OneUnited was on the ropes when Kevin Cohee took charge but it’s the biggest Black-owned bank in the US now

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 16, 2024 12:39 PM EDT
Kevin Cohee. Photo credit: OneUnited Bank

Kevin Cohee acquired a struggling financial institution in 1995 and managed to turn it around. Through aggressive expansion and extensive marketing campaign, he established OneUnited Bank. Today, Cohee is the owner, Chairman and CEO of the largest Black owned bank and the first Black owned internet bank in America.

He never knew his father and his mother died of an allergic reaction to penicillin when was six. Cohee was then raised by relatives in Kansas City. A self-described child of the Black Panther party, he grew up attending civil rights activism meetings. His early exposure to the ideals of Black economic empowerment would later spur him towards bank ownership.

“[Someone] told me, “We have enough brothers protesting in these streets; we need some young brothers like you to own institutions like banks,” Cohee said of how a remark from a civil rights meeting guided his life.

“They literally set this vision in my head to own a bank, and I spent my life playing that vision out,” he added.

Cohee earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin where he was a four-year letterman in football. He was involved in the acquisition of radio and television stations, did consulting work for the state of Wisconsin and represented some of the professional athletes he had played with during college. Although the entrepreneurial ventures were profitable, Cohee believed that he could earn more if he went back to school. He went on to earn an MBA from the University of Wisconsin and a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School.

Cohee became an investment banker at Salomon Brothers and got to develop his skills. He left after awhile and acquired Military Professional Services, a credit card company that serves U.S. military personnel. He built it into a profitable company with a $40 million portfolio and over 20,000 customers. Cohee sold it to First Chicago Corp in 1991.

“Our responsibility is to be agents of change and to provide community support. It’s taking on the responsibility of educating Black Americans about the importance of starting with that one transaction,” Cohee said on the responsibility of corporations.

In pursuit of his dream of owning a Black bank, Cohee and his wife, Teri Williams acquired majority controlling interest in Boston Bank of Commerce with $1 million. He was appointed CEO less than a year later. Cohee quickly turned around the financially struggling institution and helped it to make profits.

He set out on an expansionary campaign and purchased three more banks in African-American communities in less than a decade. Cohee bought People’s National Bank of Commerce in 1999. He bought Founders National Bank in a stock swap valued at $10.2 million in 2001 and Family Savings Bank for a reported $12 million. He consequently established OneUnited Bank by unifying the four banks.

“Black banks have to provide a level of support to underbanked communities white-owned banks don’t. We’re trying to make financial literacy a core value in the Black community,” Cohee said of the role OneUnited is playing in the community.

OneUnited has built its reputation as an activist bank and a bank for Black America. It is committed to leveraging the $1.3 trillion annual Black spending, changing the culture and eliminating inequity and injustice perpetrated against African Americans. The bank provides specialized programs to urban bankers such as a second chance checking account and a secured credit card. OneUnited has also found a way around credit, income and documentation challenges and does more business and mortgage lending.

The bank received bailout funds in 2008 and was able to stay afloat. OneUnited was able to overcome the setbacks and experienced revival alongside the 2016 cultural movement. The bank has adopted the “Unapologetically Black” tagline and trademarked the phrase “Bank Black.” Cohee is keeping alive the dream of economic equity for African Americans highlighted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

OneUnited assets have grown from $56 million in 1996 to over $650 million at present. The bank has generated consistent profits and achieved a compound growth rate of over 35% on its common equity. Cohee believes that OneUnited will soon be a billion-dollar bank.