Boston Bank of Commerce isn't the biggest bank owned and operated by African-Americans. Finishing 1999 with less than $150 million in assets, it doesn't even crack the nation's top 10. But the privately held, 17-year-old, state-chartered bank is easily the most ambitious. Operating in a niche characterized by tiny, local institutions often run by people with little banking experience, chief executive Kevin Cohee wants to build the first national black-owned financial holding company. That means not just acquiring a string of African-American banks and thrifts in major metropolitan markets, but swiftly taking advantage of the recently passed financial modernization act to buy black-owned investment and insurance firms. When he can prove the concept works, perhaps after two years of making accretive acquisitions, he'll take the company public.

"This a classic roll-up strategy-to go around to African-American banks in major marketplaces, and give them the scale and resources necessary to be effective in the market. Now, these banks are too small. They don't have the capital, the products and services, and the management to succeed," Cohee says. "We're trying to create the minority financial institution that will not only survive into the 21st century, but will thrive."

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