Bulldog Banker To build an empire, it helps to be imperious. Meet Kevin Cohee, conqueror of African-American banks.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Kevin Cohee is not your garden-variety banker. Ask him about his bank's mission, and you'll get a spiraling galaxy of poetry, sports analogies, Southern folklore, and hip-hop maxims that sounds more like a Sunday morning sermon than annual-report material. Ask him the amount of the bank's loan origination last year, and he'll say, "A lot." Ask him why he chose to come out of retirement at the tender age of 31 to spark a crusade in the business of black-owned banks, and he'll respond, "Economic development represents nothing short of the complete turnaround of the black race!"
At the helm of the Boston Bank of Commerce, Cohee, a 44-year-old Harvard Law School alumnus, is half businessman, half activist, and 99.9% ego. A self-proclaimed "agent of change," he has built the nation's largest black-owned bank over the past six years, and plans to expand it into big urban markets around the country. He sees himself not just as a business success but as a leader of the next phase of the civil rights movement--what he calls "silver rights," or economic independence. "Our community needs vibrant institutions," he bellows as if at a pulpit. "Someone has to be courageous enough to go in and say, I hate to be the bearer of this uncomfortable news, but"--long dramatic pause--"the current program is not working, and"--long dramatic pause--"we need to review some alternatives for success." If only he were always so diplomatic.
With his aggressive acquisition strategy, Cohee is realizing a dream that has been talked about for more than 40 years--creating a nationwide chain of banks in urban markets with the access to capital, depth of management, and technology found at larger banks. When it agreed to acquire Family Savings Bank in Los Angeles earlier this year, Cohee's BBOC reached $468 million in assets, knocking New York's Carver Federal Savings Bank off its 54-year-old perch as the nation's largest African American-owned bank. With high-profile investors like Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Janet Jackson, and former Motown president Jheryl Busby, Cohee has the cachet to woo black America's rich and famous. He wants to do with banks what Johnson has done with movie theaters and Starbucks franchises--put them in inner cities and unlock business potential.
But like any good revolutionary, Cohee ticks off a lot of people. "Kevin Cohee is smart and he knows it, and he wants you to know it," says California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Cohee supporter. "He isn't lacking in confidence and won't take no for an answer."
In fact, ask people what they think of Cohee personally and most start quoting their mom. ("If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.") Most who do talk use words like "ruthless," "unreasonably aggressive," and "inappropriate"--but ask to not be named.
Before taking over BBOC in 1995, for instance, Cohee met with some of the bank's large stockholders. The pleasantries were barely complete when Cohee pounced. "He said something like 'I just want to let you know that your stock is worth nothing, and I'm here to make it worth something,' " recalls a shareholder. The group was stunned.
A few years later, at a reception at Harvard University, Cohee presented a plan to Boston's well-heeled black community for a first-of-its-kind affinity credit card that would give money back to notable African-American charities. An executive asked if the card would offer frequent-flier miles. Indignantly, Cohee told the woman she should be beyond such self-centered concerns. "I could be off on an island somewhere," he barked. "I don't need to be doing this." The room fell silent.
Cohee says most criticism of him is exaggerated, but adds, "Since they are not lynching me or selling my children like those before me, what I'm going through is pretty small." Shifting into third person, as he likes to do, he says, "If the choice is between Kevin suffering some personal embarrassment or Kevin being disliked so the entire community can have a strong bank, then Kevin has to take that."
Actually, considering the rhetorical context of American business, he's not all that over-the-top. Take this self assessment: "I'm like a coach. I'll push you, drive you, and make you do things you may not want to do. There may even be pain. But in the end you're a better person." If that were a quote from Jack Welch's autobiography it wouldn't raise any eyebrows, but people aren't used to hearing such bravado from black executives. "Black men who are aggressive are vulnerable to being viewed as threatening or angry, and their careers will suffer for it," says David Thomas, a professor at Harvard Business School. "That same in-your-face style that white males are rewarded for will backfire for nine out of ten black males."
It worked well enough for Cohee in his early career, though. After getting an MBA from the University of Wisconsin and a law degree from Harvard, he went straight to Wall Street and became a successful investment banker at Salomon Smith Barney. He started dating Teri Williams, who had become at age 29 the youngest vice president at American Express. In 1989 the two pooled their funds and borrowed more to buy Military Professional Services, a company that markets credit cards to military personnel. They turned the company around and sold it in 1991 to First Chicago Corp., pocketing millions. Cohee and Williams married and retired, but after two years Cohee was restless and looking to "do something meaningful with my life." He and Williams hit on banking, he says, as a way "to give back to the community."
That's a passion that comes from Cohee's upbringing. Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Cohee never knew his father, and when he was 6 his mother died at the doctor's office of an allergic reaction to penicillin. Cohee moved into a house with relatives and grew especially close to one uncle, Richard Carr, now a pediatric dentist in Boston.
"He was doggedly determined at a young age," says Carr, who is 15 years older than Cohee. "That boy would run miles on the track in the heat just to keep up with me and he was only 7 years old." Sports were big for the boys of the Carr home, and Cohee excelled in baseball and football in high school. He went to the University of Wisconsin on a football scholarship and was a four-year letterman.
Cohee's tough style comes from the family's history of an "expectation of excellence" and from his athletic experiences, according to his uncle. "Football is a war game. It's not about holding hands," Carr says. "Nothing is handed to you; you have to go in there and take the victory."
