Last year, he ran for president of Ghana. This year, Papa Kwesi Nduom says he's the man to save Chicago's last remaining black-owned bank.
"You don't know what Mr. Chase looks like, but now you know Mr. Nduom," the charming businessman has been telling South Siders since his recent purchase of Illinois Service Federal Bank — one of just 18 black-owned banks in the nation, down from over 40 a decade ago, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Nduom, who grew up in Milwaukee but was for years a member of parliament and a government minister in Ghana, says that at the age of 64, public office is now behind him and that he has no political ambitions in the U.S.
Still, he showed a politician's savvy this week when he hosted a group of prominent pastors at a Black History Month lunch Thursday, casting the future of his bank as a spiritual battle for the economic health of Chicago's African-American community. Nduom alluded to the history of redlining and other discriminatory lending practices by white-owned downtown banks but also had the group howling at his reminiscences of the hold on his imagination that Chicago had when he was a young man as the home of Jet magazine and its glamorous centerfolds.
Founded in 1934 by 13 black businessmen — including Robert Taylor, grandfather of President Barack Obama's adviser and "first friend" Valerie Jarrett — who were troubled that African-Americans could not get credit. ISF Bank has branches in Chatham and Bronzeville and survived the rapid consolidation of U.S. banking and the 2008 financial crisis that hit black banks particularly hard because of its "deep community ties and conservative approach," Nduom said.
Nduom owns banks in several West African countries, including Ghana, Liberia and the Ivory Coast, and he said that he will succeed because "I've gone into places where other people were afraid to operate and shown it can be done." He said he aims to grow the bank from its current $115 million in assets to above $1 billion in the next three to five years.
"When I told people I was running a bank on Chicago's South Side, people said to me, 'Why?!'" he said, to laughter. "I told them, 'There are people who live there, and they have needs.'"
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who made $18 million during his own highly lucrative but short-lived career in banking and served on the board of Freddie Mac, was invited to attend the lunch but could not make it, leaving Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin as the highest-ranking elected official present.
In a fiery speech supporting the bank, Boykin linked generations of economic deprivation and limited access to credit to the violence that is claiming so many lives in Chicago's black communities and quoted Frederick Douglass: "It is easier to raise strong children than it is to repair broken men."
Boykin added, pointedly, "There are no poor white neighborhoods in the city of Chicago."