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Optus Bank rebuilding with a focus on its money’s mission

Banking & Finance
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Dominik Mjartan is a man on a mission, a banker with a belief.

Mjartan become president and CEO of what would become Optus Bank, an organization with a historic but rocky past, in September 2017. The bank, founded in 1921 as Victory Savings Banks and then known as S.C. Community Bank, was at its lowest point, reeling from the Great Recession of 2008, mired in a mess of non-performing assets and on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s troubled bank list.

How the bank got from there to record assets, a swanky new downtown headquarters and a swelling sense of optimism involves the commitment of long-time believers — and their money — along with an infusion of fresh capital from new converts.

In early February, Optus Bank affixed a sign atop its headquarters at 1241 Main St. The bank's relocation is part of a years-long rebranding of S.C. Community Bank, founded in 1921 as Victory Savings Bank. (Photo/Jeff Blake/www.JeffBlakePhoto.com) It is also the story of how an unassuming immigrant from then-Czechoslovakia built himself into the embodiment of the American dream, and how he’s convinced — and convinces others — that similar success can be attained by anyone with equitable access.

“We need to make sure that economic opportunities are present and folks can improve their lives and make good choices for themselves,” Mjartan said. “I think every person should have a fair chance to earn a good living or to build a business or buy a house.”

Optus’ remarkable turnaround bears out Mjartan’s belief. Since year-end 2016, the bank’s total assets have grown 51% to $80 million, up from a low of $47.8 million in September 2017, when Mjartan took over. Total deposits have grown to $71.2 million, a 50% increase since year-end 2016 and up from a low of $41.5 million.

Optus has seen a 52% increase in total loans and leases over year-end 2016 and a 44% increase in shareholder equity, according to figures provided by the bank.

In 2018, the bank began making money after losing more than $10 million the previous 10 years. At the end of 2019, Optus netted $540,000 after losing $1.6 million two years before.

Mjartan, however, remains proudest of another number: Nearly 90% of Optus’ loans are invested in low-income communities or minority businesses or homes.

“I believe firmly that mission and margin can, not just coexist, but actually reinforce each other,” Mjartan said. “If we do the mission part right, and we’re successful in proving that we can build a vibrant small business sector and support it, it’s going to drive our success and our viability.”

A new face

At first, Jennifer Clyburn Reed didn’t know what to think.

A longtime customer of and business partner with S.C. Community Bank, Reed was good friends with board chair Paul Mitchell and other bank associates.

Mjartan represented a new wrinkle.

“Honestly, it was very interesting,” said Reed, a Columbia entrepreneur and daughter of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn. “I was very reserved the first time we met,  but I thought it was important for me to give him a chance to show me where his mind was. Then I wanted him to show me where his heart was. And now that I know that we are on similar pages. We’re definitely in the same book. We’re sharing some of those some pages so that we can help the community grow.”

An outsider — this one from central Europe by way of south Arkansas — taking over such a significant institution could be a reason to raise an eyebrow. Victory Savings Bank opened in 1921 as the first black-owned bank in South Carolina. From its base on 1107 Washington St., it played a crucial role in helping African-Africans go to college and buy homes for decades.

“In the midst of segregation, the anticipation was the bank would help many African-American families and businesses realize their dreams,” University of South Carolina associate history professor and local historian Bobby Donaldson told the Columbia Regional Business Report for a 2018 article. “At one time, it was the bank in the community.”

Victory’s influence extended beyond Columbia.

“In the 1950s, when African-Americans in Orangeburg and Summerton were challenging school segregation, many were ostracized and fired from their jobs,” Donaldson said. “There was a national fundraising campaign, and thousands of dollars poured into South Carolina through the Victory Savings Bank.”

Mitchell, a Columbia native who started the first of many businesses in the city in 1990, was well aware of Victory Savings Bank’s history. When the bank ran into trouble in the late 1990s, he kept close tabs on its future, soon joining a group of investors banding forces to save the institution.

“I think we raised a little over $3 million to buy the assets of the failed bank,” said Mitchell, who served on the board of what became S.C. Community Bank for about a dozen years before becoming its chair. “Once that happened, I began to invest in the bank. We actually did pretty well in the early 2000s.”

Then came the Great Recession, which began in 2007 when an inflated U.S. housing bubble burst. The most severe economic downturn the country had seen since the Great Depression followed.

As unemployment soared in minority communities that saw their primary source of equity — home values — drop, problematic loans and other struggles landed the bank on the unofficial problem bank list, a confidential list maintained by the FDIC and compiled by various websites from public sources.

