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?

a plan to develop an interstate financial powerhouse. Over the next few years, Cohee would expand his banking empire by acquiring Miami-based Peoples National Bank as well as Family Savings Bank and Founders National Bank, both based in Los Angeles.

Part of Cohee’s growth plan was to get in on the lucrative New York market. In March 1999, he and wife Teri Williams shelled out $1.35 million for about 7.4% of Carver’s voting shares, making them the institution’s largest stockholders at the time. During that period, Carver was hemorrhaging — the bank lost $5 million in one quarter alone — and federal regulators classified the bank as “troubled.” The mounting fiscal losses forced Carver’s board to fire its CEO and begin a search for a new one.

Cohee, who gained a reputation as a turnaround artist for flagging black financial companies, offered himself as a candidate for CEO. He proposed that Carver purchase BBOC at a premium and that he and his wife run the operation. Cohee and Williams already owned two-thirds of BBOC. The board figured that if the couple got hold of a sizable chunk of Carver, they would initiate a complete takeover of the institution. The board chose Wright as CEO instead.

Wright and Cohee both represent a new breed of black professional entrepreneur who has emerged as the leadership of BE 100S companies over the past decade. Both CEOs were trained at Harvard. Both are players with connections from Wall Street to the Beltway. The cool, methodic Wright built her business career on economic development and served as president of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corp. The ego-driven, strategic Cohee made his bones in corporate finance, cutting deals as an investment banker at Salomon Smith Barney in the 1980s.

Wright’s ascension did not stop Cohee’s aspirations to merge the two institutions. He launched a proxy fight and initiated a bitter legal battle to try to wrest control of the company away from Wright and Carver’s board — twice. (See “Battle Royale” in the archives.) After BBOC lost “tens of millions” in pursuit of a merger, according to Cohee, he and Williams settled for board seats. By 2002, they’d sold their shares. Also by that time, Wright had transformed Carver into a profit machine by obtaining investment capital, opening new branches, and attracting more customers.

Although he was thwarted in his prior takeover attempts, Cohee still has not lost his appetite for Carver and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of making a future run at the bank. In the meantime, he and Wright are trying to expand their respective empires.

In order to grow Carver and keep its leadership position, Wright knew she had to acquire another institution. Last year she discovered the perfect opportunity: Independence Federal. It offered strategic benefits, such as low-cost branch growth, as well as entrée into one of the fastest growing and most affluent African American consumer markets.

Carver joined a number of other bidders including RLJ Companies, the holding company of BET founder Bob Johnson,

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