many loan officers at Hanmi Bank, while he was the CEO there, and gave me a managerial role. And when he left Hanmi in 1999, he brought me with him to Wilshire to groom me as his successor.

Q: How did he groom you?

A: By letting me fail many times. I was essentially a branch manager at Hanmi. I had no experience as a corporate executive when I became the chief lending officer at Wilshire. To train me, he let me make hiring decisions. He knew some of my hires were mistakes. But he allowed me to make them. Instead of holding my hand, he just threw me into the job and let me handle things. Also, Mr. Min does not speak English as well as he speaks Korean. At the board level, our official language is English, so I was his voice, speaking for the CEO. And many times, I would add my opinion. He also let me handle some pivotal acquisitions that allowed Wilshire to expand to the East Coast.

Q: What in your past has aptly prepared you for the seat you're in?

A: It was in college. Korea University's soccer matches and other sports events against Yonsei University are famously popular like the football games between USC and UCLA here. Except in Korea, the whole country is engaged and all of Seoul is divided between the two teams. I was in the middle of all that for three years as the cheer captain of Korea University. This is not a cheerleader. It's the person who stands at the top of the stand and leads the crowd in chants and songs. Typically, a male student does this. My team was entirely male. In banking, 95 percent of the people I deal with are men. I look back on that experience and see it as pivotal in overcoming the fear of being the only woman among a pack of men.

Q: What was your childhood like?

A: I was born in 1954, just after the Korean War. My mom had fled North Korea during the last part of the war to join my father, who had already escaped to Seoul. When the war was over and the country was split, they were totally separated from their parents and siblings in North Korea. So growing up was lonely even though I had four brothers and sisters. During the holidays, it was always just us. We had no relatives. It's sad because we never saw our grandparents. We don't know what they looked like because when my mom fled North Korea, she only had time to grab money and heirlooms. No photos. If you look at my family, it's the perfect example of a country tragically divided.

Q: Do your Korean roots help you as you deal with your mostly Korean immigrant customers?

A: Definitely. I can expect their business habits to resemble those of my parents and my generation of first-generation immigrants. Most of them own their own businesses. Savings rates are high. The work ethic is strong. Work always comes first, fun later. Their primary focus is to be financially successful. The Korean banks, over the last three decades, really leveraged these tendencies to expand. We were able to fund their projects and watch them grow. We, in turn, grew because of their successes. The reason the Korean and Chinese communities have flourished at the rate they have is because they have their own banks. In comparison, the Pakistan and Indian communities, for example, have not grown as fast and that's why we're tapping that market.

Q: What do you do in your free time?

A: I go hiking with my friends from time to time. I have taught Sunday school at church for almost 20 years now. I teach fifth-graders. Other than that, my free time is Friday. I live in a two-story house and my parents have the downstairs. Upstairs is my domain. So on Friday nights, I curl up with a glass of wine and turn up opera music on my stereo.

Q: What is your favorite?

A: Puccini is my favorite. I almost have "Madame Butterfly" memorized. It's so powerful. I used to like other classical music, like violin and piano performances. When I got introduced to opera, I got hooked because I couldn't shake how beautiful the human voice can be. It carries emotion in ways instruments just can't. So on Friday nights, I usually stay up until 1 a.m. because it's such a valuable time for me and I don't want to waste it by sleeping.

Q: What is your typical day like?

A: I get up around 5 a.m. and get on the road to beat the traffic from Northridge. Then I work out at a gym near the office and get into the office around 8 a.m. My days are now taken up by supervising my eight chiefs. I'm trying more and more to take myself out of the day-to-day business so that they can make their own decisions, make mistakes and learn from them. I see my role as a musical conductor, making sure their work is synchronized. Then most of my weekday evenings are filled with business dinners.

Q: What was the best advice you've ever heard?

A: I was doing loans on commercial projects and felt tempted to get out of banking and do something on my own. I talked about this to one of our very successful customers in the grocery business. I told him it didn't look like I'd go too far in the banking industry. His advice was to stay with it for another two years. He said you don't really know an industry until you've been with it for at least a decade. He was right. I finished off my decade and enjoyed working again.

Q: What is your proudest achievement in life?

A: My two children. My daughter, Ellen, has been in love with horses ever since she was a girl. We lived in Sun Valley, where she grew up with horses. She studied animal science and now she's a horse breeder in Modesto. My son, Eugene, just finished his first year in medical school in Chicago and is coming back this month to run in the San Diego marathon. I'm so proud that they are pursuing what they love in life.

Joanne Kim
Title: Chief Executive
Company: Wilshire State Bank
Born: 1954; Seoul, South Korea
Education: Korea University, majored in English literature
Career Turning Point:
Returning to Wilshire State Bank in 1999 as chief lending officer
Most Influential People: Jack Abe and Soo Bong Min, former CEOs at Wilshire State Bank
Personal: Single mother with two grown children; lives with parents in Northridge
Hobbies: Opera, hiking

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