Island Hopping

By Melby, Todd | Independent Banker, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Island Hopping


Melby, Todd, Independent Banker


At home in palm-shaded villages, Pacific bank looks to mainland marketplaces

Trivia question: Which ICBA member travels the farthest to attend association meetings? An Alaskan banker? Nope. A Hawaiian member? Nice try.

The answer: Tony Leon Guerrero, president and CEO at Bank of Guam.

Although the tiny but famous Pacific island is a U.S. territory, Guam lies thousands of miles from American shores. Situated about 3,700 miles west of Honolulu, and a vast 6,000 miles from Los Angeles, the bank makes a big commitment when it sends staff to ICBA conferences. Fellow community bankers are often shocked to learn how far Guerrero and his staff travel to attend seminars or convention gatherings.

But Guerrero says he enjoys explaining the similarities and differences between island and continental banking operations. "People are usually surprised to find out that the banking system is not that different," he says. "We're really just a small-town community bank that does a lot of international business."

There may be a few more differences than that, however. With about $700 million in assets and 29 branches, Bank of Guam seems on the verge of becoming a community banking powerhouse. Its stock recently began trading publicly on the Pacific Stock Exchange, and thanks to a trove of excess capital, the bank has ambitious expansion plans across the Pacific and in the United States.

Guerrero's father, Jesus S. Leon Guerrero, a former Bank of America executive, started Bank of Guam 28 years ago in an unadorned modular building. In a few years, the bank had moved to a new, three-story building and was making many influential loans to local residents and businesses. By distributing food stamps and emergency loans after a 1976 typhoon, Bank of Guam earned the nickname "The People's Bank." Its strong community outreach included a $5 million loan to the territorial government.

Today, many remote island villages that aren't large enough to support a traditional brick-and-mortar branch receive services by boat or plane from visiting Bank of Guam employees. "These are the tropics out here," Guerrero points out.

Urban Outposts

As the Pacific economies continued to develop in recent decades, so did Bank of Guam. The bank opened 13 more offices throughout Guam, making it the island's largest financial institution. Then it began island hopping, adding branches on the nearby archipelago of Palau, Marshall Islands, Northern Marianas and the Federated States of Micronesia. It also began extending its reach to remote towns and major cities in faraway places.

International ambitions led Bank of Guam to open a San Francisco branch in 1983 and a Tokyo office in 1985. In part, these urban outposts reflect the economic and cultural ties Guam has to the United States and Asia.

During World War II, Guam's strategic location made it a battleground for the major warring nations. Japanese soldiers took control of the island within hours of bombing Pearl Harbor until U.S. forces pushed them off the island three years later.

Though a distant event, the war's impact lingers over this land of 133,000 people. …

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