Now that he has established his institution as a force in Los Angeles' Korean-American community, Benjamin Hong, president and chief executive officer of Nara Bank, has set his sights on the rest of the nation.

Last week, $335 million-asset Nara said it would buy Korea First Bank of New York from Seoul-based Korea First Bank Ltd. for an undisclosed sum. The acquisition would be Nara's second in the Big Apple since October 1998 and would give it four branches in the city, which has the nation's second-largest Korean-American population, after Los Angeles.

Mr. Hong's goal is to build Nara into the bank of choice for Korean-American business owners from coast to coast.

"I want to be the catalyst of Korean immigrant success stories," said Mr. Hong.

Born in Korea, Mr. Hong began his banking career at First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles in 1972, eventually heading its Asian operations. In 1994 he took over Nara, a vastly undercapitalized, $55 million-asset bank that had lost $3.1 million the previous year and was on the brink of collapse.

His first task was to recapitalize, which he did by tapping his contacts in the Korean-American community. Through three equity offerings, in 1994 and 1995, Nara raised $6.5 million.

Despite stiff competition from six other Korean-American banks, Nara has flourished in Los Angeles.

In the quarter that ended Sept. 30, its net income jumped 40%, compared to the year earlier; loans and assets skyrocketed by 46%. And Nara's stock - which had sold at $2 to $3 per share in the mid-1990s recapitalization offerings - was at $9.50 Thursday in morning trading, up nearly fivefold from the lower offering price.

"The stock used to be worthless," said Mr. Hong. "The bank has had a very handsome recovery."

This turnaround has helped finance the bank's expansion into other Korean-American enclaves. Aside from its New York deals, Nara has opened loan production offices in Seattle, Chicago, and San Jose, Calif., in the last two years.

It also is targeting Washington and Atlanta for loan production offices and, according to Mr. Hong, is pursuing acquisition opportunities in New York and Chicago.

Because of Mr. Hong's reputation, one banking source expects Nara to achieve its goal of becoming the nation's predominant Korean-American bank.

"Ben Hong could drop his hat anywhere, and people would want to work for him," said Robert J. Gallivan Jr., principal at Bank Compensation Strategies in San Diego. "Ben is Mr. Korea." ?

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.