Bob Johnson Enters Banking Industry

Despite a tough climate for financial services, this billionaire's track record may prove to be an advantage

Having built businesses in the cable television, hotel, and sports and entertainment industries, Robert L. Johnson, CEO of RLJ Development L.L.C. (No. 25 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE list with $168.1 million in revenues) is turning to banking. He acquired Metro Bank in Orlando, Florida, but this may prove a challenge in today’s economic environment, analysts say. Metro Bank, which will be renamed Urban Trust Bank, will provide financial products in every state.

Interest rates, which impact a bank’s profitability, are currently rising. Increasing interest rates mean narrow profit margins. “The environment for banks right now is not the most hospitable,” says Joseph Gladue, an equity analyst with Cohen Bros. & Co. Johnson must also compete with established banks. “The lending areas [Johnson] decides to emphasize at this bank will play a factor in how much the interest rate environment affects them,” says Gladue. Another factor that could affect the venture: “The housing market seems to be cooling,” adds Gladue. “If that was where they intended to focus, they will have a tougher road to get started.”

Metro Bank’s assets have decreased in recent years. Assets totaled $9.5 million in December 2005, down from $11 million a year prior and $13.5 million in 2003. Still, Johnson is optimistic. He hopes to solicit customers through community outreach efforts that educate people about money management. “[Metro Bank] will do considerable outreach to the urban community, spending time in churches and community centers, and offering financial education to build community wealth,” says Johnson.

Johnson will compete against major banks by focusing on a niche market in the urban community. Urban Trust will also offer services that have been traditionally ignored by the banking industry, such as financial counseling and affordable loans. “Emerging families, including single mothers and young professionals starting businesses … will find our services beneficial and attractive,” Johnson says. The bank will also market to “established families seeking a second home loan.”

The bank has another financial weapon: Johnson himself. “Bob Johnson has an extremely strong track record and that has to be taken into consideration for just about anything he does” says Gladue. He brings something to the table that’s very important — deep pockets and capital. A lot of capital can help turn around a bank pretty quickly when you have competent leadership in the house.

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