The downtown Los Angeles branches of two Korean banks display prominent banners that at first look out of place: words of welcome in Persian.
However, the greetings make sense in the context of the balance sheets. About half of Los Angeles-based Wilshire Bancorp Inc.'s loans and a third of Center Financial Corp.'s go primarily to Iranian customers, along with some Indians and Pakistanis.
The banks, which were started by Korean immigrants and service mostly Korean merchants, have been penetrating other ethnic enclaves for years. But now they're stepping up their efforts as they struggle with the sluggish economy, low share prices and the notion that their traditional customer base is well saturated.
"To make both deposit and loan growth possible, we have to look at the non-Korean sector," said Joanne Kim, interim chief executive of Wilshire State, the third largest Koreatown bank, with $2.1 billion in assets. "I don't know where else I can go in the Korean community."
Korean banks are positioned to market to this clientele in L.A. because they have an established model to serve an immigrant community, and they have far more locations than the banks that serve Iranian communities.
Some Korean banks have been more successful with this strategy. Wilshire Bancorp, parent company of Wilshire State Bank, hired an Iranian-born chief marketing officer in 2001. It's now leading the pack among more than a dozen Korean banks based in Los Angeles.
Wilshire State has been boosting its efforts recently to target the Iranian and Indo-Pakistani client base by hiring more bankers from those communities.
The Korean community is overbanked, said analyst Brett Rabatin at FTN Midwest, which monitors L.A.-based Korean banks.
"The problem with the Korean banking sector is that six years ago, you only had six banks. Now there are 15," Rabatin said. "Eventually we're going to see consolidation, which would create a healthier environment for loan and deposit growth."
Those 15 banks are scrambling to serve the estimated 350,000 ethnic Koreans in Los Angeles County.
By contrast, according to one federal estimate, there are up to 109,000 people of Iranian descent in Los Angeles County. That's only about one-third the number of Koreans, but there is one prominent ethnic Iranian bank.
The Korean bankers said they appeal to Iranian customers, and several other immigrant groups, because of their belief that the institutions respect and value immigrant entrepreneurship. After all, it was a handful of Korean banks that financed the boom of L.A.'s Koreatown district, which dates its beginnings to a small grocery store on Olympic and Harvard boulevards in the late 1970s and now boasts a thriving enclave of shopping malls, financial centers and upscale condos under construction.
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