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COLUMN ONE

Tilting the Balance of Black Bank

Broadway Federal courts South-Central's growing Latino, Asian populations. Many praise institution's expansion, but others fear a loss of identity.

July 03, 1998|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sang Brown is a 78-year-old African American who still lives in the South-Central Los Angeles house he purchased half a century ago and still banks at the same black-owned bank that loaned him the money: Broadway Federal Savings.

Brown is not a man who likes change, but change is all around him. His neighborhood, once almost exclusively black, now has a majority of Latinos--and so does his Broadway Federal branch on 45th Street.

The branch manager is from the Dominican Republic. The woman in charge of new accounts is from Belize. Immigrants from El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala work alongside African Americans. Loan officers visit Latino churches on weekend to seek new customers.

Broadway Federal is quietly doing something that once would have been unthinkable for a prominent black-owned institution: It's growing outside the race.

Latinos now make up a quarter of Broadway Federal's 56 employees and manage three of the bank's five branches. The bank's corporate board includes a Latino and an Asian American. Two years ago, the bank went public, selling large portions of the company to East Coast financial institutions.

These moves constitute a revolutionary change for an organization that got its start helping African Americans battle the stranglehold of segregation. They illustrate how institutions must continually evolve to survive in multicultural Los Angeles.

"There are a lot of folks who still believe that there is a black market, and you can make it only in a black market," said Broadway Federal President and CEO Paul C. Hudson, the grandson of civil rights leader H. Claude Hudson, who founded the bank 51 years ago.

"Today," says the younger Hudson, sounding like a rhythm and blues record company executive, "you have to have crossover appeal."

That's fine with Brown. "In a few years this neighborhood is going to be just about all Spanish. That's OK. I'm not going anywhere. We have to live together and work together."

Since going public, Broadway Federal--the oldest black-owned thrift west of the Mississippi--has moved its corporate headquarters from South-Central to Wilshire Boulevard in the Mid-Wilshire district and added two branches.

The majority of the bank's loans last year--58%--were still made to blacks; 12% were made to Latinos and 14% to Asians. But loans to Latinos are increasing sharply. Last year, the dollar value represented 7% of the bank's loans, more than double the 1996 figure of 2.8%.

The effort to broaden the bank's base beyond the black community, orchestrated primarily by CEO Hudson, is crucial in a city in which blacks--only 12% of the population--will soon be outnumbered more than 4 to 1 by Latinos and will also be passed by Asian Americans.

"We think we have protected niches, but that is not true," Hudson said.

John Bryant, a black businessman who heads Operation Hope, which helps inner-city Los Angeles businesses obtain loans from major financial institutions, said Broadway Federal's strategy reflects a maturing of black capitalism.

"There was a time we needed to protest and march, there was a time for black power--now it is economic power," he said.

An Institution to Serve Blacks

Few men better represented that earlier era in African American history than Broadway Federal founder H. Claude Hudson.

Hudson, who participated in the founding of the NAACP early in the century, decided after World War II to create a financial institution to serve Los Angeles' massive influx of blacks, who were often denied loans and prevented from buying homes in white areas by deed restrictions.

For decades, the bank remained tightly under the control of the Hudson family. The Hudsons were almost a royal family of black Los Angeles. Paul Hudson's maternal grandfather was the noted architect Paul R. Williams, whose designs included the Beverly Hills Hotel and Los Angeles International Airport's theme building.

H. Claude Hudson, who died in 1989 at age 102, was succeeded by his son, Elbert, who is now chairman of the board, and then by grandson Paul. Son and grandson have both served as president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

With assets of only $128 million, the bank is minuscule compared to behemoths like City National, the largest publicly traded commercial bank headquartered in Southern California, which has 40 times the assets. (As a thrift, Broadway Federal operates like a bank but invests more in housing loans than commercial projects.)

Paul Hudson, who took the helm of the bank shortly before the 1992 riots, envisions "a statewide customer base in underserved markets."

He has plenty of territory to work with. Drive through any urban core and you can see evidence that most major banks have fled. The old branch buildings remain, but they have been converted into laundries, liquor stores, drug rehab clinics and community centers, leaving many people to do their banking at check cashing outlets.

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