LOS ANGELES - It was in the rubble of the Martin Luther King Center in the troubled south-central part of this city that Edward Rice, owner of a vandalized Popeye's fried chicken outlet, first met Mac.

Mr. Rice had come to help with the daunting job of cleaning up after the Rodney King riots of 1992. He was joined by other residents and community leaders, including Richard P. McNish, known to his friends as Mac.

Mr. Rice, 45, grew up in south-central. As an 11-year old, he had pocketed candy from vandalized stores during the riots in 1965. He had stood so close to buildings that were torched by angry mobs he could feel the heat beating against his face.

"You wouldn't believe how hot it was," he said.

Now, it had happened again - only this time it was his own business that was among those damaged.

That day Mr. Rice and Mr. McNish joined others in using their own muscle to start rebuilding a broken community. Three years later, Mr. Rice would be a participant, and Mr. McNish a leader, of a bank-sponsored effort to do the same thing, only with Mr. McNish acting as a streetwise conduit for loans to the inner city.

"I've been on the street level," Mr. McNish said. "I've begun to see where that means a considerable amount."

The bank-sponsored enterprise is called the Southern California Business Development Corp. Mr. McNish, a self-described "gang wannabe" in his youth, is president of this group, which was established a year and a half after the riots took place.

In the overall scheme of community development efforts, the corporation is a relatively modest initiative. But, with Mr. McNish at the helm, it is setting an example of how banks can reach out to disfranchised neighborhoods.

The group has as its mission making loans of $25,000 to $250,000 to promising small businesses. The catch is that the businesses must be unable to get loans elsewhere, and the loans must be used to create jobs in south- central.

The group is backed by $4 million of equity investments from 27 California banks, and by a $6 million line of credit from the three banks that have taken the lead in supporting it - First Interstate Bank of California, Bank of America, and Union Bank.

It has five full-time employees, gets leads from its bank-owners, and also gets volunteer help from bankers who sit on loan review committees. But this is no charity effort. Far from it.

The plan is for the development corporation to turn a profit by targeting an underserved credit niche. Although operating expenses thus far have exceeded net interest income by about $300,000, no borrowers have defaulted and the corporation is having what one official called a "hockey stick" acceleration in loan volumes.

Nineteen of the 22 loans it has made thus far were booked in the last 12 months. It is on track to turn a profit in its 1996 fiscal year, which starts July 1. Bankers are crediting this early promise to a potentially trend-setting marriage of their banking skill and Mr. McNish's understanding of south-central.

"It's good business, not only in financial returns, but because it helps stimulate the overall economic environment in a community" said Bruce G. Willison, chairman and chief executive of First Interstate of California.

Mr. Willison led the organizing committee for the corporation and is chairman of its board of directors.

A pack-a-day smoker who would rather keep working than stop to eat lunch, Mr. McNish describes bringing jobs to south-central as his raison d'etre - and the antidote to his own "disorganized" upbringing.

Abandoned as a baby on the front steps of a Cleveland hospital, Mr. McNish grew up in nine foster homes before going to college at Kent State University in Ohio. He stayed there for a year and later joined the Navy, where he boxed competitively during much of his three-year tour.

He got out in 1965 and moved to a rooming house in south-central, just before the riots of that year.

In the aftermath of destruction, Mr. McNish found opportunity. Short on cash, and low on job skills, he enrolled in the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a job-training, work, and recreation program for the Watts area of south-central. It was run by a group of 14 labor unions and funded by the Ford Foundation.

Mr. McNish spent 12 years with the group, first as a member of work crews that cleaned up after the riots, then as a supervisor, and finally as manager of job training. In the process he dealt with gang members, impoverished adults, and community leaders. He also found his life's calling.

"I really began to grow and develop when I was with Watts Labor," Mr. McNish said. "That's when I began to see myself as a participant in this thing called life."

He moved on to management posts at the Urban League, then did community development work for nonprofit groups in Miami before taking a job with the Community Redevelopment Agency here, which approves local development plans.

Mr. McNish said he took the Community Redevelopment post after he had heard that agency officials were chased out of a meeting by Watts residents. He was brought into the agency to help validate it in the eyes of the neighborhood.

"Although it was a threatening experience for members of the CRA, it was a coming back home for me," Mr. McNish said.

People who worked with him said that Mr. McNish became the point man for development efforts in Watts.

"If you wanted to know anything about Watts, or parts of south-central, Richard was the person you called," said Linda Griego, who served as a commissioner of the redevelopment agency and deputy mayor before assuming her current post as chief executive of Rebuild LA.

"He knew every building, every block, every street," Ms. Griego added. "He could quickly assemble the leadership of the community."

Mr. McNish then worked briefly for Rebuild LA, the lead group for revitalizing riot-torn neighborhoods in the city, before agreeing to run the development corporation. He got the job after First Interstate's community reinvestment manager, Hugh Loftus, lobbied for his appointment. Mr. Loftus knew Mr. McNish when Mr. Loftus was a branch manager in Watts in the 1970s.

In taking the post, Mr. McNish was able to attract two experienced bankers and community developers to work for him, Albert E. Davis and Bettye L. Wilkes.

"To me, he's a natural leader," said Mr. Davis, 45, a resident of south- central who had 17 years of commercial and mortgage banking experience before coming to the development corporation in August.

"It's commitment," Mr. Davis added. "He's here on Saturdays and Sundays and visiting companies on the weekends."

On a recent hot, sunny day here, the positive reception to Mr. McNish's business dealings in south-central was in evidence.

Visiting one of the development corporation's newest customers, a provider of tents, linens, and other supplies for parties, Mr. McNish tells the owner, Ecuadorean immigrant Tony Urrutia, about a new short-term financing program that will soon be available.

He also says that Mr. Urrutia's $50,000 loan is all but completed.

Mr. Urrutia explained that his business, Fiesta Party Rentals, had run into hard times in recent years after he was forced to give a big chunk of the operation to his former wife following their divorce. Also, the riots, earthquake, and mud slides in the area put a damper on big parties.

Mr. Urrutia said he tried to get loans from some of the state's biggest commercial banks to tide him through, but was unsuccessful.

"They're thinking I'm going to skip the country and maybe take the money," Mr. Urrutia said.

But "with Richard it's been very pleasant dealing with him," he added.

Mr. Urrutia plans to use the money to build a laundry room that will employ two people, cut costs, and help him handle more events, now that demand is picking up.

At another client's, called Sign Makers, Mr. McNish helps the owner find someone from the neighborhood to install a new linoleum floor. Mr. McNish measures the floor that the owner wants to have redone, and then drives a few blocks away to send over a man who had been working on Mr. McNish's home, which is nearby.

"Where else are you going to get service like that?" the owner, Alex Weiss, asked.

Then it's off to meet with Mr. Rice, a friend since the two worked together in the Martin Luther King Center following the 1992 riots.

Even though Mr. Rice's Popeye's outlet was riot-damaged, Mr. McNish convinced him to open another one in Crenshaw Plaza, a shopping center that had been destroyed in the riots but which has since been rebuilt.

Mr. Rice had expected trouble getting the necessary loans, because he had been involved at one time with a fast food chain that went bankrupt. But, with Mr. McNish's help, he was able to get a $250,000 loan from American Pacific Bank, and another $30,000 loan from the development corporation.

"Without them, I don't think it would have happened," Mr. Rice said.

The outlet now employs 36 people.

When asked if opening another outlet was a shrewd idea, given the neighborhood's history, Mr. Rice said, "This community has come back stronger than it was each time," he said. "That which doesn't kill me shall make me stronger."

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.