Liberty And Profit For All

By stepping in when other banks gave up, Liberty Bank & Trust has created a profit centera profit center for Louisiana's black community

New Orleans caters primarily to the tourist mentality, Baton Rouge, the state’s capital, primarily deals with industry and government. “Imagine the difference between the residents of Albany, New York, and those in New York City. It’s quite a difference,” chuckles St. Etienne. To make matters worse, Liberty was coming in to revive a banking institution that had failed twice in recent years, so skepticism among community residents was running high.

But they gave Liberty a chance. “We have found Baton Rouge to be a very responsive and supporting market,” says McDonald. And the acquisition of our second banking property here represents our commitment to this area.”

Not one to stay in neutral for too long, McDonald went into high gear again late last year when the bank paid $ 1 million in cash for three concerns spread across New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This brought the bank’s total number of branches to eight. In almost every circumstance, McDonald’s strategy has been to go in and rescue banking institutions abandoned as unprofitable by majority concerns. “This is happening across the country as majority banks flee from inner-city neighborhoods,” he says. “But this also created an opportunity for minority-owned financiers to enter those areas ant claim them as their own.”

A dear indication of McDonald’s persistence is drawn in how he acquired Liberty’s second Baton Rouge branch. At the time, Hibernia National Bank had just closed one of its branches in the region and McDonald expressed an interest in purchasing it. Hibernia’s regional president in Baton Rouge was reluctant to sell to a competitor when there would still be several Hibernia branches in the area. McDonald went around him, calling Hibernia’s president and chief executive with whom he occasionally played tennis. “I said, `I understand I’m competition, but I’m only a pimple on an elephant’s behind. And if you’re that frightened of me, I’m very proud of that.’” After a little more arm-twisting, McDonald walked away with his second Baton Rouge branch.

Deborah ScottEnsley is chairperson of the National Bankers Association and president and CEO of Nashville-based Citizens Savings Bank. The association, which represents 54 minority banks with some $31 billion in assets and 3 million customers, has watched Liberty’s growth from afar. ScottEnsley says Liberty Bank & Trust is poised to enjoy even greater prosperity in the future. “They are one of our more aggressive banks in terms of trying to get into different markets,” she says. “The many acquisitions are very critical to the institution and I think they’ve been well-planned.” Ask ScottEnsley if she fears Liberty is now growing too large too quickly and she says they seem to be following a well thought-out plan. “Knowing the individuals involved, I think they have a road map and a strategy. I think it’s rapid but planned growth and I feel comfortable with their ability to manage it. You face problems when you grow aggressively and don’t have the ability to manage it. I don’t think that’s the case here.”

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