Carlos Guangorena '76 Receives Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award for Community Banking Efforts
A portrait from a 2007 profile in Pomona College Magazine
Carlos Guangorena ‘76 has found a unique niche in the commercial lending industry that isn’t often associated with banking and finance: Giving back to the community. Guangorena was named a top 25 Business Innovator by Seattle Business Magazine after making a name for himself as the president and CEO of Seattle’s Plaza Bank, a no-mortgages commercial bank geared toward the under-served Latino community. He has been giving back to the community through banking since he graduated from Pomona College, and it is for these contributions and innovations that he is a 2011 recipient of the Pomona College Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni for their high achievement in their professions or community service.
Born in Mexico and raised in East L.A., Guangorena studied economics while a student at Pomona. “My success will always be based on what I achieved at Pomona,” he says. “It taught me a lot in terms of perseverance. From things coming quite easily in high school, to trying to get through Pomona … I stick with things and fight through adversity.” After Pomona, Guangorena earned an MBA at UCLA and started his banking career as a commercial loan officer at the Bank of America.
He moved from Los Angeles to Seattle after marrying Linda J. Lang '79, whom he started dating while a senior at Pomona, and rose through a successful career in banking, including positions as senior vice president for Wells Fargo, senior vice president for Pacific Northwest Bank and a senior corporate lender for U.S. Bank.
At the height of his career, an offer came along that he couldn’t refuse. Michael E. Sotelo, a construction-industry executive in Seattle, approached Guangorena with a plan to open a bank that would serve Washington's growing Latino population. They saw both a business opportunity and a chance to help educate and elevate an under-served segment of society. With 60 percent of the Latino population in Washington unbanked at that time, he had a lot of work ahead of him.
In 2006, Plaza Bank, named for a word that means the same thing in English and Spanish, opened downtown in the 44-story U.S. Bank Centre. A branch office in a suburb south of Seattle provides retail-banking services.
Five years later, Plaza Bank is still afloat, despite recent economic downturns. “It’s been a tougher ride these past four years than anyone anticipated,” Guangorena says. “But we survived, which is all you can do. We expected to be farther along. I would have thought by now we would have had a lot more success and thought about expanding it more. We would have branched out a little bit more. But right now we’re just maintaining it.”
A few economic setbacks haven’t kept Guangorena from growing professionally, however. “I’ve definitely grown as a leader, being a CEO,” he says. “It teaches you a lot about leadership and directing and being able to manage lots of people toward a common goal … You have to learn to be able to interact with the community at large while still maintaining the focus of what you believe in. We don’t want to just do well. We want to do good. And that’s what we strive for.”
While the bank provides wire transfers that permit workers to send money to Latin American or other countries for $5 per transaction, the bank's business model is centered on commercial lending. "We feel that our path to success is to be a commercial bank with a Latino focus, not to be a Latino bank per se," says Guangorena. "Our goal is to be the best commercial bank in the state."
The greatest impact the bank can have on the Seattle area's Latino population, Guangorena says, is through "access to capital. That's where we feel we can make a huge contribution to the community. We're not going to sacrifice our underwriting standards, but we feel there are areas we can understand, for example, in granting credit.
“We can also educate the retail banking community. Latinos are not just poor. It would be foolish to ignore that there's a lot of money in the Latino population. We want to show our community we can grow with them as they become wealthier. People categorize us as Latino bankers, but we're bankers first. That's why we're going to be successful."
With all of the progress Plaza Bank has made in the past few years, Guangorena still doesn’t feel like his job is done. “I think this is just a work in progress, not a culmination,” says Guangorena, who also devotes time to tutor elementary school children through P.I.P.E. (Partners in Public Education). “I’m not done yet. It’s not like finishing a race. The race has only just begun.”
Born in Mexico, raised in the barrios of East Los Angeles, and now the president and CEO of a commercial, community-based bank in Seattle, Guangorena has come a long way in his quest to foster community through banking.
Read more in this 2007 profile of Guangorena from Pomona College Magazine.