industry that is consolidating at the highest levels. Because of this leadership role in the black banking community, OneUnited Bank is the 2003 BE Financial Company of the Year.
FROM RETIREMENT TO REVOLUTION
This isn’t the first time Cohee has turned around a company. While carving out a successful career as an investment banker at Salomon Smith Barney in the 1980s, he began dating Teri Williams, who at the time was one of the youngest vice presidents at American Express at age 29. In 1989, the two purchased Military Professional Services, a firm that markets credit cards to military personnel. After improving the company’s financial picture, they made a fortune selling it to First Chicago Corp. in 1991. The two married and were able to retire, but early retirement didn’t suit Cohee very well.
In 1995, Cohee and Williams used $1 million of their own money to purchase a controlling interest in the Boston Bank of Commerce, which, at the time, was run by Ron Homer, a hero in Boston’s black financial circles. Cohee was appointed chairman, and although he had been brought on to assist Homer in reviving the ailing institution, within a year, the board appointed him as CEO. His aggressiveness at pushing a local icon out of a leadership role at the bank earned him a reputation as a hard-nosed manager who played to win at all costs. Walter B. Prince, partner at Prince, Lobel, Glovsky & Tye L.L.P., and OneUnited board member, says, “The reputation is probably exaggerated. Kevin is a bright, intelligent businessman, and he’s made some marvelous creative business decisions.”
But no matter what you think of Cohee’s style, he has proven effective in business. He has demonstrated the savvy to pull off three acquisitions since 1999, establishing the foundation for what he says is a movement to change the nature of banking in low-income communities. Ultimately, Cohee wants to create a bank that has the strength of billions of dollars in assets to facilitate significant community development in black neighborhoods.
“Citibank and the larger financial institutions have created a paradigm where the wealthy don’t pay fees, but guess who does? Those who can least afford to,” says the Kansas City, Missouri, native. “We’ve got to change the paradigm so that people don’t have to be afraid to save their money because they will be [hit with exorbitant fees].”
Cohee intends to change people’s attitudes about banking with OneUnited’s “membership program,” an innovative low-cost banking initiative that gives customers the ability to open up an unlimited amount of checking, savings, or money market accounts for a $5 monthly charge. The program is free to seniors and students. Williams, now a OneUnited executive vice president, says the program has helped the bank “see significant increases in account growth as well as deposit dollar growth.”
“If you have access to a large number of bank accounts with which to save, you can save for your children’s education, or squirrel money away for a down payment for a home,” says Robert Patrick Cooper,