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Johnson Buys Bank to Build Black-Focused Financial Firm

Robert L. Johnson is building a financial services empire.
Robert L. Johnson is building a financial services empire. (Peter Morgan - Reuters)
By Terence O'Hara
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Robert L. Johnson, the founder and former chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, said yesterday that he acquired a tiny Florida savings and loan and plans to move it to Washington to use as the springboard for a large consumer financial services company aimed at black customers.

The bank, to be renamed Urban Trust, is part of an effort by Johnson to build what he hopes will be the country's largest minority-owned financial services company, one positioned to attract major Wall Street investors as it seeks to foster and profit from rising black wealth. The company is meant to compete with the nation's most elite financial firms, but, its new chief executive said, it will also spend "a lot of afternoons in churches" advocating homeownership.

"Urban Trust will . . . bring more access to capital to individuals and families who need it, especially those that need help managing their assets and their wealth in a better way," Johnson said. "There's no doubt in my mind that a well-capitalized, well-managed black-owned financial institution will be welcomed."

While average household net worth of blacks is far lower than the national average -- $15,500 vs. $71,700 in 1998, according to the latest figures compiled by the Federal Reserve -- it is growing far more rapidly than the national average.

In establishing Urban Trust, Johnson wants to reverse a decade-long slide in the number and performance of small, undercapitalized black-owned banks across the country whose traditional markets have been invaded by mainstream financial institutions.

"I've observed what's been happening with some minority banks out there," Johnson said. "The other big banks have gotten very aggressive at going after their customers. What we're saying is that we can bring the focus and the capital to compete with those big banks on the same terms."

Johnson, since resigning as chairman of BET in December -- he sold the privately owned cable broadcaster to Viacom Inc. in 2000 for $3 billion -- has been assembling what he calls his "second act": a large asset management and financial services firm from the Bethesda headquarters of his RLJ Cos. He has teamed with Deutsche Bank AG to form a hedge-fund investment business for wealthy individuals and institutions. And Washington's Carlyle Group, the biggest U.S. private equity firm, is helping him form a leveraged-buyout fund. Three years ago, Johnson began investing in hotels, and he now has a $3 billion portfolio of properties around the country.

The slide Johnson noted in historically black banks has been evident in Washington. Independence Federal Savings Bank in the District and Industrial Bank NA in Oxon Hill, were largely passed by while the deposit base in the Washington area doubled over the past five years. Independence's deposits actually shrank during that period, while Industrial's grew only 3 percent.

Johnson began speaking publicly of his desire to own a financial institution three years ago, when he tried to purchase Independence. That effort failed, but it laid the groundwork for his purchase of the Florida thrift.

Metro Bank FSB was founded in 1963, and for almost all its life it was a black-owned financial institution in a poor, black section of Orlando. It has just one office and less than $10 million in deposits, and it hasn't made money in years.

After running into financial and ownership troubles in 2003, Metro was purchased by Frank J. Hanna Jr., an Atlanta entrepreneur who made millions of dollars in the debt collection business and is a prominent financial contributor to conservative causes and Republican congressional candidates.

According to Johnson, Hanna, who could not be reached for comment, had hoped to return Metro to minority ownership at some point. Through a mutual friend, the two were introduced after Johnson's bid to buy Independence faltered. Johnson bought most of Metro's stock from Hanna, who will retain a small interest in the new company.

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