After spending recent years repairing its balance sheet, Hanmi Financial (HAFC) is again looking to grow. To do so, it's eyeing markets that Korean-American lenders have traditionally neglected.
The $2.8 billion-asset company outlined its expansion plans at press conference Wednesday after announcing that Chong Guk "C.G." Kum has become its president and chief executive.
Hanmi will look to grow organically by expanding business lending focusing on midsize Korean American-owned firms that have accounts with mainstream banks such as Wells Fargo (WFC) and Bank of America (BAC), Kum said.
Kum also pledged to be aggressive courting bilingual bankers who serve those businesses. "I think there's an opportunity there because most of the Korean-American banks are not active in that space," he said.
Though born in Korea, the 58-year-old Kum is a relative outsider to Korean-American banking, spending much of his career at mainstream community banks. Most recently, he was CEO of First California Bank, a $2 billion-asset bank that lacked an ethnic focus, and was sold in May to PacWest Bancorp (PACW).
At Wednesday's press conference, held at Hanmi's headquarters in the bustling Koreatown neighborhood, Kum acknowledged that he needs to brush up on his Korean language skills.
"My verbal skills are probably adequate to maybe a little bit less than adequate. But I can speak. I can order food at restaurants," he laughed.
Hanmi was once the nation's top Korean-American bank. But it hit trouble during the financial crisis and was surpassed by BBCN Bancorp (BBCN), a $5.3 billion-asset company formed by the merger of two other banks.
BBCN has remained active, announcing plans earlier this year to buy Foster Bankshares in Chicago. Earlier this week, Wilshire Bancorp (WIBC) reached an agreement to buy BankAsiana in Palisades Park, N.J.
Despite the arrival of a new CEO, nothing has changed with respect to the possibility of a sale, Kum said. "If an offer comes tomorrow that requires us to evaluate a sale of Hanmi, we will evaluate that," he said.
"So nothing is off the table," Kum added. "It's hard to sometimes to differentiate in this environment who's a predator and who's prey. It's a responsibility of the board and management not to close any doors."
As incoming CEO, Kum acknowledged that Hanmi was hurt in recent years by concerns about its financial health, and he attempted to balance a message about the importance of safe and sound banking with his plans for growth.
During his time at First California, Kum emphasized the importance of business clients, which provided the bank with low-cost deposits.
"So many times we would say to our lenders: 'No deposits, no loan,'" Kum said in an interview after the press conference, indicating that he plans to take a similar approach at Hanmi.
Hanmi's sweet spot in business lending is likely to be $3 million to $5 million loans to Korean American-owned businesses, Kum said. Korean-American banks have traditionally neglected those customers in favor of commercial real estate loans and loans backed by the Small Business Administration, he said.
Kum vowed to be aggressive courting new employees, including Korean-speaking bankers who work at mainstream financial institutions. "We're going to have to get more customers," he said. "That means we're going to have to get more bankers."
Kum was an unorthodox choice for Hanmi because Korean-American banks have traditionally promoted their leaders from within, says Timothy Coffey, an analyst at FIG Partners.
"But I think it's a good move for Hanmi," Coffey said, adding that commercial real estate loans and other loans traditionally offered by Korean-American banks are facing increased competition from mainstream lenders such as B of A and Wells Fargo.
Analysts offered differing opinions on whether Kum's hiring changes the likelihood that Hanmi will be involved in any mergers or acquisitions.
Coffey said that he doesn't think the hiring takes any potential moves off the table. But Julianna Balicka, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, wrote in a research note Wednesday that the hiring "could imply" that Hanmi is no longer for sale, and that it intends to stay independent and become a buyer.
Kum signed a four-year contract with a $450,000 annual base salary, according to a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He will also be eligible to receive a cash bonus of up to $450,000 annually, plus stock options and various other perks, the document stated.