FOR FIVE YEARS, EMMA C. CHAPPELL CANVASSED the streets of Philadelphia. She went from boardrooms to schoolyards, pleaded her cause at City Hall and went to three, sometimes even five, churches a day, doing her financial missionary work. People prayed, held candlelight vigils and passed around the collection plate.
Because of her tireless evangelism, the United Bank of Philadelphia, an African-American-owned, full-service commercial institution opened for business in 1992. At the time, there was no black-owned commercial bank north of the Mason Dixon line. The last black bank in Philadelphia, Citizens & Southern Bank & Trust, had closed its doors 36 years earlier.
Deemed "the bank the people built," United Bank was structured on a grass-roots foundation: Some 3,000 individuals collectively invested $3.3 million. This figure represents 55% of the capitalization amount required by the State Department of Banking; the rest of the money came from institutional investors.
Appropriately, this venture in economic self-reliance stands just a few blocks from a familiar symbol of colonial history and freedom, Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Sitting in her modest office, surrounded by books and photos of her grandchildren, Emma Chappell, who is in her early 50s, is a "self-described praying woman"--comfortable traveling between the worlds of church and commerce. She brought 35 years of banking experience to United, including a stint as vice president at Continental Bank, one of the city's top 10 banks. As she notes with a laugh, she always wanted to be the CEO of a bank but never thought that she would actually build one.
In the five years since the groundwork was laid, she has seen this community "building" grow nearly five times in terms of its original assets and customers. She has seen its success confound those skeptics who were critical that the bank would ever open its doors, much less survive its infancy. Because of its pioneering efforts in neighborhood expansion, United Bank of Philadelphia is BLACK ENTERPRISE's 1994 Financial Company of the Year.
Central to this expansion was United's acquisition of six branches in the last two years from the Resolution Trust Corp. (RTC), the federal agency charged with clearing up hundreds of failed thrifts. By seizing this opportunity, the bank grew from one office with $18 million in deposits to seven offices with $87.2 million in deposits. Since 1993, United's assets have tripled to nearly $100 million.
No minority-owned institution has achieved so much in so little time. Among the nation's giant banks, United may seem small. But in reality, roughly 3,400 of the nation's banks have $100 million or more in assets and 7,600 have less. This puts United right at the cusp of being bigger than the average bank.
"We realized we could fulfill our mission of growing the bank through acquisition and serving traditionally unserved and underserved neighborhoods," says Chappell. Specifically, the bank was created to serve the needs of a community with a heavy minority population, including African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. "The City of Brotherly Love is very polarized, which made it harder for me to build the bank with the help of the community," Chappell says. "Even various segments of the African-American community were not united."
Chappell has received a great deal of community support for her daring undertaking. "The survival of this bank is important to the city," says Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. "The plan Emma is following is a sound one." The city has over $100,000 in deposits and $4.5 million invested in United.
IN GOD WE TRUST
Chappell became a banker somewhat by divine intervention. She was 16 years old and about to graduate from West Philadelphia High School, when her pastor, the noted civil rights activist, the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan of Zion Baptist Church, asked her what she planned to do with her life. Chappell, who was 14 when her mother died, had thought about becoming a doctor so that she...