Ken LaRoe: Something meaningful

Ken LaRoe, CEO and chairman, First GREEN Bank. Photo by Brian Carlson

As the founder, CEO and chairman of Florida’s First GREEN Bank, Ken LaRoe is an outspoken advocate for the environment and for values-based business—while generating a sizable profit for investors. Here, and on the coming pages, we meet ICBA’s National Community Banker of the Year, as well as the regional winners. All are being recognized for their exceptional work and dedication to their local communities.

By Roshan McArthur

Ken LaRoe

CEO and chairman, First GREEN Bank
Location: Orlando, Fla.
Asset size: $810 million
Founded: 2009

ICBA 2018 Community Banker of the Year – National

Twelve years ago, Ken LaRoe was on the verge of retiring. After a successful career spanning about 20 years working in the industry, he sold his Florida-based bank, bought a mini motor home and headed across the country with Cindy, his childhood sweetheart and wife. His brother gave him a book for the road: Let My People Go Surfing, the autobiography of Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s billionaire founder and committed environmentalist. By the time Ken and Cindy returned home, thoughts of retirement had, well, retired.

“A light bulb went off,” LaRoe recalls. “Here’s this guy who never wanted to be a businessperson, who was certainly very much on the socialist end of the spectrum, and he [started a business] because of his commitment to the environment. He has never wavered, never deviated, never put profit first. He always put doing the right thing first. I thought, ‘If he did it for the clothing business, I can do it for the banking business.’”

A new chapter began—an extension of LaRoe’s banking career but with a far more personal goal. After graduating from Florida State University in 1981, LaRoe fell into banking “out of necessity and sort of by accident.” It was the height of a recession, and there weren’t many jobs. Faced with working in the offshore oil industry or in retail, the self-confessed homebody instead chose to stay close to his birthplace in Eustis, Fla. He took a job as a management associate at Flagship Bank in Tavares, Fla., and enjoyed it so much that he followed it with a successful turn at nearby Colonial Bank. Then, in 1999, he founded Florida Choice Bank, grew it to more than $400 million in assets and sold it to Alabama National Bancorp in 2006.

“I was pretty much always an environmentalist. I just didn’t really know what it was.”
—Ken LaRoe, First GREEN Bank

Meanwhile, his interest in environmental issues was growing. “I was pretty much always an environmentalist. I just didn’t really know what it was,” he laughs, harking back to a childhood spent hunting and fishing.

“I just knew it seemed insidious to defile the very planet we rely on,” he continues. “As I became more aware of what’s going on, my commitment grew. I finally came to my senses about 15 years ago. I said, ‘I’ve got to change my approach to everything.’ At that point, I really started to immerse myself in environmental issues, but now it’s grown to include everything of value.”

Establishing values

“Everything of value” encompasses environmental issues, health and welfare, social equity, food sanctity and financial inclusion. “I’m just appalled and incensed by what the industrial complex is doing to our citizens,” LaRoe says.

I have this huge faith in community banks. Small business is the backbone of our country, and community banks are the backbone of small business.”

Before he sold Florida Choice Bank, he had taken steps toward energy efficiency but always worried about what the board and the shareholders would say if he took it too far. But then came that road trip and that light bulb. LaRoe knew his new venture had to be a community bank. “I have this huge faith in community banks,” he explains. “Small business is the backbone of our country, and community banks are the backbone of small business.”

He started by Googling “green banks” and found two: Triodos Bank in the Netherlands and New Resource Bank in San Francisco. He picked up the phone and called their CEOs to find out what they were doing differently. Then he filed an application with the FDIC.

It was 2008. He and Cindy, both keen athletes, traveled to Italy to compete for Team USA in the Duathlon World Championship. While there, he picked up a newspaper and read that Washington Mutual had collapsed. Suddenly, LaRoe worried that they would never get their charter.

However, with what LaRoe describes as a combination of luck and brutal perseverance, they got First GREEN Bank off the ground, although the recession meant that initial programs—a solar loan program and interest rate discounts for environmentally friendly building projects—were slow to gain traction.

Then in 2011, while she was competing in a bicycle race in Winter Garden, Fla., Cindy fell from her bike. She suffered a serious brain injury, followed a few months later by a seizure disorder, and was forced to give up her career as a physician.

It was a dark period in their lives, one that LaRoe says he found hard to get through. “I’ve suffered from depression my whole life,” he says. “I don’t try to hide it. I’ve told my staff, I’ve told my board. And if anybody ever wants help, or wants to talk to me about it, I’ll do it. That was one of the periods of my life where I went into a very deep depression that I just couldn’t come out of. I literally couldn’t go to work. I had a great team who just stepped up and ran the bank for me, but it was around six weeks that I basically couldn’t deal with the bank and the injuries and the caregiving responsibilities.”

LaRoe says his values brought him back. “When something very traumatic happens, you kind of sit back and go, ‘What’s really important in life?’” he says. “And part of taking care of a loved one is making sure that your family is financially sound. It just became a balancing act, figuring out what to do and how to do it.”

Going global

Another source of inspiration was the international network of bankers he had become a part of. In 2009, Peter Blom, CEO of Triodos, formed the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, a group of independent bankers focused on values-based operations, and in 2012 LaRoe was invited to its annual conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was blown away by the diversity of CEOs from around the world, people of all races and religions who were trying to do the right thing. Two years later, he joined the board, which allowed him to take his ideas onto a global stage and serve as a role model for other values-based companies.

As the U.S. moved out of recession, First GREEN Bank’s environmental programs started to take off. The bank grew to $810 million in assets, with seven locations across Florida. Over the years, it lent more than $1 billion (including payoffs and paydowns) to local individuals and businesses, and its nonprofit First GREEN Foundation supported environmental initiatives from solar panel installation to startup farming projects. It joined the U.S. Green Building Council, with its buildings meeting or exceeding standards for energy efficiency and environmental sensitivity. And in 2017, the bank became a Certified B Corp, having met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.

Of First GREEN Bank’s many accomplishments, LaRoe is most proud of its living wage program, which offered employees a minimum salary of $33,000; its solar loan program, which financed more than a million watts of power in two years; and its Orlando, Fla. headquarters, which was recently recognized as the first and only LEED Platinum retail interior project in the world.

On a human level, LaRoe says he is inspired by the lives his community bank has affected. Members of the community have told him how much they enjoy being part of the bank, and one staff member recently emailed him to explain how much her life has changed since she started working there. A diabetic since childhood, she switched to a plant-based diet, which has allowed her to come off some of her medication. She now powers her house with solar and drives a fuel-efficient car. Friends in the banking world have also told him how proud they are of what he has achieved.

Further afield, through his work at the Global Alliance, LaRoe has provided banks around the world with blueprints for the programs First GREEN Bank has initiated. He admits he would like to have a broad influence on the banking industry and allows himself a small pat on the back. “I think, ‘Oh my gosh, we have made a difference,’” he smiles. “This thing is a huge draw, and it’s impacting people. Maybe it’s a lot larger than I give myself credit for!”

Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.