Minority banker adapts to the times and thrives

July 22, 2005|By Bill Atkinson

JOSEPH HASKINS JR. remembers all of the doubters when he and a group of African-American leaders said they were going to open a bank in Baltimore run by blacks, for blacks and owned by blacks.

It won't work, they told him. What makes you think you can pull this off? It will never happen.

Those days, in the early 1980s, were tough for African-Americans who wanted basic banking services. Haskins saw a chance to help. He would offer them savings and checking accounts, and make loans so their businesses and churches could grow.

"If you talked to 20 people, 17 or 18 were as negative as you could get," said Haskins, who was a young broker at then-Prudential Bache Securities when he began developing the idea. "You had to have a pretty wholesome self-respect to survive."

Eighteen years after he was named its president, Harbor Bank of Maryland isn't the fastest growing or most profitable bank, but it has done more than just survive. There are 48 African-American-owned banks in the country; Harbor, with only $235 million in assets, is the 10th largest - which shows the struggles that black-owned banks have had over the years.

What has helped Harbor is that Haskins hasn't been afraid to change the original definition of his customer. "I am a fairly progressive person," said Haskins, now 57. "I am not one who gets locked in time warps or time zones."

When the bank opened in September 1982, its typical customer was an African-American living in the inner city. But over the years, Haskins began to see Baltimore as a city defined by small communities made up of not only blacks, but Greeks, Jews, Italians, Koreans and Hispanics.

"You will find us now in every one of these communities," he said. "Whether they are Korean, East Indian or Jewish, as long as they are part of the growing fabric, part of the metropolitan area we see them as our customers."

His board reflects this "melting-pot" attitude: it includes bakery mogul John Paterakis Sr., Joe Louis Gladney, owner of Gladney Transportation, and state Sen. Delores G. Kelley.

"My board is not a fluke; it is by design," Haskins said. "I believe you win with winners. I am not locked into those old patterns."

Diane Bell McKoy, former head of Empower Baltimore Management Corp., said Haskins has taken shots from some in the community who think he sold out. But those people, she says, don't understand his bigger plan.

"If you don't have all of the details you have a snapshot, then you think he is not really supporting the community," she said.

Bell McKoy said that Haskins, by embracing businesses with other ethnic groups, makes the bank stronger and enables it to give back more to the African-American community.

"His growing means he can also do some other things for the [African-American] community and with the community," she said. "I think he has got to grow it. For the bank's survival you have got to grow it, you can't stand still."

Haskins is deeply involved in local affairs. He is chairman of the East Baltimore Development Inc., a board member of the Westside Renaissance Inc. and former chairman of Associated Black Charities.

"We are so engrained in the city," he said. "I know the mayor, I know the deputy mayor, I know the people in public works."

His bank has done business in neighborhoods that have made other banks squeamish. It led a $10 million effort to rebuild Victory Christian Ministries' church in Clinton. It helped revive a badly needed food market in Cherry Hill and will continue work in Pimlico.

Like most banks, Harbor offers a variety of products and services, including online banking. For Haskins, there is something refreshing about banking in cyberspace.

"I don't know who is coming in to do business." he said. "I don't know if it is a black guy or a white girl. ... So much of what is done today is colorblind."

@SUBHEDLudwig returns to Baltimore under less-hectic circumstances

The last time Eugene Ludwig set foot in Baltimore, he whisked in like a man of the cloth to exorcise the demons from Allfirst Bank.

That was 3 1/2 years ago, when the bank was swallowed by scandal after currency trader John Rusnak hid nearly $700 million in losses from his superiors for five, count them, five years. But the former top banking regulator was back in Baltimore this week under much saner circumstances.

Ludwig, now chief of a Washington banking consultancy, chatted up customers and employees at Harbor Bank, pumping up a product developed by his firm that lets municipalities and customers deposit millions and still receive Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insurance.

The FDIC only insures deposits up to $100,000 per account, but CDARS, which stands for Certificate of Deposit Account Registry Service, uses technology to break the money into smaller chunks and electronically deposits it with banks in the network. (Harbor offers the product.)

Ludwig revealed little new about his Allfirst investigation. Some thought he went too light on top executives of the company. But he's adamant that Rusnak, who is in prison, was to blame.

"We had a very short time to do" the report, Ludwig said. "I think we nailed it."

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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