CEO Q&A: Opportunity Rising in the Midwest

In 2019, Orvin Kimbrough became CEO of Midwest BankCentre, a $2 billion community bank in St. Louis. Having served as a bank board member, Kimbrough spent his prior career as a nonprofit executive, most recently as president and CEO of the United Way of Greater St. Louis. In this interview, he discusses the unique perspective he brings to his role and how Midwest BankCentre is reaching underserved communities in its market—activities recognized by the ABA Foundation with a 2019 Community Commitment Award for community and economic development. Listen to the full interview on the ABA Banking Journal Podcast. (Note: This interview was recorded prior to the coronavirus pandemic.)

Q It’s a bit unusual for a bank CEO to come from a background in the nonprofit sector. What advantages do you feel you’ve been able to bring from the nonprofit community into the bank?

A I’ve been serving on the bank’s board and certainly interacting with lots of bankers, and there’s a deep history and a deep knowledge within the banking industry. I think I bring a couple other things: The first is I’ve spent the last 20 years of my career focused on social capital and human capital—whether it’s education, whether it’s relationships, whether it’s networks or connections that help people participate in the economic activity.

Second, I think I bring a different perspective on how to actually deploy capital in some of our most vulnerable communities, not just in the St. Louis region but across the world, across the nation. When you think about what’s happening in America particularly, there’s a bifurcation that’s happening. More and more financial institutions will find themselves stratifying along a higher-wealth strategy and a lower-wealth strategy.

The board also recognized the digitization that’s going on in banking, and we wanted to get a leg up. Over the last couple of years I’ve spent a good deal of time working with salesforce.org and salesforce.com to bring a revolutionary new technology to the field of philanthropy that will productively disrupt philanthropy if it’s executed the right way. So we’re thinking about that.

We’re thinking about the populations that we serve both in traditional channels as well as in digital channels. As many know, we launched a completely digital bank in early 2019 called Rising Bank. We’re excited about that. We’ve seen great momentum and great success early on, and we intend to see more success as we push forward.

Kimbrough

Q In a bifurcated environment, how do you build the bank to capitalize consciously on opportunities both to serve more affluent customers and lower-income communities?

A The way that we build a bank that consciously serves the higher-end market as well as a low-to-moderate-income market is to have those groups actually populating your board. When you look at most boards, they are not populated that way. They typically have your higher-end folks who are setting a strategy for the bank, or at least approving the strategy. For us, we’ve got that level of depth on our board. We have racial diversity unlike any you’ll see on any corporate board. We have a board that reflects our values, that reflects the strategy that’s important to the future of the bank. And we hold ourselves accountable to developing those products and services.

I grew up poor; I grew up in the foster care system. I entered the foster care system when I was eight, and I aged out at 21. My mom used food stamps. I don’t ever recall going to a mainstream financial institution as a young person. I saw pawn shops in my neighborhood; that was how we transacted business.

So I know that the alternative for poor people and working-class people when they have a liquidity issue is going to cost them so much more, because they’ve got to go through a predatory lending establishment to actually receive the financing that they need. My challenge to our entire organization is to develop a loan alternative with attractive rates for people whose credit is less than creditworthy, but they have a work ethic and we can build credit models in different ways instead of the more traditional ways that we’ve looked at this.

Q Can you give us some examples of how Midwest BankCentre engages with underserved communities in your market?

A A few years back, under the leadership of my predecessor, Jim Watson, we really started on a journey to look at the bank top down, and we looked at the board, our makeup. Jim put in place a plan to diversify our board to make sure that we represented the communities that we report to and serve. I was fortunate enough to join that board a few years ago. We then looked at the market and what’s happening in the market.

We partnered with a church to start a bank inside the church in a very depressed part of St. Louis. If you look at the project that we’ve implemented with Friendly Temple Church or the project that we’ve carried out alongside Beyond Housing in Pagedale, you will see that our bank has served as an incubator of sorts. Economic activity happens when there is access to capital. We’re super excited about our ability to partner alongside communities to actually listen to communities and bring to bear the tremendous resources that we have as a financial institution.

Q You’ve also dedicated resources to serving minority language communities in St. Louis. I think yours is the only bank website I’ve ever seen that is translated not just into Spanish but also Bosnian.

A That’s right. As we go forward, you’re going to see even more translation both on our traditional site and for our digital bank as well. This is about being culturally competent. It’s about starting where people are, and it’s about building a bridge. When you have communities that have historically not had the access to mainstream financial services, there can be a feeling of intimidation. What we want to do is remove the barriers to mainstream financial services, and this means making sure that we are responsive and that we’re easy to navigate, and that starts with basic communication.

Q Are there specific things that help drive some of the cultural competencies, besides making sure that there is diversity on the board?

A The decisions that we make as an organization are, first, good business decisions. We can be profitable and conscientious at the same time. I think sometimes leaders get into this certain thought pattern that they can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. We can be profitable and serve every part of our community.

When we look at things like mortgages or banking, there has been so much conversation around this but not enough progress. One way to get to more progress is to show other financial institutions that you can do this—and you can be profitable. You can do this—and you can manage your risk. You almost need to come up with what I call a lab with a handful of financial institutions who have taken this journey, and they are in it for the long haul and they bring good business sense to it as well. They’re willing to try things; they’re willing to innovate.

Q You’re the only African-American bank CEO in the St. Louis region. Aside from the cultural commitment that your bank has, are there specific things that help drive increased diversity in the bank?

A The fact that I’m African-American is not the primary driver here. If you look at what’s happening in terms of diversification in this country, by 2050 there are going to be more and more diverse people—and there are going to be more and more diverse people in these low- to moderate- to middle-income communities. If you don’t position to serve this market, you don’t have to worry about serving the market; you’ll be out of business.

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About Author

Evan Sparks

Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal and senior vice president for member communications at the American Bankers Association.