How I Made It: Joanne Kim, CEO of CBB Bank in Koreatown

By Tiffany Hsu
Los Angeles Times.

The gig: Joanne Kim, 60, has been president and chief executive of CBB Bank in Koreatown since April 2011. The bank has less than $1 billion in assets and specializes in Small Business Administration lending and mid-size commercial and industrial loans. Previously, she was president and chief executive of Wilshire State Bank and chief lending officer of Wilshire Bancorp.
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Refugees from war: Her parents, the youngest members of their families, fled to South Korea from North Korea during the war in the 1950s. They married young: Kim’s mother was just 18.

Determination and discipline: Kim grew up in Seoul, the middle and most headstrong of five children, always fighting for her parents’ attention. To afford a college education for their children, Kim’s parents “100% sacrificed themselves,” she said. Her father worked as a policeman and then ran several small businesses; her mother operated a general store. The matriarch ruled the household with “pretty strict Christian discipline,” which earned Kim many spankings. That may have inspired her to spend two decades teaching Sunday school.

A change in course: With dreams of becoming a diplomat, Kim hoped to pursue political science at Korea University. But her parents threatened to withhold her tuition — opportunities for women were slim outside of teaching, nursing and secretarial occupations. Kim “fought and fought and fought” but eventually decided to major in English and minor in history, studying ancient societies and Shakespeare.

California dreamin’: Kim really wanted to leave South Korea and its societal restrictions. So when her now ex-husband proposed following his family to the U.S., Kim didn’t hesitate. “I wasn’t afraid at all,” she said. She arrived in Los Angeles in 1978.

Learning the ropes: Within a month, out of “pure necessity,” she got a job as a loan assistant at a Korean-American bank while her husband worked on his college degree. Three months later, she was promoted to executive secretary for the company’s head of finance. A “very old-fashioned” banker, the man refused to speak to Kim for a month, dismayed by her lack of a finance background and shaky English skills. “Every day was a challenge,” she said. “Having no experience humbled me — I had to try doubly hard to be at the same playing field,” she said.

Boy’s club: Establishing a reputation as a banker in an industry dominated by men was tough, Kim said. “In this business, the rules — if there are any — are set by guys.” In a time before sexual harassment policies, Kim would attend so-called martini lunches where white bankers would smoke, drink and carouse. As the only Asian woman in attendance, she pretended that she understood their jokes or didn’t hear the sexist ones. “Sometimes it hurt deep inside, but I learned to bite my tongue,” she said. Instead, she focused on being a fast and effective banker.

Speechless: Kim was a vice president at Mid City Bank in 1992 when the Los Angeles riots erupted nearby. Her office closed at 11 a.m. and employees were warned to stay away from Vermont Avenue. Kim drove straight there to see the unrest firsthand and was astonished by scenes she hadn’t witnessed since postwar Korea. Later, she sobbed as she watched television footage of fires. At the time, Koreatown didn’t have many political figures. Community members agonized over what they felt was unfair media coverage but were helpless to change it. “It’s not about having money or financial success — we have to have voices,” Kim said. She is an active political contributor to this day.

Regrets and rejuvenation: Kim doesn’t have many work-related regrets. She wishes she had spent more time with her children — her daughter, 33, is a racehorse trainer and her son, 32, is a doctor serving American troops in South Korea. Kim, who is unmarried, lives in Northridge and has been a self-proclaimed Valley girl since 1987. The avid hiker and traveler wears a Fitbit fitness tracker — she’s trying to boost her strength before spending two weeks in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, this year.

People skills: Work hard and deliver more than promised — that was Kim’s career mantra for years. She was chief lending officer at Wilshire State Bank for seven years and chief executive for three. Despite the recession, she managed to help grow assets from $240 million in 2000 to $3.4 billion by the end of her CEO tenure in 2011. Her executive responsibilities required her to be diplomatically savvy and to build and tend to networks. “I didn’t do well,” she said. “Work is not everything — as you move up the ladder, job experience counts heavily, but people skills count more.”

Koreatown pride: When Kim began working in local banking, making $5,000 loans to groceries and dry cleaners, Koreatown had the number of restaurants the area now boasts on half a city block. Kim’s loan amounts are now in the tens of millions of dollars. “I see these people grow — I see their success and know I was a part of it,” she said. “That’s what keeps me in this business.”

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