Black-owned bank outgrows storefront past

Baltimore's Advance moves to first stand-alone headquarters in 45 years

A renewed focus on growth

May 13, 2002|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

After 45 years of operating from small rowhouse and storefront buildings, black-owned Advance Bank has moved its headquarters to its first free-standing site, at Seton Business Park.

Advance Bank President John M. Hamilton Jr. said the move is part of the company's strategy to attract new customers.

"We wanted a more corporate image," Hamilton said from the conference room at the headquarters. "We're focusing on a growth strategy and feel we need a real corporate presence."

Like many black-owned banks, 45-year-old Advance opened when black customers were largely ignored by mainstream banks. But after mainstream banks began to serve the customers they once shunned, many of the black-owned banks were forced to close.

More than 45 black-owned commercial banks and thrifts exist today in the United States, fewer than half the number 40 years ago, according to the MBank Council, which tracks minority financial institutions.

Advance, one of three black-owned banks in Baltimore, has survived by keeping its core customers: African-American churches, small businesses and nonprofits. The mutually owned bank has $43 million in assets and had a profit last year of $164,000.

Federally chartered Advance has grown little in recent years. Bank officials said they know they need to modernize to continue to compete.

The first step was the new 8,000-square-foot headquarters, which includes the bank's third branch. The $1.8 million project dwarfs the former 3,600-square-foot headquarters at 1405 E. Cold Spring Lane.

Hamilton said the bank also is working on a new marketing plan. Advance reaches customers mostly through mail campaigns and radio ads.

In the next year, Advance will expand its products to focus more on consumer lending and the needs of small businesses. It will begin offering auto loans, for example.

"We're looking at ways to diversify," Hamilton said.

Black-owned banks must offer more services to survive, banking experts said. Customers at banks such as Advance tend to be those who support the institutions out of loyalty. Many don't use black-owned banks for their primary banking because of the lack of services.

"If you had a meeting of 1,000 black professionals, less than half would say they banked with a black-owned bank," said Dina Curtis, a lobbyist for the Washington-based MBank Council. "These banks need to provide the real contemporary services that black professionals look for."

Curtis said Advance's Hamilton, who came to the bank 10 years ago from Florida, brought a progressive edge to the institution, whose board members at the time were mostly in their 70s and 80s. She said the new building helps its image.

"Hamilton has positioned Advance to move to the next level," Curtis said. "He's looking at a structure that will allow them to stick their foot into more commercial products."

While Advance focuses on new customers, Hamilton said, it won't forget the city clients that have helped the bank succeed. Many of those customers still don't have access to adequate banking services, he said.

Advance moved to Northwest Baltimore in part because so many banks have abandoned that side of town, he said.

"We want to continue to invest in the city, but at the same time we want to look at where customers are moving," Hamilton said.

"We want to attract all the customers we can. We don't want to do totally black banking, we want to do good banking."

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