Black-owned United Bank is more than the sum of its assets

Posted: May 23, 2012

Twenty years ago, in economic conditions similar to those we face today, a team of Philadelphia business and civic leaders formed United Bank, an African American-controlled and -focused bank chartered by the commonwealth.

With African Americans making up the region’s largest minority, and with lending to African American individuals, businesses, and institutions disproportionately low, the bank was founded to support a segment of the community that had been neglected or completely ignored. Thanks to individual and institutional investors who contributed hard-earned savings to the effort, United raised the requisite $6 million and became the first black-owned commercial bank in Philadelphia since 1956.

Has the investment paid off? It depends on how you measure the yield.

Like any for-profit enterprise, United Bank has to meet bottom-line goals year in and year out, manage risks, and satisfy its shareholders. And, as The Inquirer recently reported, its performance has been criticized by regulators and others.

But as with other entities born of adversity, United’s success is also measured in ways that go beyond the traditional balance sheet.

In keeping with the legacy of community banking, United has invested in neighborhoods, through residents as well as businesses, that might have been turned away by other banks. With a commitment to the African American community at the core of its mission, United built its foundation in underserved communities facing the most challenging of circumstances.

At this 20-year milestone, United can also be measured by the fact that it’s still standing, one of only 28 black-owned banks in the country. In an era of big-bank bailouts, it has weathered its share of financial storms without the benefit of such a large-scale rescue.

The label “too big to fail” has become part of our financial lexicon. But the notion of being “too important to fail” has carried United through its most turbulent times.

It has meant extending credit to small businesses that have been quietly but consistently providing employment opportunities to people who otherwise would not be able to contribute to the communities we share. It has meant putting money into churches that keep their neighborhoods stable. And it has meant providing gap financing to nonprofits that depend on it to keep providing services while they are awaiting funds.

These are not just transactions; they are transformations. They represent chances taken where there was no chance for anything else but failure.

And there is yet another measure of success beyond the usual yardsticks that is often forgotten: the number of bankers who started their careers at United Bank, where they learned what it takes to make such a community bank work — including understanding that black, urban banking will always be more than just banking.

Put it all together, and you have a portfolio that reflects some hard times and some better times. But it all adds up to helping Philadelphia and its neighborhoods become stronger and more stable.

David W. Brown is chairman of the board of advisers of WURD-AM (900), Philadelphia’s only black-owned talk radio station. He can be reached at dbrown@wurdradio.com.

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