Though Jae Whan Yoo lived in South Korea for the majority of his life, his first bank job came from an American lender and would lay the groundwork for a career that’s seen him crisscrossing the Pacific.
Jae Whan “J.W.” Yoo, 67
Title: Chief Executive Officer of Wilshire Bank and Wilshire Bancorp
Bank: Wilshire Bank
Rank, Local Deposit Market Share*: 18, 0.83 percent
Residence: Beverly Hills
Family: Wife, ImSook, and children, Jennifer Sohn and Steve.
Activities: Hiking, golf, reading.
Years in L.A. area: about 17 (nonconsecutive)
*As of Oct. 30, 2015
Yoo joined Bank of America’s Seoul branch in 1976 after getting his M.B.A. while serving as a logistics officer in the South Korean air force, fulfilling his military service requirement.
The job became a passport to the Unites States as the bank periodically sent him stateside over the next decade for career development programs.
He worked in New York for a couple of years serving automotive clients, such as General Motors Co., which had sales volumes that rivaled the gross national product of South Korea at the time, Yoo recalled.
He later served shorter stints in San Francisco and Los Angeles before being promoted to vice president and getting “loaned” to a Seattle subsidiary in 1988 for three years to help manage its international division.
When Yoo returned to South Korea in 1991, he joined KorAm Bank, a joint venture by Bank of America and a Korean business conglomerate including Samsung Group and Daewoo, which was later bought by Citibank. KorAm sent Yoo to the United States yet again, this time to Los Angeles for four years as general manager in charge of U.S. operations.
All the back-and-forth travel led his daughter to describe herself in a college application essay as “a Ping Pong ball over the Pacific Ocean,” said Yoo.
Yoo left in 2002 after private equity firm Carlyle Group acquired the bank, joining government-run Industrial Bank of Korea as a board member. He continued to travel, making frequent trips to Tsinghua University in Beijing as a visiting scholar.
Not long after, a friend of Yoo mentioned that Hanmi Bank of Koreatown was looking for a new chief executive. Yoo got the job in 2003. After helping facilitate a merger with Pacific Union Bank, he stepped down the following year as the combined institution needed a leader with better proficiency in English and with whom Wall Street was more familiar, Yoo said.
He became chief executive of Center Bank in 2007, which later merged with another Koreatown lender, Nara Bank, in 2011 to create BBCN Bank.
At that point, Yoo left and joined Wilshire Bank, also of Koreatown. He’ll stay on as a consultant once BBCN and Wilshire complete their merger later this year.
Question: How have your bank’s clients and their needs changed since Wilshire Bank was founded 35 years ago?
Answer: It’s the process of successful immigrants. When they first came over here, they didn’t have money. They started a laundry shop and also small mom-and-pop restaurant type of things or a sandwich store. But then they accumulate some wealth and they started to invest in real estate or some other big businesses because Asian people, generally speaking, prefer real estate investments. And at the time, when they invested in real estate, the prices are going up. So they had a good opportunity to accumulate in value. It is a very natural evolvement into commercial real estate investments.
Are there any new business lines you’ve established in the last few years to serve the evolving needs of your clients?
The second generation, emerging as big potential customers, likes to have more technology-based services. So we provide a lot of online and mobile banking services. Remote deposit is one good example, deposit through mobile, online money transfer and even opening accounts online instead of coming to the branch.
How has your job changed since you first became chief executive of a Korean-American bank?
Commercial real estate was a new concept to me at the time, frankly speaking. In Korea, even in New York, I was doing a lot of commercial banking without any (underlying) security. Here, there are a lot of commercial real estate transactions secured by property. I thought it looked like mortgage banking; they rely on the property as collateral. But in the case of commercial banking, we make a decision on the loan based on their cash flow, future cash flow and projection of viability.
What do you think is unique about your background compared to other bank chiefs in your industry?
I have 40 years of banking experience: 20 years in the U.S. and 20 in Korea. But I have experience in a Korean-American community bank and also in Bank of America, a purely U.S. bank, and also KorAm Bank, a Korean local bank. It is very unique compared with others. I think I have a more dynamic spectrum of management.
What’s different about working at a Korean bank versus a Korean-American bank?
When I was working in Korea, we would have a lot of interaction with Chinese, Malaysian, Hong Kong Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, British and Australians whenever they came over to the Seoul branch. We have multiethnic diversity.
I also moved up to deputy president of a large bank (KorAm), maybe 20 times larger than this bank. I have some insight into how to manage an organization.
I’m not criticizing other CEOs in Koreatown, if they grow up from a loan officer all the way to president. But in Korea, it’s rotating. One time, you’re general manager of a certain department, head office, sometimes a branch in Seoul, sometimes a branch in L.A., also international department. They’re all-around players.
How does that influence your management style?
I always tell my staff, talk to me from a CEO perspective, not from your department perspective, so that we can match our eye level.
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