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Banking on the American dream

Despite some rough spots, East West Bancorp CEO Dominic Ng finds that building bridges pays dividends.

August 05, 2007|Scott E. Reckard | Times Staff Writer

Dominic Ng, chairman and chief executive of Pasadena's East West Bancorp, has crashed into roadblocks before on his mission to build cultural bridges. But Ng wasn't prepared for the one he hit -- or, rather, that hit him -- when East West moved to acquire a small financial institution in Victorville.

He was surprised when a radio talk-show host objected to the "dirty little trick" that would put Desert Community Bank in the hands of a "foreigner," complaining that her listeners -- "the true Americans" -- would "see more Chinese faces in the bank than ever before."

And he was shocked when a watchdog group that had in the past praised East West's efforts to reach out to black and Latino customers asked regulators to delay the purchase in part because East West had allegedly ill served non-Asian minorities.

In the end, after a brief holdup, the Desert Community deal went through. And the talk-show host was fired.

At first, Ng was angry. He is still troubled that what he calls the "completely false" allegations of East West's failure to serve Latinos were repeated by Spanish-language media. After all, he says, inclusiveness is what his bank company is all about. "I worked very, very hard the last 16 years to make an impeccable image for East West. Talk about discouraging people from doing good deeds."

For a while, the attacks made him -- an immigrant who pulled off the classic American dream -- feel "very discouraged, frankly, about this country."

But Ng says he's philosophical. If some people don't want to patronize a bank led by a Chinese American, well, that's their prerogative. "We're going to move on," he says. "There will be plenty of great customers to do business with."

The 48-year-old Ng, a naturalized American citizen, was born in Hong Kong. His parents found refuge there after fleeing the Communist takeover of Shanghai in 1949, and his father worked as a bus driver while his mother sewed children's uniforms for a Catholic school.

In 1977, Ng came to the United States to study accounting at the University of Houston, which was encouraging attendance by foreigners by charging them only about $80 a semester if they worked 20 hours a week. Ng's job was tutoring football players -- a big deal at UH, whose Cougars went to the Cotton Bowl two out of the four years he was there.

For Ng, football was baffling. And the raucous college parties were difficult because he's allergic to alcohol. But he was anything but unpopular on campus, in large part because he played the guitar and could sing soft-rock songs he had learned in Hong Kong. (One of his hobbies today is collecting guitars, including one prized instrument given to him by former Eagle Don Felder, a friend and one of the performers at a benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims that Ng organized.)

For more than a decade, Ng was an accountant at Deloitte & Touche. He then became president of Seyen Inc. in Los Angeles and, in 1992, was tapped to be president and chief executive of East West Bank, which had been founded 20 years earlier as the first federally chartered savings and loan that primarily served the Chinese community. Ng spearheaded its transformation into a full-service banking company that now has $10.8 billion in assets and 60 branches around California -- and one in Houston.

East West installed ATMs with instructions in Chinese, English and Spanish in 1995, well before the current push by big banks to cultivate minority customers. It has employees who speak Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog and Armenian, as well as several Chinese dialects, English and Spanish.

What's more, Ng points out, his board of directors is unusually diverse for a bank rooted in Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley's huge Chinese American community. There are four Chinese Americans, two members of other Asian minorities, a Latino and a non-Latino white. The bank's fourth-highest-paid employee, an executive vice president who is the chief strategic officer, is black.

Building up East West has kept Ng busy, as have his other jobs, including serving on the boards of the Anderson School at UCLA and the Bowers Museum, to name two. He has been honored for his nonprofit work, especially for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, where he has run a record-setting fundraiser, made large donations of his own and directed a recent shift in strategy from backing national charities to local groups that Ng believes are more effective poverty-fighters.

Last year, East West moved from a shabby San Marino office to a Pasadena high-rise. That meant that Ng, who says proudly that he is "really, really cheap," had to decorate from scratch for the first time, instead of just living with whatever furnishings were included when East West acquired other banks.

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