CHICAGO -- Billy Williams, an assistant vice president at First Chicago National Bank, leaves his pinstripes and wingtips at home when he drives the BankMobile.

Patterned after bookmobiles that public libraries bring to the provinces, the BankMobile roams neighborhoods to find customers who generally feel unwanted, or at least intimidated, by slick, sophisticated bankers.

"We let people know we are just people like them, who work for a bank," Mr. Williams says, "and we're there to help them."

A Thousand New Accounts

First Chicago, the flagship unit of the nation's 12th-largest bank company, has garnered 1,000 new accounts at its branches since launching the BankMobile in May 1990.

Banking regulations do not allow transactions on the vehicle, which is not registered as a branch, but neighborhood people come in for conferences, credit counseling, and - Mr. William says - just fun.

About 10 other banks around the country have similar mobile units, said Mr. Williams, who was a private banker at First Chicago before moving into the community relations role.

BankMobile is the most innovative, but certainly not the only, means by which the company strives to meet requirements of the Community Reinvestment Act.

'Part of the Community'

"You can't sit downtown in your office," said David J. Paulus, First Chicago's senior vice president for corporate and community affairs. "You've got to be part of the community. The city's future is our future."

First Chicago garnered the highest of four CRA ratings from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for its three-pronged community campaign.

"Strong support has been provided to community groups that focus on housing and economic development," noted a Sept. 27 assessment from the OCC. The bank's 1990 financial contribution to community organizations topped #846 million, the agency reported.

Longtime Housing Program

The oldest of First Chicago's community programs is the Neighborhood Lending Program, started in 1984. It focuses primarily on housing loans to minority and low-income borrowers. The bank has committed $225 million to the program, $140 million of which has already been allocated.

First Chicago has also set up partnerships with community groups in two of Chicago's needy neighborhoods: Little Village, a Hispanic neighborhood on the city's West Side, and Grand Boulevard, a mostly black neighborhood on the South Side.

Mr. Paulus and other bank officers meet regularly with community leaders from the neighborhood - every Wednesday in the case of Little Village - to discuss the needs and problems.

At last week's meeting, the agenda included organization of a telethon to raise money for a neighborhood "Step Up" program, called SUBE in Spanish. The bank has pledged to match donations up to $50,000.

The group also discussed how to help a businessman gain a tax break to finance expansion of his pizza empire, which includes a restaurant that serves jalapeno pies, and a frozen-pizza business.

"We've got some clout in city hall," Mr. Paulus assured the businessman, pledging to set up a meeting with the city's new economic development chief.

Skepticism over banks' sincerity about helping the poor is strong in minority areas, fueled by the redlining controversies of past decades and the recent release by federal regulators of data showing discrimination in mortgage lending.

Above Suspicion

But Kevin Jackson, executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization in Little Village, said First Chicago's motives are not suspect, because of its long history in the city. The bank's first venture in Little Village centered on finding strong candidates to run for local school boards. Mr. Jackson said the bank poured money as well as time into the project.

"That encouraged us that partnerships with corporate entities like First Chicago make good sense," he said.

Despite the goodwill the bank is receiving, Mr. Paulus concedes that his company and other banks have an image problem. The mortgage data released under requirements of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act are misleading because they don't account for factors other than income that drive credit decisions, he said.

Review of Underwriting

Nevertheless, First Chicago is currently studying whether to adjust mortgage underwriting standards to better accommodate minorities, Mr. Paulus said.

He also said that some of the problems with mortgage loans involve a lack of demand from low-income applicants.

The real problem is not enough applications from minorities," he asserted. "We want more applications."

That's where Billy Williams and his BankMobile come in.

Born into poverty on Chicago's South Side, Mr. Williams is a gregarious, energetic man with a passion for meeting poor people's needs.

"This is the future: mobile banking," he said. "We are looking for creative ways to educate consumers about how to borrow and save money."

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.