Durham’s M&F Bank aims to capitalize on rising assets, surging interest

Triangle Business Journal

February 25, 2021

By Mehmet Demirci

James Sills, CEO M&F Bank

Following weeks of hard conversations with employees about headlines and social unrest, the phone started to ring at the office of James Sills III, the CEO of the oldest Black-owned bank in North Carolina.

The phone calls – which in any other year would have been a surprise – kept coming, from JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), Bank of America (NYSE: BAC), Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) and Citibank (NYSE: C). Combined, they have trillions of dollars in assets, and yet they were scrambling to invest in the tiny bank.

“We had seen their releases,” Sill said. Bank leaders, moved by the increasingly visible realities of racial inequality, wanted to make an impact, to funnel dollars into minority depository institutions. As the second-oldest Black-led bank in the U.S., Sills expected a few calls.

But the breadth of the interest was overwhelming, he said. The four banks together would invest a whopping $18 million. And they would be just part of the story. Amid a pandemic, a tiny bank in Durham saw its coffers swell 16.4 percent in 2020.

M&F Bank ended the year with more than $309 million in assets — driven, Sills said, by the social justice movement.

M&F may be small, but it’s generating prominence and relevance.

Industry watchers say they hope the wave is part of real change, one that can sustain M&F and banks like it for the long haul – and not just a reaction to headlines.

“I hate that it is such a high barrier to get folks to this point, to decide they wanted to put their dollars in Black businesses,” said Henry McKoy, a former banker and head of entrepreneurship at N.C. Central University. “The reality is that it took a very long time for it to get to this point of economic inequity and … making one-time big commitments aren’t going to solve that.”

That’s where Sills, the man tasked with helping M&F not just to survive but thrive, comes in. It’s a role of a lifetime – to make the historic institution relevant to new generations. And the opportunity has never been greater, as the pandemic showed the nation the realities of economic inequities and the Black Lives Matter movement forced it to listen.