On his way home each day, Han Park drives along a busy avenue crowded with shoe stores, beauty salons, travel agencies, restaurants, florists, and pharmacies.

He grimaces when thinking about those businesses that don't have loans from Wilshire State Bank.

"My day will be complete when we do a loan for every single business that I drive by on my way home from work," said Mr. Park, senior vice president and manager of the Los Angeles bank's Small Business Administration lending division.

The determined Mr. Park, the son of Korean immigrants, represents a new breed of banker, trained in a family-owned small business and unfettered by bankers' traditional disdain for retailing businesses and SBA lending.

And Wilshire is a unusual bank with a dual mission: to use SBA lending to expand outside its home base and at the same time, to place the spotlight on ethnic borrowers.

In time, Mr. Park hopes that Wilshire will become one of the leading SBA lenders in the country, talked about in the same breath as the biggest of all SBA lenders, The Money Store

Wilshire, the No. 1 SBA lender in Los Angeles and 17th in the nation last year, has just opened a lending office in Seattle and plans to expand to San Diego, Denver, and Atlanta.

The bank sells the guaranteed portions of its SBA loans to fund its plan to open a new lending office each quarter.

"Los Angeles is a big city, but all the banks have converged on it, and we want to go somewhere with an easier market," said William B. Im, Wilshire's president and chief executive officer.

The bank has SBA lending offices in Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco. The Los Angeles bank has $98 million of assets and made $28 million in SBA 7(a) loans in the fiscal year that ended last October.

"Their growth is due to the fact that they are focused on a lot of underrepresented markets," said Alberto G. Alvarado, SBA district director for Los Angeles. "Wilshire has identified itself in the market as being responsive to African-American, Hispanic, and Asian borrowers."

Wilshire's bankers make their loans the old-fashioned way, not with credit scoring but by evaluating cash flow, credit, and collateral- sometimes looking beyond the figures on tax forms or loan applications, Mr. Park said.

"I look at their products, I look at the price, and I can estimate their cash flow and how much they have in inventory," he said. "They could tell me they have $1,000 in inventory and I could tell if it were (actually) $2,000."

It helps that as a teenager growing up in suburban New Jersey, Mr. Park worked as a stock clerk and delivery boy for his mother's company, which imports hair-coloring chemicals from Japan.

Understanding what retail businesses need makes a big difference for customers such as Cecelia Miller, vice president of Southcone Trading Co., a furniture manufacturer and wholesaler.

Ms. Miller has a litany of complaints about other banks, but only praise for Wilshire.

"They're great," she said. "They've been here and visited us and helped us to expand and move to a bigger location. I wouldn't go to any other bank."

Wilshire trains all its SBA lenders, many of whom grew up with family- owned businesses, to use the same hands-on skills to instantly evaluate a business' prospects.

The bank equips its lenders with laptop computers so they can issue a preliminary commitment letter when they meet with customers.

"The only thing business owners hate is uncertainty," Mr. Park said. "We give them an answer on the spot."

Just as Wilshire doesn't make its customers wait for loan commitments, it doesn't drag its feet when it plots strategy to gain new customers, he added.

Each year Mr. Park and his staff pick a competitor to beat, studying its approaches to find any weaknesses. For next year, Mr. Park wants to make more SBA loans in California than San Diego-based Bank of Commerce.

Last year, Bank of Commerce was the largest bank SBA lender in the country, trailing only Money Store, AT&T Capital Corp., and Heller First Capital Corp.

In addition to five lending offices in California, Bank of Commerce has offices in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Las Vegas; Reno; Phoenix; and Tucson, Ariz.

"We do significantly more loans in more markets," said David Bartram, Bank of Commerce senior executive vice president. But if Wilshire goes into more markets, "we will be up to the challenge."

Bank of Commerce is not the only competitor Wilshire is watching; Mr. Park even wants to beat Money Store by 2005. That finance giant made nearly 2,000 loans for more than $714 million under the SBA's 7(a) program last year.

For now, Mr. Park is focused on Seattle, where Money Store and locally based City Bank, which ranks ninth nationwide, are the dominant SBA lenders.

In Seattle, Mr. Park wants to carve out a share of the market by emphasizing his bank's ethnic ownership. Wilshire, based in the heart of Los Angeles' Koreatown, is half owned by Korean immigrants.

In Los Angeles, 55% of Wilshire's borrowers are Asian business owners, a quarter are white, 12% are Hispanic, and 8% are African-American.

Wilshire's officers see similar opportunities to serve ethnic business owners in Seattle, which has fewer Asian-American-owned banks than Los Angeles.

"Our structure is a distinct advantage, because the chance of finding true competition outside of Koreatown is not likely," said Joel A. Ziskind, executive vice president and chief credit officer.

But in cities such as Atlanta and Denver, which have smaller populations of minority business owners, Wilshire will not promote its ethnicity as much, Mr. Park said.

Wilshire's ownership creates some unusual twists in the corporate culture. To foster teamwork, lenders are paid commissions based on team goals rather than individual accomplishments.

Mr. Park respectfully refers to Mr. Im as "our bank president" in his presence, but calls him "Bill" in conversations with colleagues. He also follows the Asian practice of looking at business cards before he pockets them.

"At some other banks customers have to work to gain their banker's respect, but we know we have to respect them," Mr. Park said. "That's important."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.