Carver Vs. One United

In the battle for market share and customers, the nation's two largest black banks seek to grow through acquisition. Which one will ultimately win the fight to be No. 1?

Deborah Wright has been kicking butt and taking numbers — the latest is No. 1. That’s the place New York-based Carver Federal Savings Bank currently holds, having earned the top spot on the 2004 BE BANKS list with $529.57 million in assets. CEO Wright has her sights set on making Carver a billion-dollar monolith. Its most recent attempt was the failed takeover bid of Washington, D.C.-based Independence Federal Savings Bank (No. 11 on the 2004 BE BANKS list with $217.06 million in assets), which was expected to increase Carver’s assets to $750 million.

In the process of reaching that goal, Carver dethroned Boston-based OneUnited Bank, last year’s numero uno and the 2003 BE Financial Company of the Year. OneUnited’s assets of $438.56 million made it No. 2 on the 2004 ranking.

CEO Kevin Cohee claims Carver isn’t eligible to be champ because it’s a publicly traded company. However, the majority of Carver’s shares are reportedly held by African Americans, and the Office of Thrift Supervision as well as the National Bankers Association, the trade association for minority- and women-owned banks, both classify Carver as an African American institution.

Cohee worked hard to grab the lead position from Wright a year ago. He earned first place primarily by increasing OneUnited’s assets through the acquisition of community banks over the past five years. In fact, over that time period, he made hostile takeover attempts at Carver as part of his “by any means necessary” approach to growth. Can OneUnited overtake Carver again?

It has been one of the longest-running feuds in black banking. For years, Carver and OneUnited have been delivering and parrying blows in their quest for No. 1 status. And the relationship between these two bank CEOs has kept industry watchers on the edges of their seats. Whether Wright and Cohee realize it, admit it, or even care, their competition consistently raises the bar for other African American bankers. “Mr. Cohee has been referred to as a bulldog by some media, but I respect him for his focused vision,” says James Young, president and CEO of Citizens Trust Bank (No. 3 on the BE BANKS list with $359.73 million in assets). “What he and Deborah Wright are offering to the business is a new paradigm. It’s like waking a sleeping giant.”

Young, who is also the chairman-elect of the National Bankers Association, says the actions of the two banks represent a shift in the way small banks are forced to capture market share. In order to compete with mainstream banks, these institutions must build assets, deposits, and loan portfolios through mergers and acquisitions. Cohee’s strong-arm tactics, however, have been foreign to the black banking industry, which has been operating under a live-and-let-live philosophy. Competitors rarely worried about hostile takeover threats.

THE ROOTS OF RIVALRY
Carver and OneUnited have been locking horns for more than half a decade. This rivalry was sparked in 1999 when OneUnited — then named Boston Bank of Commerce (BBOC) — was a scrappy institution with $137.82 million in assets and Cohee at the helm with

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