Leaders in Baltimore’s black business community started talking about creating their own bank at least as far back as the early 1970s, realizing the potential for an institution that could help finance businesses and mortgages for people who had been traditionally shut out of banks. But making it a reality proved difficult. Many in the city’s white business community didn’t see the need, many in the black community didn’t see the possibilities such an institution could provide, and federal and state regulators didn’t make anything easy. It wasn’t until Joseph Haskins Jr. came on board that everything changed.
A City College and Morgan State graduate, Mr. Haskins went to New York after college to work in finance and get his MBA at New York University. He came back to Baltimore in the mid-1970s, thinking he would continue to work in banking, but he got recruited by then-Coppin State College to become its vice president for business and finance at the age of 27. (“The president appealed to my ego because I was becoming the youngest V.P. in the system,” Mr. Haskins says.) But it wasn’t long before the would-be bank founders saw him as the answer to their problems.
“Joe was the go-to person,” says state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, who was one of the bank’s founding directors. “He was well prepared academically but had this entrepreneurial side.”
Mr. Haskins helped reorganize the board, which had tilted too heavily to “well-intended, community, civic-minded members” and not enough toward those with business backgrounds, he says, and he set to work raising capital. He recruited William March, the funeral home owner, and then pioneering lawyer George Russell Sr., whose efforts finally put what would become Harbor Bank over the top.
“Haskins worked like I don’t know what,” Mr. Russell recalls.
The bank started in 1982 with just $2.1 million in assets, and its survival was far from assured. Before long, Mr. Haskins would take over the day-to-day management of the institution, a role he has continued to this day. He came to see his job not just as providing business loans and mortgages but as working closely with Baltimore’s entrepreneurs to ensure their success — and the bank’s.
In an era when community banks have increasingly failed or been gobbled up by larger ones, Harbor has thrived. Part of the reason is that Mr. Haskins has helped the bank to adapt to changing conditions in the financial world and to seek new opportunities. The basics remain the same — “small businesses need loans and credit, individuals need mortgages, people need a place to save their money,” he says. But a community-centered bank like Harbor has the opportunity, and if it is to grow, the need, to do more.
Mr. Haskins understood that Harbor Bank’s position as a community institution let it see the potential in projects that bigger banks wouldn’t touch. Harbor provided some of the earliest funding for new housing in Canton, for example, and Harbor East, Silo Point and the East Baltimore Development Initiative near Johns Hopkins Hospital, whose board Mr. Haskins once chaired. He created new vehicles for Harbor to do business, including a nonprofit arm that allows it to engage in community-building efforts and a for-profit investment entity that specializes in leveraging federal New Market Tax Credits.
Just as important, he’s been careful and disciplined, Mr. Russell says.
“Often when people saw a minority bank, they didn’t realize we have the same rules as an ordinary bank,” Mr. Russell says. “People were disappointed when we turned down a loan. People would say, ‘I thought this was our bank!’ ”
James DeGraffenreidt, the former chairman and CEO of WGL Holdings, the parent company of Washington Gas, and a longtime director of Harbor Bank, says Mr. Haskins has had a knack for spotting trends — good and bad — and positioning Harbor accordingly.
“Back before the Great Recession, Joe called a special board meeting,” Mr. DeGraffenreidt says. “He spent about 45 minutes in the meeting describing something he predicted was going to get a lot of banks in trouble called ‘sub-prime loans.’ ”
Harbor didn’t escape the financial crisis unscathed — it went through a period of strict federal oversight because of its losses at the time — but it survived. A lot of banks didn’t.
“The fact that we’re still here is a testament to his leadership,” Mr. DeGraffenreidt says.
And without Harbor, dozens of Baltimore businesses wouldn’t be here either. Mr. Haskins says some of his proudest accomplishments were the bank’s efforts to help his clients work through the recession, and later to help others access capital, whether through government assistance or private loans, to rebuild after the 2015 unrest.
Mr. Haskins has contributed to Baltimore in many ways — he’s served on or chaired a variety of boards, from the Greater Baltimore Committee to Associated Black Charities — but Harbor Bank’s creation, survival and success is his true legacy.
“It’s on his back that the bank has grown,” Mr. Russell says.