That winner-take-all attitude is now jolting the polite, conservative world of black-owned banks. Historically, the banks resisted change and risk taking. They emerged in response to Jim Crow laws and grew during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but they have always been chronically short of capital. "To some, it's an accomplishment to not be operating under a 'cease and desist' order" says Larkin Arnold, a prominent entertainment lawyer and a BBOC investor.
Beginning in the 1970s, the nation's mainstream banks, criticized for shunning poor urban neighborhoods, opened branches there. That made it even tougher for African-American banks, which lacked the capital to hire the best talent or keep up with banking technology like ATMs and debit cards. Even as the broader industry consolidated in the 1990s, the country's four dozen black-owned banks, with a combined $5.2 billion in assets, remained small and locally focused. Cohee expresses the greatest respect for the founders of those banks, but adds, "A wise person once said that sometimes when you've been chained to a tree for so long, even when the chains come off you just stay by the tree."
BBOC was pretty typical of those banks in the 1990s. Its chief executive was Ron Homer, a family friend of Cohee's and a community hero for his fundraising, mortgage lending, and outreach efforts in Boston. The bank was in bad shape. It hit rock bottom in September 1993 when federal bank regulators did, in fact, issue a "cease and desist" order and directed Homer to cut bad loans from the books and to raise capital. Homer struggled for two years to turn the bank around, and then in 1995 he invited Cohee to come out of retirement and give him a hand. Cohee and Williams moved from New York to Boston and bought a controlling interest in BBOC with $1 million of their own money. Cohee became the bank's chairman.
In less than a year, Cohee persuaded the board that he should become CEO. On a warm Friday in August, a board member approached Homer and gave him the news. Homer took issue with the proposed severance package and wanted to seek legal counsel. On Saturday morning Homer drove to the Federal Street office with his wife but found the bank's lobby door chained and padlocked. Within days a box with Homer's personal stuff was mailed to his home. A letter signed by Cohee instructed him "not to come to the bank or communicate with directors."
Given Homer's stature in Boston, the incident caused a large rift in the small black community. Friendships were severed, families divided. Homer and Cohee's uncle, longtime golf partners, stopped playing together. The scar remains. "Most of us just keep a respectful distance from the Cohees," says a Boston businessman.
Cohee is unapologetic. "I wouldn't have done anything differently. You don't always get what you want in life, and that's a reality we're all forced to deal with," he says.
Cohee, now the CEO, was off and running. In 1999, BBOC bought People's National Bank of Commerce, with branches in Miami and Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., out of receivership from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Next, in 2001, in a stock swap valued at an estimated $10.2 million, it bought Founders National Bank in Los Angeles--a bank with a troubled financial history that had been saved by Johnson, Jackson, and Busby (who now own more than 20% of BBOC's voting stock).
Earlier this year another ailing black-owned Los Angeles bank, Family Savings, was put up for sale by its majority shareholder. Cohee made an offer, but Family Savings' directors agreed to sell to FBOP Corp., a large, white-owned bank holding company in Illinois that was aggressively expanding into California. Although FBOP promised Family Savings considerable autonomy, community and political leaders--from Congresswoman Waters to California Governor Gray Davis--protested that black ownership should be preserved. Under pressure, Family's board backed out, and Cohee bought his third bank, reportedly for $12 million.
So far Cohee's bank is producing decent returns. In 2000 and 2001 it outpaced the industry's average return on assets; in the first six months of this year it lagged behind the average by just a little.
While Cohee scouts for the next deal, Busby, a board member, serves as BBOC's senior statesman and ambassador. "I try to stop judging people on their weaknesses and pull on their strengths," says Busby, who's key in reaching the older CEOs on BBOC's list of potential acquisition targets and in tapping entertainment industry dollars. Cohee's wife is also said to play a critical role as senior vice president.
Cohee's crusade hasn't always been successful. In 1999 he and his wife spent $1.35 million to buy 170,700 shares of Carver Federal Savings Bank, then the nation's biggest black-owned bank and a legendary institution. Their combined stake of 7.4% made them the fourth-largest holder. The plan: to buy the ailing bank and capture the crown jewel in their national vision--New York City. But their takeover bid failed, and they followed up with a no-holds-barred proxy fight for two seats on Carver's board, which they eventually won. Cohee and Carver CEO Deborah Wright, classmates at Harvard Law,
weren't friends then and certainly aren't friends now. When asked how she feels about Kevin Cohee these days, Wright is one of those who quotes her mother. Right now she's focused on Carver and is rightfully called a comeback queen--the bank has posted five consecutive quarters of profits, and its shares are up 33% this year. Cohee says his "shareholder activism" should be given the credit. "Look at Carver pre-us and post-us. Do you really think that's a coincidence?" he asks.
Cohee is widely expected to make another run at Carver eventually. But his next move will be rebranding: He plans to rename the bank by the end of the year to reflect its national ambition.
In the meantime, he and his board are courting WBA junior middleweight champion Oscar "the Golden Boy" de la Hoya to join its roster of celebrity investors, as it uses its Miami bank to enter the Hispanic market. In so doing, BBOC is taking on a formidable contender--Banco Popular, a Hispanic banking powerhouse with over $21 billion in assets.
And a brawl could be in the works. In the Southeast, James E. Young, the silver-maned CEO of Citizens Trust Bank, has built a regional, black-owned bank by acquiring CFS Bancshares in Birmingham, Ala. It is now the third-largest African-American bank, with over $400 million in assets, and Young insists it will be a billion-dollar bank by 2004. Wright, for her part, is eyeing acquisitions in the New York area.
"At last," says Cohee, "the industry is alive. There's buzz, outside interest, even competition. Now, that's what I'm talking about."
REPORTER ASSOCIATE Patricia Neering