A Koreatown bank has doubled down in New Jersey – the first stop on what could be a wider expansion into other big cities across the United States.

Wilshire Bancorp, parent of Wilshire State Bank, last week said that it plans to buy BankAsiana, a Palisades Park, N.J., bank with three branches in the New York-New Jersey region. It’s the second bank Wilshire has purchased there.

And the deal likely won’t be Wilshire’s last. Like rival Korean-American bank BBCN Bancorp, which is also buying banks outside of California, Wilshire wants to broaden its customer base beyond the huge Korean-American community in Los Angeles to include other Asian-Americans and more mainstream customers.

Alex Ko, Wilshire’s chief financial officer, said the bank is looking for small ethnic banks in the Pacific Northwest and a broad swath of the Eastern United States from Pennsylvania to Georgia.

“We want to be buyers,” Ko said. “We are actively looking for opportunities. We want to have a nationwide branch network.”

In building its presence outside of Southern California, Wilshire is well behind the larger BBCN, which bought its first bank outside of California 15 years ago and already has locations in Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Denver and Dallas. BBCN has continued to expand in a few of those markets, recently acquiring Seattle’s Pacific International bank and announcing plans to buy Chicago’s Foster Bank Shares Inc.

Kevin Kim, BBCN’s chief executive, said the bank is interested in any major metro areas with large or growing Korean-American populations and that the bank is very open-minded about additional acquisitions.

By expanding into other markets and looking for new customers, both banks are hoping to become less dependent on local Korean-American banking customers, said Julianna Balicka, a bank analyst who follows Wilshire and BBCN for Keefe Bruyette & Woods Inc. in San Francisco.

“The California market is pretty saturated,” she said. “In other markets, the bank tends to get more favorable pricing on loans and deposits.”

Plans paused

In acquiring BankAsiana, a deal expected to close at the end of the year, Ko said Wilshire will double its share of the New York-New Jersey market and bolster its Small Business Administration loan business. Wilshire’s SBA customers tend to be larger businesses that take out bigger loans, while BankAsiana typically caters to smaller businesses.

“We’ll be adding smaller customers to the customers we already have,” Ko said. “The customers BankAsiana had to deny, we can serve them with larger loan balances.”

The acquisition marks a return to the market for Wilshire, which started its national expansion years ago when it bought Orange Savings Bank of Dallas in 2004 and Liberty Bank of New York in 2006.

But the recession halted Wilshire’s expansion plans. Wilshire lost a combined $72 million in 2010 and 2011, while its share price fell from a high of nearly $20 to less than $2.50.

But the bank is in better shape today, posting record profits of nearly $94 million last year and recently reinstating its dividend. The stock closed June 12 at $6.63, up 13 percent so far this year and up 30 percent from one year earlier.

Now, Ko said, Wilshire is buying again.

“We needed to clean up our loan problems,” he said. “But we believe we’re at the end of the tunnel and now we’ll compete for growth.”

He said Wilshire is looking for possible acquisitions in areas with large Korean- and Asian-American populations: Virginia; Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Pennsylvania as well as the Atlanta and Seattle metro areas.

Expanding into those markets, where there are fewer Korean-American banks, could mean better returns for Wilshire. Southern California is home to nearly a dozen Korean-American banks, including the three largest – BBCN, Wilshire and Hanmi Financial Corp. That means stiff competition, which drives down loan rates, Ko said.

“Expanding outside of California is a must,” he said.

While Wilshire seeks entry into new markets, BBCN’s recent acquisitions build on the beachheads it already established.

“It is BBCN’s goal to be the dominant Korean-American bank in all the geographic markets we serve,” said Chief Executive Kim. “The acquisition of Pacific International has positioned us as the dominant player in Seattle, and Foster Bank will make us the only Korean-American bank in the Chicago area.”

But as Wilshire seeks additional acquisitions, it is looking beyond Korean-American banks. Specifically, Ko said Wilshire is looking at banks that cater to Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian-American customers. The goal is to attract more non-Koreans.

That’s long been part of the plan for Koreatown’s big banks, as they’ve seen businesses transfer from Korean emigrants to their American-born children. Those children might feel more comfortable than their parents going to an American bank such as Wells Fargo.

The banks have sought business in other immigrant communities, with mixed results. Wilshire got into trouble during the recession because of alleged misconduct by Saeid Aminpour, a bank officer hired to grow the bank’s business in the local Iranian-American community. The incident led to a shareholder suit against Wilshire that was dismissed last year. Litigation between Aminpour and a former client is ongoing.

Diversification is still a goal, said Koreatown entrepreneur Sabrina Kay, one of the founders and directors of downtown L.A.’s Premier Business Bank. As they recover from the recession, the big Korean-American banks are reaching for a broader base of customers in order to protect themselves from the potential consequences of concentrating on one market, whether ethnic or geographic.

“The Korean banks have all gone through a trauma and now they’re asking themselves, ‘What can we do to make ourselves not as vulnerable?’ ” she said.

Along with the BBCN and Wilshire acquisitions, Kay pointed to the announcement of new leadership at Hanmi as further evidence of a mainstream push. Chong Guk Kum, hired as Hanmi’s new chief executive last week, previously led Westlake Village’s First California Financial.

It’s rare for Koreatown banks to hire top executives who don’t come from the Korean banking world, Kay noted.

“He came from mainstream banking, not Korean banking,” Kay said. “That speaks to possible expansion beyond Korean-Americans.”

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