Through the Fire

Deborah C. Wright’s office doesn’t have a Park Avenue view. Instead, she looks down on the concrete jungle of 125th Street in the heart of Harlem. Below, the sidewalks are littered with paper and bustling with shoppers and street vendors. Across the hall, her boardroom overlooks crumbling brownstones.

In this room Wright, chairman, president, and CEO of Carver Federal Savings Bank (No. 1 on the BE BANKS list with $648.97 million in assets), and the rest of the executive team listen to the bank’s chief of staff, Roy Swan, discuss the largest deal in Carver’s history: an $11 million acquisition of Brooklyn-based Community Capital Bank. If successful, the deal will boost Carver’s loan production, increase assets by $155 million, and help stave off the competition by establishing Carver as a commercial lender. “Our bank is quite small relative to the institutions we are competing against in our marketplace,” says Wright. Not only does Carver need to increase its scale, it needs additional opportunities to expand profits. “This transaction hits both objectives,” she says.

Even still, Carver will stay close to the community it serves. “We’re not a bank that has a branch on Park Avenue for a reason,” Wright says. “All of our branches are in the inner city. It’s what we care about, and if I had my druthers, we would be successful enough to shift gears to spend time on the un-banked and the underbanked because that’s the job that’s really left to be done.”

By focusing on untapped markets in Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, New York, Wright has taken Carver, the nation’s largest black-operated publicly traded bank, off life support. When Wright took the helm in 1999, the 58-year-old fiduciary institution had net losses of $4.5 million. Much of Carver’s consumer credit portfolio-$2.3 million in unsecured personal loans, $3 million in unsecured credit card accounts, and $3.1 million in automobile loans-was poorly underwritten. What’s more, the bank had no stand-alone ATMs, which meant limited income from fees and services. And to make matters worse, each branch had its own set of processes and procedures, which meant they were inefficiently operating as individual entities instead of as an integrated company.

But in a few years, Wright engineered a masterful turnaround by building Carver’s assets from about $416 million to nearly $650 million without buying another bank-and now Wright is turning acquisitive. As a result, Carver is on the move to outpace competitors by expanding its residential and commercial real estate loan portfolio, improving customer service, bolstering products and services, and capitalizing on its comfort zone in an area that many banks don’t touch-church lending. For this, Carver Bancorp has been named the 2006 BLACK ENTERPRISE Financial Services Company of the Year.

Although Carver is riding high, that wasn’t always the case. In March 1999, a few months before Wright arrived on the scene, Kevin Cohee, CEO of OneUnited Bank-then Boston Bank of Commerce-and his wife, Teri Williams, bought 7.4% of Carver’s voting shares for $1.35 million, making them