Battle Royale

The fight for the future of Carver Federal Savings Bank has turned public... and ugly

his job as a result), Carver was bleeding from all sides. Wright determined that she would not be the next sacrificial lamb.

Wright’s years in urban planning taught her to involve community residents and local businesses in the bank’s rehabilitation. If Carver had any advantage, none was greater than its base in Harlem. But deep roots also run wide, and at the other end of Manhattan lay Wall Street, and all the money a bank president could ever need.

Wright’s experience in preserving landmarks was never so helpful. Ties to financial giant Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. brought in $1 million. A working relationship with Frederick O. Terrell, CEO of black-owned Provender Capital, added another $1.5 million. Wright heralded the investments as part of Carver’s strategic reorganization plan. “We’re rebuilding our foundation. We’ve replaced senior management and we’ve raised new capital,” she said. “We want to grow the bank and increase shareholder value.”

The $2.5 million investment in exchange for Carver stock might have reassured stockholders and impressed analysts. But if it were that easy, it would have ended there. In the challenger’s corner, BBOC.

Boston, some say, suffers from a bad case of city envy-of New York. There is an intense rivalry between these two seaports that makes the East Coast-West Coast rap flap look staid: the Hudson River vs. the Charles River, Boston Commons vs. Central Park, Fifth Avenue vs. Commonwealth Avenue. When basketball legends the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks play, there is pride at stake. Boston and New York are different, but Kevin Cohee, chief executive of BBOC, doesn’t see it that way. He believes business has no geographical boundaries. And as a testament to his philosophy, BBOC recently took over the nearly defunct Peoples National Bank of Commerce in Miami and, in the process, created the first black-owned and operated interstate banking institution in the U.S.

Peoples’ fate is an example of BBOC’s strategy of identifying poor performers and acquiring them at a discount. Cohee knows such takeover tactics well. He and his wife, Teri Williams, have risen quickly within the finance industry, first climbing the corporate ladder (he at Salomon Brothers, she at American Express), and then purchasing and rebuilding underperforming banks. In 1995, the young, enterprising couple invested $1 million in BBOC. Shortly thereafter, they used their clout to have the CEO removed. Cohee now serves as chairman and CEO, and Williams is senior vice president.

At No. 15 on the B.E. Banks list with $137.8 million in assets, BBOC has grown over 30% since the husband-and-wife team took over, according to company estimates. Their deft touch turned a $3.6 million loss in 1996 into a $705,000 profit in 1999. BBOC’s branches in greater Boston have been successful, and the Miami outposts are slowly returning to good health. “What we’re looking to do is take what we’ve done successfully in Boston and export it to other markets,” says Cohee.

But there is one frontier Cohee and BBOC have yet to conquer.


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