Currently, Kelly said, First Independence employs about 70 people and its has about $400 million in assets.
“I think it was the vision of those individuals looking to see that they could make a change in the community by starting and controlling a bank that would be interested in the community they were trying to grow,” Kelly said.
At that time, African Americans struggled to get loans from existing banks, limiting them from becoming homeowners and advancing their businesses. First Independence enabled many people of color to grow financially.
At the same time, Kelly said the opening of First Independence pushed other longstanding banks to hire employees of color in professional jobs.
“Larger banks noticed they had to begin to be a little bit more inclusive to the African American community if they were going to be successful long-term,” Kelly said.
One hurdle the institution continues to face is reaching a customer base beyond communities of color.
“While our banks are Black-owned, they’re not Black only,” Kelly said, emphasizing the importance of a wide customer base for the bank’s long-term success.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reported a total of 19 Black-owned depository institutions nationwide in the first quarter report of 2022 out of 4,796 total depository institutions.
Changing with the times
Even a business that will always be needed has to change with the times.
“Because the funeral business, the industry, is so slow, we’ve actually had the opportunity to stay ahead of the game and even (be) trendsetters in some ways,” Green from James H. Cole said.
At its newest location on Schaefer Highway, which opened about 12 years ago, the company installed screens in all its visitation rooms so loved ones could play memorial videos, a screen at the front door to see the deceased person’s photo and service information and a digital board in the lobby to showcase visitations in progress. At the height of the pandemic, livestreaming services also gained popularity.
Due to changing industry regulations and expectations, the company saw peak revenue in the late 1960s and early ’70s. In the early 1980s, profit margins for funeral homes were much higher, at around 15 percent, Green said. By the early 2000s, it had dropped to less than 10 percent.
“When times were a lot simpler, you had the ability to profit more than you do even nowadays,” Green said.
However, technological advancements mean the business has more access to a variety of manufacturers, so they’re no longer tied down to one manufacturer and price.
The funeral home declined to disclose revenue information but said it serves about 2,000 families annually. The National Funeral Directors Association said NFDA-member funeral homes serve 113 families per year on average. These numbers were significantly higher during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Cole said the funeral home was relieved to see those numbers drop back.
At First Independence, Kelly said he has prioritized keeping the bank’s technology updated to ensure it remains competitive with other banks across the country.
“To be candid, it’s an investment, which means you really have to make the decision to spend the dollars up front with the intent of knowing it’s going to have a longer-term impact on your business and your customer relationships,” Kelly said.
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