With its historic commitment to providing capital to traditionally underserved banking communities, S.C. Community Bank, like other minority-owned institutions, felt the pinch acutely. In 2007, the U.S. boasted 44 majority black-owned banks, according to American Banker. In November 2019, Optus was one of just 21.

As the economy began to recover, so did the bank. The problematic commercial real estate loans that kept it on the federal watch list as late as November 2017 were resolved, and the bank was removed from the list in March 2018.

“By 2012, 2013, I really thought the bank could be saved, and so I began investing my own money,” Mitchell said. “The economy was recovering, and I felt, with some different leadership, the bank could make better decisions. The good thing about a small bank or a small business is, it’s easier to turn around. We weren’t so big that it was a massive effort. It was just making good, sound business decisions.”

That didn’t happen instantaneously: “We maybe hired a president here and there that wasn’t necessarily the right fit,” Mitchell said.

In search of the right leader, bank board members cast about for candidates.

“We asked around, mainly other African-American bankers, about potential candidates, and we interviewed probably five or six different candidates,” Mitchell said. “But a couple of bank CEOs, African-American bank CEOs, told us we should meet Dom. … I thought it was very interesting that African-American bankers, CEOs, are going to recommend somebody that’s not African-American, because that’s not generally done.”

Dominik Mjartan (left), president and CEO of Optus Bank, and Paul Mitchell, chair of the board, have invested their own money to spearhead the bank's turnaround. (Photo/Jeff Blake/www.JeffBlakePhoto.com)The bankers’ paths crossed at a conference in Los Angeles. The chemistry was immediate.

“It was obvious he was qualified, and after talking to him, we realized he had that same appreciation of serving the underserved and unbanked,” Mitchell said. “ … We were very much aligned.”

Humble beginning

That alignment centers around community. Mjartan often talks about mission-based banking, emphasizing the importance of infusing capital into places it may not have found a home before. He also hastens to add that mission and margin are intertwined: Help cannot be sustained, and effect generational change, unless it comes from a financially sound place.

“You want to help everybody you can, but No. 1, you’ve got to have a sound business, or basically that’s going to be temporary help,” Mitchell said.

Providing that extra boost is a chapter in the book Mjartan and Reed are both reading. Reed and her husband run a real estate company which purchases and renovates abandoned houses, then sells the properties to first-time home buyers. A partner in that enterprise, Optus is also a potential mortgage lender that is small but willing to explore financing options.

“Building home ownership is important,” Reed said. “The partnership that we want with the bank is to create an entity where these first-time homebuyers feel safe, feel comfortable, feel supported, so that when they are ready to purchase, leaving the rent behind … they can come through Optus Bank and be prosperous.”

That, in a sermon note, is Mjartan’s purpose at Optus, where every customer who walks through the door looks a little familiar, if he squints.

“How can we help them escape this rat race of payday and paying your bills? How can we get beyond the everyday?” Mjartan said. “Can we create a little cushion? Can we create that wealth that gives you the comfort to go and do something crazy like invest in a bank?

“That’s really how it started for me.”

Mjartan had $500 in his pocket when he arrived in Camden, Ark., as a 16-year-old Czech immigrant.

“My parents had to borrow it, and they had to borrow the money for my plane ticket,” he said. “A few years after the revolution (in Czechoslovakia), my dad had just started this company, so for them, the plane ticket and $500 was probably a year or more of income. It was a significant investment they made, so I was very protective of those few dollars they gave me.”

To that end, Mjartan’s host mother took him to open a bank account his first week in America.

“She taught me how to write these weird things called checks,” Mjartan said. “I could barely speak English. This was such a foreign concept. My parents had no money. I didn’t grow up with money. I had no idea what that was all about.”

That experience sparked would become a life-long curiosity.

“I was just always interested: How do you accumulate money?” Mjartan said. “For me, it was never about getting rich. It was always about protecting myself from that immigrant insecurity. I always wanted to make sure that I had the independence, that I could take care of myself, that I was self-sufficient, that I didn’t have to depend on others. I got a lot of help, but it was all this drive to make sure that we were self-sufficient.”

Dominik Mjartan, president and CEO of Optus Bank, has overseen the bank's turnaround since assuming his leadership role in September 2017. (Photo/Jeff Blake/www.JeffBlakePhoto.com)Mjartan witnessed the ups and downs of small business ownership, watching his host father run a convenience store. He squirreled away money from neighborhood lawn-mowing jobs and, later, a tutoring gig at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, driving a few towns over to deposit his paychecks in the bank he’d discovered with the best interest rate.

When his savings reached $5,000, his friends urged him to replace his beat-up truck. He refused.

