The Fight to Bring New Banks to American Samoa

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"Shocking," "upsetting" and potentially "devastating" are the words Afimutasi Gus Hannemann has for Bank of Hawaii's (BOH) decision to close its branches in American Samoa.

After the Honolulu company pulls out of that U.S. territory, only ANZ Bank — a unit of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group — will be left to serve the area's residents.

A bank's decision to leave a market can be sensitive, and Hannemann seems to be taking Bank of Hawaii's news particularly hard. However, he is not taking it lying down — he is leading a group working to persuade another U.S. bank to open its doors in American Samoa.

"I can't believe a business would just make up their mind that they are leaving," said Hannemann, who became involved in the effort at the request of American Samoa Gov. Lolo Moliga. He is serving as caretaker of the American Samoa government office in Hawaii.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser first reported about Hannemann's group working to bring another bank to American Samoa.

It had become "increasingly evident" that the "geographic isolation" of American Samoa "posed challenges for us," Wayne Hamano, vice chair of Bank of Hawaii, said in an email to American Banker.

The territory is 2,300 miles southwest of Honolulu. Because of this, the $13.4 billion-asset company announced in November that it would close its two branches in the territory by late in the first quarter.

Bank of Hawaii has operated in American Samoa since 1969 and employs about 30 people there. Customers who wish can stay with Bank of Hawaii, and the company is working closely with ANZ to ensure a smooth transition, Hamano said.

Hannemann's group, which also includes the American Samoa Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga and others, has contacted several banks in Hawaii to set up meetings about their cause. They have already met with Lance Mizumoto, the chief banking officer at Central Pacific Bank. However, Central Pacific, a unit of Central Pacific Financial (CPF), has "not made a decision to pursue it further at this time," a company spokeswoman said.

The group is also meeting with executives from Bank of Hawaii later this month to find out what prompted their departure and what the government could do to entice another U.S. bank to the area. Hannemann is also hoping to get advice for other banks considering opening branches in the territory.

American Samoa, located in the South Pacific Ocean, measures 76 square miles — just slightly larger than the District of Columbia — and has a population of roughly 55,500 residents — smaller than the enrollment at some U.S. universities.

Still Hannemann touts American Samoa "as one of the most dynamic regions in the world." Its infrastructure, location and deep natural harbor provide for easy international access, he said.

"American Samoa is the Mecca of the international market," Hannemann said.

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