Tuskegee, a central Alabama town of 12,000 about 15 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart, is hardly the place most bankers would look to buy a failed savings and loan.

The average personal income of residents in the town - best known for its African-American college of the same name - is half the national average.

"This is not an area other banks are looking to come to," said James W. Wright, president and chief executive of First Tuskegee Bank. "There is not enough growth here."

But Mr. Wright, who bought century-old Tuskegee Savings and Loan Association (founded by Booker T. Washington) from the Resolution Trust Corp. in 1991, has built it into the top-performing minority-owned community bank in the country.

In the last five years, $52 million-asset First Tuskegee Bank, which now has a state bank charter, posted an average return on assets of 2.44% and return on equity of 28.30%.

Mr. Wright previously had been president and chief executive of Beneficial National Bank, the consumer finance subsidiary of Wilmington, Del.-based Beneficial Corp. Two of the Tuskegee bank's officers also came from Beneficial.

Mr. Wright said tax credits that were meant to help failed thrifts in predominantly minority areas remain minority-owned had helped attract him to Tuskegee, where 98% of the population is African-American, he said.

The bank offers a variety of savings and checking accounts, mortgages, and auto loans, but customers said its most important facet is a desire to serve residents.

"When I first moved here, people told me that's the place to keep your money," said Lula Bridges, director of the Macon County Chamber of Commerce.

In the last five years, the bank has nearly doubled its assets, aided by deposits of public funds from Tuskegee University and Alabama State University, two county governments, and local school districts.

What's more, First Tuskegee has branched into Montgomery, where the white-columned state capitol is encircled by 20-story buildings bearing the names of the major Birmingham-based banks.

The small bank's two Montgomery offices, which were opened in 1993, mean a lot to residents of Tuskegee, a town with a limited job market and no department stores or shopping mall.

"People are very proud of those branches," Ms. Bridges said. "When we are doing our shopping in Montgomery on a Saturday, we can take care of our banking there."

Despite his northern roots, Mr. Wright said, he did not have much trouble adjusting to life and the business culture in a small southern town.

"I'm clearly not a native Alabaman or a native Tuskegean," he said, "but I'm a human being, and I've experienced many of the same things my customers have."

Instead of denying credit applications, Mr. Wright tailors products to his customers. First Tuskegee offers Small Business Administration loans rather than conventional business loans and issues secured credit cards for customers with questionable credit histories.

"Since he came in, he has gone out of his way to get in touch with the needs of the community," said Robert L. Davis, president and chief executive of Alabama Exchange Bank in Tuskegee.

When Mr. Wright and his colleagues from Wilmington joined First Tuskegee, the bank held an open house to introduce them and began advertising in the local newspaper and on radio stations.

Genelle Dix, a customer service representative who has worked at First Tuskegee for 10 years, said Tuskegee residents appreciate Mr. Wright's effort to get to know the community.

"We were all waiting to see who would come in and take over the bank, and we got exactly what we wanted," Ms. Dix said. "He made himself right at home."

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