Deborah C. Wright, chief executive of Carver Bancorp in New York, the nation’s largest African-American-run bank or thrift company, speaks softly but carries a big stick — and a big ax.

Since taking over the top spot at the troubled, publicly owned, Harlem-based thrift in June of last year, Ms. Wright has beaten back a coup attempt by shareholders led by a former Harvard classmate; fired staff in the course of replacing half the employees, including every senior executive; and sold off two of Carver’s seven branches. Her aim was to transform a hallowed community institution into a profit-oriented, modern, full-service institution that is both an aggressive lender and cost-cutter.

“We want to match the industry — if not exceed it — in all categories,” said the 42-year-old preacher’s daughter, a South Carolina native. “That’s what the turnaround is about.”

Yet Ms. Wright, who had no banking experience before becoming chief executive of the $419 million-asset thrift, is still far from reaching her goals. Carver lost money in each of its past two fiscal years, $4.5 million in the 12 months ended March 31, 1999, and $1.1 million the following year, while many banks were racking up hefty returns.

Carver turned a $100,000 profit in its first fiscal quarter, which ended June 30, but that was a minuscule return on equity for a company its size. It would have reported a loss, moreover, had it not recorded income from the sale of a branch during the quarter, the latest for which results are available. The stock price has slumped badly, and Carver may literally be worth more dead than alive. The shares are selling at $7.38, little more than half their book value of $14.15.

Ms. Wright insists that having to spend so much time on inherited problems — battling opponents and wrestling with a costly infrastructure — hindered her efforts to push Carver beyond passbook savings, checking accounts, and certificate of deposit sales. She is committed to going well beyond these services to expand lending capabilities through partnerships with other financial institutions, to open branches, and to market highly desired fee producers such as mutual funds, insurance, and brokerage services. Carver needs the latter products to improve revenue growth and profitability.

Now, with her house largely in order but little else to show for her tenure, Ms. Wright has reached a crucial juncture. The pressure on her to finally deliver profits is high, as are the potential consequences if she does not.

Her predecessor was fired after the company reported a quarterly loss of $5.7 million, and some shareholders have been eager to sell Carver since it went public six years ago. Ms. Wright only subdued her old classmate, Kevin Cohee, president of Boston Bank of Commerce, by granting him and his wife seats on Carver’s board, ousting two directors, one of them former New York Mayor David Dinkins.

“They have to show improved profitability over the next several quarters,” said Joseph Gladue, an analyst at the Chapman Co. in Baltimore. “People want to see a road map and progress toward profits and loan growth.”

Pressure is heightened too because Carver operates in a fishbowl. By dint of its size, New York locale, prominent friends like Mr. Dinkins, and public ownership, Carver stands out as a potential model for other minority-run banks and thrifts, of which there are 146, with total assets of $46 billion, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Forty-nine of these, with $4.7 billion of assets, are run by African-Americans. Though some minority banks and thrifts consistently outperform the industry average for profitability, most do not, according to the FDIC.

Like Carver, minority banks tend to be small, conservative, and serve inner-city neighborhoods; 92% have headquarters in metropolitan areas, compared with 49% for mainstream banks. They largely restrict their business to accepting deposits and investing in low-yield instruments such as money market funds and mortgage-backed securities, and this hampers revenue growth. On the expense side, the big-city locales of minority banks are likely to mean high operating costs.

The slim spread between revenues and expenses has made it difficult to rack up the returns that mainstream banks do. Short on profits, minority banks cannot always afford the best technology or hire the best employees because they cannot pay competitive wages — which was a problem for Carver, Ms. Wright said. Facing such hard challenges, many minority-run banks have a more difficult time surviving than mainstream banks.

There have, in fact, been significant casualties. The number of minority-owned savings institutions has dropped to 41 from 100 in two decades. Minority-run commercial banks have also taken hits. Among the most prominent losses was Harlem’s $98 million-asset Freedom National Bank, which was closed a decade ago by regulators who said it was mismanaged. The loss still weighs heavily on many black people in New York and is another reason why what happens to Carver matters.

“A lot of eyes are on Carver — and not just those of people of color,” said Dina Curtis, president of the American League of Financial Institutions, which represents minority-owned savings banks and associations. “Wall Street is watching Carver, and nontraditional investors are watching Carver.”

Though a banking neophyte, Ms. Wright did not come to Carver unprepared for a tough job in the spotlight. The daughter of a prominent Brooklyn minister and niece of Marion Wright Edelman, a nationally known children’s rights advocate and White House adviser, Ms. Wright became in 1984 one of the first black women to receive both master of business administration and law degrees from Harvard University, according to the university.

After her graduation she moved to New York, where she gained Wall Street experience by working three years as an associate in corporate finance at First Boston Corp. She switched to the public sector for a series of jobs before landing her first post running a high-profile institution as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s commissioner of housing preservation and development, from 1994 to 1996. She left that job to become chief executive of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corp., which helps fund development projects in Harlem on a total capital budget of $300 million. Based on this track record, Carver picked her to lead the bank in 1999.

“Our challenge in this search was to find a chief executive who had a solid understanding of finance, a proven commitment to our community, and exceptional management skills,” said David R. Jones, who was then chairman of Carver and hired Ms. Wright. “Deborah Wright fits the bill in every respect.”

