Li-pei Wu has built Los Angeles-based General Bank by catering to a niche community he knows well.
Under the leadership of Mr. Wu, himself a Taiwanese immigrant, General attracts the deposits of Asian immigrants. In his 15 years as chairman of General, he has grown the bank to $1.5 billion of assets, from $120 million.
"They have had huge success getting deposits from the Taiwanese community," said Charlotte A. Chamberlain, an analyst with Jefferies & Co., Los Angeles. "And on the lending side, they specialize in trade financing and high-tech lending to the entire Asian-American community."
General now has 15 branches spread over Los Angeles, San Diego, and Silicon Valley, and plans to open loan production offices in Seattle and New York. Mr. Wu said he was also interested in acquiring other banks to help achieve his goal of doubling the bank's size during the next five years.
Mr. Wu identified three keys his bank has used to grab the business of first-generation immigrants. Most important, he said, is to show them you are willing to help.
"Immigrants have some concerns about how to adapt to a new country," he said. "We try to help them. We can't provide legal services, but we can provide advice."
One of the most important things a bank can do is hire employees who speak foreign languages. "We need to make them feel comfortable in their new country," he said, "and make them feel comfortable at our bank."
After the customer has settled in, most need credit cards, financing and other banking products. Mr. Wu said General Bank gets a leg up on the competition by knowing the customer ahead of time.
"When a customer first comes to us, we try to learn about their background," he said. Many of his customers do not have credit histories in this country, which could slow approval of a loan. By researching customers' creditworthiness in their home country, General Bank can make quicker decisions.
Finally, Mr. Wu said he tries to anticipate customers' needs. For example, Taiwan's economy is closely tied to international trade, so many immigrants eventually get into that business here.
"If they try to buy or sell to their home country, we want to be there to help," Mr. Wu said. "Your commitment has to go beyond being able to speak their language. You must be able to anticipate their needs."
Buoyed by its success, Mr. Wu said General Bank is now going after other groups, in particular Armenian, Iranian, South Korean, and Israeli immigrants. And Mr. Wu said he hopes to start a second bank, catering to the Hispanic community.
"We have found that immigrants share a lot in common, regardless of where they are from," Mr. Wu said. "They are very cautious as to whom they trust. And they need financing."
Mr. Wu said General Bank was using the same strategies that worked so well with its Taiwanese customers. It has hired employees who speak the languages of the new groups to get a firmer grasp on what these immigrants want from a bank.
"Banking is a service industry," he said. "We are trying to do what we can to serve people."