Though he’s a physicist by training, banking caught Dunson Cheng’s eye when he saw the impact it could have on Chinese emigrants in Los Angeles.
Dunson K. Cheng, 70
Title: Chairman and Chief Executive of Cathay General Bancorp; Chairman and Chief Executive of Cathay Bank
Bank: Cathay Bank
Rank, Local Deposit Market Share*: 13, 1.48 percent
Years in L.A. area: more than 35 years
*As of Oct. 30, 2015
Born in Vietnam, his family moved back to Hong Kong when he was very young and raised him there.
Cheng came to the United States in 1963 to study applied mathematics and physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ultimately getting his doctorate in physics from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, in 1971.
After doing a couple of years of postdoctoral work at the University of Oregon, Cheng left for Xerox Computer Services and later Xerox Corp. in El Segundo, working with a group that was designing microprocessors for copying machines.
Meanwhile, Cheng’s family moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles – his parents started developing properties and his brother opened a restaurant.
At the time, Cheng said, Cathay Bank and a Bank of America branch were the only two lenders in Chinatown. His family was trying to find a development loan for a Chinatown property and they went with Cathay because Bank of America did not know Chinatown well and was hesitant to loan funds to local people with whom they were unfamiliar. That was the moment Cheng realized the vital role banking played within the Chinese-American community.
Cheng got to know Cathay’s then president, George Ching, very well, becoming his assistant. Cheng was elected to the bank’s board in 1982. And when Ching stepped down in 1985, Cheng replaced him.
Though Cheng had no formal banking training, he said he’s been able to succeed thanks to Ching’s mentorship, watching experienced bankers at Cathay and on-the-job training.
Question: How have your bank’s clients and their needs changed since the bank was founded in the 1960s?
Answer: In the 1960s, auto loans were the main thing for the bank. We have customers from back into the 1960s that still bank at the bank and say, “Oh, the first loan I got with the bank was a car loan.”
And then the second thing of course is home loans. But there were not that many home loans because the community was very poor at that point in time.
(U.S. immigration reform in the 1960s) opened up applications from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and immigrants into Los Angeles began to pick up. The other thing that helped the bank was that the Asian economies began to pick up, especially in manufacturing.
How did Cathay respond to that development?
Cathay’s international department helped with importing, making loans for inventory and accounts receivable. By the 1980s and 1990s, import business loans were growing rapidly. And Taiwanese (emigrants) were very active in hotels and motels, so the bank also financed a good portion of those purchases. Customers also were very active investing in real estate, developing shopping centers, office buildings and apartment houses. So we have a good balance between commercial loans and real estate loans. In the 1990s, many Chinese (emigrants) came from mainland China to work in New York City, and Cathay, which had expanded to cover many parts of California, bought a bank in New York. Wires back to China were the most popular product. Those clients accumulated wealth and began to invest in real estate and businesses. From the 1990s to 2005, the developments were very small. But over the last decade, a new group of wealthier (emigrants) has been coming from China, bringing their money to the United States and engaging in major developments.
Are there any new business lines you’ve established in the last few years to serve the evolving needs of your clients?
One big thing is wealth management.
Also Internet banking and mobile banking is getting very popular. Right now, we’re 59 branches across the United States.
It’s very small. We only are in nine states, but these two platforms, Internet banking and mobile banking, allow us to reach people in other areas that we don’t have a presence in.
How has your job changed since you became a top executive at Cathay in 1985?
When I joined the bank as a board member, it was around $300 million (in assets) and there was only one branch. There were maybe 30 people. Now, of course, it’s over 1,000 people at the bank. When the bank was under $ 1 billion, it was still very simple. Once you get over $1 billion, you begin to have all the different departments. Then when you are over $10 billion it becomes even more complicated. The company has grown and the regulatory scrutiny has become so much more intense. When the bank was small, I probably spent 90 percent of my time doing business. Now it’s about 40 percent regulations and internal things like that.
What do you think is unique about your background compared to other bank leaders?
I’m used to dealing with numbers and calculations and modeling. I find many of our colleagues will think of things in a conceptual way, and I would do that as well, but I try to boil down the problem into data and numbers so that I can quantify and think about it more systematically. I’m sure other people without this background would do the same thing.
How does that influence your management style?
I always want to find out the reason behind the problem before making a decision. So I look at many angles, different ways to look at the problem and try to find out one solution that I feel comfortable with.
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