Still, running Carver, which was named after the African-American scientist George Washington Carver and opened its doors in 1949, was a challenge of staggering proportions for anyone, much less a chief without banking experience. Carver was a great source of pride in the black community because it brought financial services to neighborhoods where there had been none before. But limited services and expertise kept it from being very profitable.

With passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, mainstream banks began to open branches in the inner cities. Carver, like many black-run banks, Ms. Wright said, found it had a hard time competing with resource-rich institutions that were snapping up the lending opportunities it had ignored for decades. Even basic services common to mainstream banks were lacking at Carver. For example, it did not install its first automated teller machine until 1989. In 1994, it initiated a makeover after raising $20 million in an initial public offering.

But almost from the beginning some shareholders wanted to sell the company. Thomas L. Clark Jr., a former New York State deputy superintendent of banks, was hired to quell the rebellion by making the thrift more competitive. He expanded into auto loans, credit cards, and unsecured consumer loans. But Mr. Clark didn’t have a staff with enough experience to make the ventures succeed, and problem loans grew dramatically. On top of these setbacks, a senior official was arrested on charges of defrauding the thrift.

Shareholders again pushed for a sale in 1997 and 1998. After Carver reported a loss of more than $5 million at the end of 1998, Mr. Clark was fired in January 1999.

The turmoil left the way open for a takeover attempt by one of Carver’s many disgruntled shareholders: Mr. Cohee, a former Salomon Brothers investment banker, who owned 7.5% of Carver. He had already turned around the troubled, $107 million-asset Boston Bank of Commerce, where he was by then chairman.

It was into this breach that Ms. Wright leaped. For nearly a year, the two sides battled publicly in the courts and among shareholders for control of Carver. Insults flew across the divide. Mr. Cohee said Ms. Wright lacked the know-how to turn the thrift around. Ms. Wright responded that Mr. Cohee was an empire builder who had no understanding of Carver’s market.

In May, Mr. Cohee, after losing his bids to buy Carver, settled for seats on the board for him and his wife, Teri Williams, an executive vice president at BBOC. They displaced Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Jones. Ms. Wright countered in June by enlarging the board to 10 members, from eight, thus diluting Mr. Cohee’s influence. What remains is less a peace than an uneasy truce.

Mr. Cohee — who announced last week that Boston Bank of Commerce would buy Founders National Bank in Los Angeles, a black-owned bank with $106 million of assets — remains critical, if only in general terms, of black banks run by managers who lack banking experience.

“What tends to happen,” he said, “is that instead of business people running these banks, you get these social-political types whose general claim to fame is that they know something about the area, which is easily transferable and, frankly, of little value.”

Ms. Wright is used to such criticism. “I am sure that the elements to Carver’s turnaround require technical bankers, and that’s why my organization chart is filled with them. This is not going to be Debbie’s turnaround; this is going to be a team turnaround.”

Ms. Wright has gone to great lengths to build a strong team with banking experience from within and outside the black community. Of Carver’s remaining 102 employees, 52 have been hired since she arrived, and of these 21 are new managers, including a senior adviser, chief financial officer, chief lending officer, chief administrative officer, and chief of retail operations.

She hired John Buran, a former executive vice president of New York metropolitan markets for FleetBoston Financial Corp., in June to be her senior adviser. In turn, Mr. Buran, who is white, hired Devon Woolcock, a former Citibank regional branch manager in Brooklyn and Queens, who is black, to be chief of retail banking. Almost immediately, they replaced four of the five managers in Carver’s remaining branches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens with people who they said will promote a sales culture and run the branches like a business.

“People should be coming to Carver not just because it’s a black bank in a black neighborhood,” said Mr. Woolcock, who lives in Harlem. “They should come because it’s a black bank in a black neighborhood that offers me all the products and services at the level that I expect and at the price I expect.”

Carver teamed up with General Motors Acceptance Corp. and Fannie Mae this summer to make mortgages in its community. It originates the loans, and GMAC holds them so that Carver can limit its risk while generating more revenue.

Similarly, Ms. Wright wants to create partnerships with other financial companies to sell brokerage services, mutual funds, and insurance. To make it easier for customers to tap into these and other services, she anticipates adding telephone and online banking in the next few months.

Ms. Wright also wants to reach more potential core customers, African- and Caribbean-Americans in city neighborhoods. To that end, she sold the branches in Roosevelt, N.Y., a suburban black community on Long Island, and in downtown Manhattan, in a middle-class white neighborhood. She’s looking instead to add branches in inner-city neighborhoods, such as in Manhattan and the Bronx.

“Immigration patterns over the past 10 years have created new concentrations of black folks,” said Ms. Wright.

Still, any new sources of revenue are well down the road, and costs remain high in part because Ms. Wright has had to pay more to hire more experienced bankers. Carver’s efficiency ratio stood at a whopping 100% at the end of its fiscal year in March, twice the industry benchmark of 50%, though down from 112% a year earlier.

Shareholders clearly see Carver as a long shot.

Success at Carver should come from a focus on micro-banking issues, said Don Koch of Koch Asset Management in Town and Country, Mo., which owns a 9.6% stake in the thrift. “If she focuses on details, is fastidious on cost, and brings in top community bankers — and not just great resumes — then it’s possible.”

Ms. Wright does not shrink from the reality of Carver’s poor performance. “I think shareholders have a right to be extremely disappointed because the stock hasn’t moved,” she said. But no one is going to rush her into doing anything, she said. “We’re going to crawl before we run because we want to get this right.”


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