“I started helping friends,” Mjartan said. “If they needed to buy a car, I was able to loan them money. I was able to buy a house, and the next house, and the next house. I was able to accumulate resources that way, but it was all driven by the immigrant kind of mindset of insecurity.”

Mjartan met his wife, Georgia, at college, and found a fiscal soulmate. Careful to live within their means, the couple were also keen to use their resources to better their community. Georgia served as director of a homeless shelter, a role Mjartan was helping her with when he was introduced to the concept of community banking.

“It happened to be the bank that was started in 1986 by Sam Walton from Walmart and Hillary Clinton and (Systematics Inc. founder) Walter Smiley — these legendary business and political leaders that got together and created this institution that’s going to balance mission and margin,” Mjartan said.

The concept proved a perfect fit for Mjartan, who spent 12 years as a senior executive officer at Southern Bancorp, a $1.2-billon, Arkansas-based community development bank. He held that position when he met Mitchell in L.A.

He and Georgia had to decide if they wanted to move their family — which includes Melody, 6, Dominik Jr., 5, and Jozef, 4 — to a place they knew little about, and if they believed in the Columbia bank enough to invest their own money. “We were both CEO with great roots and community in Arkansas,” Mjartan said. “Everyone from the governor to the homeless guy on the street was part of our circle. It was hard to uproot from that, but we felt like this was a unique opportunity. Given the few number of African-American banks, and the declining number, this was a moment in time that we needed to step out on faith and see if we could do something that’s transformational.”

Ongoing journey

Mjartan’s vision has attracted some high-profile supporters.

On Jan. 20, while her husband and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer marched in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. a block away at the Statehouse, Kat Taylor caught up with an old friend.

Taylor, co-founder and CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based Beneficial State Bank, stressed the importance of banks investing in the communities that first invest in them during a reception at Optus’ new headquarters at 1241 Main St. “We need banks to come back to Main Street and support our communities, because that’s where they’re getting their deposit funding from,” said Taylor, who first met Mjartan in Arkansas. “Banks are quasi-public, and they should serve the public interest.”

Like Mjartan, Taylor believes in the role of mission-driven banks, specifically community development financial institutions. Those private financial organizations are committed to providing responsible lending to underrepresented or underbanked communities.

“I spend a lot of time in Washington trying to find ways that we can make these institutions thrive,” Mjartan said. “For the last 10 years, the city’s CDIF appropriation at the federal level has continued to grow, through good times and bad, (with) bipartisan support. We’re almost at $300 million this year in appropriations to the city of CDIF (funding). This bank has received over $600,000 in investments from that CDIF fund just within the last two years.

“ … There are a lot of policymakers that understand that, in order to make capitalism work, sometimes you need to provide a little extra boost. You need to channel that capital into the right places, and they provide us that support to make those $150,000 small business loans that frankly wouldn’t be viable if we didn’t have some of that support.”

Taylor’s bank contributed $1 million to Optus’ rebranding, which began nearly two years ago and culminated in the installing of a large rooftop sign in early February that now stands alongside downtown neighbors Wells Fargo and Synovus.

Latin for “to choose,” Optus is meant to signify the idea that the bank is now a preferred option, “versus the old way we were positioned, as kind of the bank of last resort,” Mjartan said in 2018.

Said Taylor: “He is absolutely committed to purpose and justice, and he has unbelievable tenacity. I bet you some of that comes from his own story of immigrating to this country with not very much and having to build his life and his career on his own. I don’t know where that justice comes from in him, but it runs deep.”

Hints are found in Mjartan’s office, filled with books and family pictures. On any given afternoon, said office might also contain a mayor.

“The opportunities that he’s been able to avail himself of, living in this great country, I think it gives him a proximity to the experience that so many historically disenfranchised communities might face,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, an Optus supporter who works with the bank on city development initiatives. “He sees a whole lot more from a different lens than many natural-born Americans might see. He has a high IQ, but he also has a high EQ. It’s an emotional quotient. He gets it. He’s got a big brain, but he’s got a big heart, too.”

While proud of Optus’ turnaround, Mjartan deflects credit to others: Mitchell, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, and numerous city and county officials he said have been consistent supporters, helping shoulder the load on what Mjartan sees as an ongoing journey.

“When people see a white guy from Czechoslovakia in this institute, they kind of are naturally curious, or suspicious in some cases,” Mjartan said. “But generally speaking, this is a ministry for us. I see this as a wealth-building ministry.

“When I come to work, I feel like this is my life’s purpose. It does come from that opportunity, coming to this country with $500 and a blessing from my parents to do that. I felt empowered. But I see every person who comes through this door in the same way. They come here — sometimes they don’t even have $500, but they want to improve their life.”  

This article first appeared in the Feb. 17 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report. 

Reach Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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