Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Bank Reale founder works within a ‘social justice perspective on banking’
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the April 12, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
When Dennis Gisi (left), of Walla Walla’s St. Patrick Parish, was growing up Catholic on a farm about 60 miles northwest of Fargo, N.D., it never occurred to him that he would become a banker and live in Walla Walla. Neither did it occur to Gisi that, inspired by Catholic perspectives on social and economic justice, he would become a key figure in the launch of a regional bank created to serve, primarily, Southeastern Washing-ton’s growing Hispanic-American population.
Several years ago, Gisi was working for Walla Walla’s Baker-Boyer National Bank as Director of Strategic Planning and Marketing. “We had a business banking center,” Gisi says, “that did lending and also offered trust investments in the Tri-Cities. I was also involved in a lot of ‘extra-curricular’ activities that were part of my own business, Gisi Investment Services – of which my wife, Christine, is president (and valuable partner).” Between 2000-2006, the Tri-Cities was the fastest-growing area in the state.
At the same time, Sloan Kimball – a member of the Baker family that has owned Baker-Boyer National Bank for about five generations, and whose wife and children are Catholic and members of Walla Walla’s Assumption Parish – wanted to launch out on his own and see what he could do as an independent entrepreneur.
“We finally got to the point where we had to ask ourselves how much we believed in this concept” of what would become Bank Reale, said Gisi. “From the basement of my home we started having conversations about who our advisors would be, how we would move forward, and how we would differentiate ourselves not only from the banking community but also from the retail financing community.”
Gisi had collected considerable demographic information which indicated that 60 percent of Pasco is Hispanic. Research indicated that no other financial institution was really concentrating on that portion of the growing population. Further research indicated that young Hispanics working in banking were growing frustrated with traditional financial institutions – that “they were getting lip service from the management teams. In other words, they were put in positions because they were bilingual, but because a lot of these were large corporate banks, these people weren’t having any influence on marketing, and product selection, and those kinds of things. So we decided that if we could listen, we could carve out a niche.”
“Culturally, there is an impression that Hispanic people distrust banks, and it’s probably true because historically the banking system in Mexico has been very weak. But they’re immigrants, or their parents or grandparents were immigrants, and we wanted to know if they are immigrants with some wherewithal. They are the immigrants that this country has historically welcomed with open arms, if with nothing more than just an opportunity,” said Gisi. “We found that a lot of the people that were moving into the area, and a lot of the people who were already living in the area, were not necessarily immigrants themselves but second or third generation, with roots in this country.”
Someone who has been associated with Bank Reale is Gloria Ocholo Lawrence. “She typifies the individual we’re thinking of,” Gisi said. “She’s in her early 30s, she’s Hispanic, and she’s an attorney in private practice in Kennewick. She owns her own home and is raising her family, and she obviously has an income level and some equity that makes her the type of individual who is very bankable. She personifies the client that we were certainly looking for,” and is a member of the bank’s founding Board.
Bank Reale opened in Pasco on Sept. 18, 2006. “Sloan Kimball and I left the Baker Boyer Bank on Sept. 16 of 2003,” Gisi says, “which it turns out is Mexican Independence Day, so it took three years and two days to get from a formulated idea, through the regulatory process, and to raise the capital and so forth. After we left we had a series of organizational meetings to test the viability of the idea and to gain support, gather a board, and make an application to the FDIC and the Washington State Dept. of Financial Institutions.”
Gisi says that not only did he and Kimball want to start a bank that would focus on providing financial services to the Hispanic-American community that other banks were sometimes not ready to provide, but they wanted to attract Hispanic-American employees and managers who were dissatisfied with working for other financial institutions. “We haven’t made a lot of difference yet,” Gisi said, “but we will.”
In the beginning, the FDIC wouldn’t approve the business plan formulated for Bank Reale. “The government wants to recognize the Hispanic influence in America, and encourage people to do business with them, and to encourage them to be self-sufficient in this country. Yet the ironic thing is that at the end of the day, the government wouldn’t approve the business plan as it was written. The FDIC function is basically consumer protections and managing risk, or avoiding risk. They are looking for an experienced management team. The Hispanic community in the Tri-Cities area is young and talented but simply does not have the 20 years’ experience.”
In response, Gisi and Kimball re-wrote the business plan to become more focused on the community as a whole, “and rightly so,” Gisi said. “We certainly never intended to exclude any group.”
The business plan was re-written. Bank Reale would be a Tri-Cities community bank. “Gloria Ochoa Lawrence, who is associated with the board, and Joe Gonzalez, who is a board member and owner of American Electric in Richland, help us understand the Latino community and advise us on business and how to do business and how we can enter into those markets,” he said. Other employees, Hispanic and Anglo, are thoroughly bilingual. “We have developed our home loan effort using some programs that are now becoming available so that anyone who is not a citizen but has a tax ID number, and some credit, can qualify for a home loan,” he said.
One significant goal of Bank Reale is to develop talent and provide all employees with opportunities to enhance their careers. “We would prefer that they stay at Bank Reale,” he says, “but honestly, one of the greatest compliments an employee can pay us is to take what we have taught them and apply it” at another financial institution.
So far, there may seem to be little that is explicitly Catholic about what Gisi has done in creating Bank Reale. “Where the Catholic faith comes into play for us,” Gisi said, “is that we have a philosophy at Bank Reale to be trusted advisors to our clients, and what that means is that we sit down with individuals and try to define what their goals and dreams really are, and how they want to improve their businesses, or their lives, for their families. We want to give them advice on how to navigate the financial world in business so they can be successful. We want to be in a position where we can lift all of our clients to another level, financially.
“That’s where the Catholic faith and upbringing, and relationships, and supporting people comes into play, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a social justice perspective on banking. It was started for me as I grew up Catholic with the belief that you do unto others in positive and supportive ways, in ways that you would want to be supported yourself. The other thing is that after I moved to Walla Walla in 1985, and became a Certified Financial Planner, and worked for what later became American Express, it was gratifying to be able to sit down with people and give them ideas, and show them ways to improve their financial lives. It’s a way of ‘loving your neighbor’ that people sometimes don’t think about.”
Being Catholic leads him to strive to be a good father, husband, and friend, he said. It relates to his professional life by inspiring him to continue educating himself so he can give the best advice and guidance he can to others. His faith helps him to be a good steward of the financial resources God has given him, including sharing those resources in charitable ways.
Finally, he cherishes the way his Catholic faith guides him in such actions as attending Mass regularly, trying to be a prayerful person, seeking forgiveness, and being open to God’s power and influence in his daily life. He expresses gratitude for the many times that “the Lord has had to carry Chris and me. Fortunately, he and our Catholic faith have supported us through these times,” he said.
“I hope that trying to incorporate all this into my life will lead to a close-knit family, which we have, and to an organization in Bank Reale that provides employees with opportunities to grow professionally, as well as funding for our clients to accomplish their goals and dreams for their families.”