Black-owned Bank Continues Community-minded Success
OneUnited Bank CEO Kevin Cohee has transformed his employer into the first black-owned national bank with about $650 million in assets
OneUnited moves toward the future with an eye on the past
As chairman and chief executive of OneUnited, the nation’s largest black-owned bank, Kevin Cohee is well aware of the current economic downturn. But he also knows the value of having a historical perspective.
Since the end of slavery, blacks have sought ways to garner economic strength and spending power to accumulate individual and collective financial independence. But due to a variety of reasons, building a sustainable, black-owned bank has been an extremely tough road, starting with the opening of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company in 1865 – and its subsequent closing nine years later as a result of mismanagement, fraud, abuse and the Panic of 1873.
The Freedman’s bank was not a complete failure. Before closing, the bank had raised nearly $3 million from 61,131 depositors. One depositor was none other than Frederick Douglas, who put up $10,000 in an effort to save the floundering bank.
Though times have changed, the mission remains the same – at least according to Cohee. “Black people have been trying for over 100 years to garner our economic spending power and put it back into the community,” Cohee once told an interviewer. “They all talked about this concept, but we never had the ability to do it.”
With an aggressive style and no-nonsense attitude, Cohee has been able to do more than just talk.
Through mergers and acquisitions of struggling community banks in Miami and Los Angeles, Cohee has taken the old Boston Bank of Commerce and transformed it into the first, black-owned national bank with about $650 million in assets.
In addition, OneUnited received the Bank Enterprise Award, the U.S. Treasury Department's highest award for community service, in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Cohee doesn’t take his mission lightly. After obtaining an MBA from the University of Wisconsin and a law degree from Harvard, Cohee went straight to Wall Street and became a successful investment banker at Salomon Smith Barney. He and his wife, Teri Williams, one of the youngest vice presidents at American Express, pooled their resources together and made millions after selling a credit card company aimed at military personnel. They retired for a while, but soon became bored. In 1995, they put up a million dollars to purchase a controlling interest in the Boston Bank of Commerce.
Cohee is well aware of the bank’s place in history and his role in preserving the legacy of countless other blacks who had the vision, but lacked the wherewithal, to deliver a viable financial institution that served the needs of communities traditionally unable to access capital. Or save. Or re-invest their money back into predominantly black and poor neighborhoods.
“Our goal is to be black America’s bank,” Cohee said emphatically. “We didn’t start OneUnited just to make money. We are honest brokers, a trusted financial institution.”
“The Bank’s mission has historically been only the promise of African-American banks; no African-American institution truly has been able to take full advantage of this market to promote both a mission of assistance to African-American communities and its own success. OneUnited has succeeded in this endeavor principally by fulfilling its community development mission through sound banking practices, state-of-the-art technology, strong financial performance and marketing campaigns to establish and develop its brand. OneUnited Bank’s success both inspires and motivates the African-American community nationwide, as well as other successful individuals and institutions that support community development. OneUnited encourages these individuals and institutions to associate themselves with OneUnited to help ensure the continued financial success of the Bank and the inner city communities it serves.” NYT
- Howard Manly