Values Mean More Than Money to This Banker

It’s fair to say Ken LaRoe doesn’t look like a banker. On many workdays, he dresses in a T-shirt, skinny slacks and casual loafers, maybe even with a fedora resting on his ’80s-style big hair. To give the ensemble a business look, he may don a sport coat, which only accentuates his unconventional professional appearance. Also bucking industry conventions is the Central Florida bank LaRoe founded in 2009 and runs as CEO. Headquartered in tiny Mount Dora, Fla., north of Orlando, First Green Bank merges two “green” themes dear to LaRoe—capitalism and environmental sustainability.

LaRoe, 58, describes First Green Bank as a “values-aligned” bank whose intention is to do the right thing, whether that means offering low-interest, nothing-down loans on solar installations or lending to organic farmers. With five locations in Central Florida, First Green Bank has enjoyed double-digit growth since opening and has more than $350 million in assets. LaRoe is shooting for $1 billion by 2020.

Q: What motivated you to start a bank that advocates environmental and social values?

A: The genesis of First Green Bank was after I sold my first bank [Florida Choice in 2006], and [my wife] Cindy and I bought a mini-motorhome and drove across the country. While reading the book Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard during the trip, I had the epiphany that while I always try to do the right thing, I really wasn’t even scratching the surface after reading what [Chouinard] had done. I thought, Well, I want to do another business that doesn’t just make people a bunch of money—although I want to make people a bunch of money—but I want to give back and do the right thing while I do it. The only business I really know is banking, and the lightbulb went on again—banking is anathema to anything sustainable, and my whole gig is the environment and environmental sustainability. So I thought, What could that look like? That started the research. My best friend came up with the name First Green Bank.

Q: Did you encounter resistance from potential investors when you proposed starting a bank that promoted environmental sustainability?

A: No, but I did have one guy write a very large check who said, “Ken, that’s the best marketing ploy I’ve ever seen in my life.” And I said, “You know that’s not why I’m doing it, but if you’ll write me a check, that’s just fine.”

Q: Describe some of the green features at your banking centers.

A: Our headquarters building is LEED Platinum [highest level of sustainability by the U.S. Green Building Council]. It has a stormwater collection system, and we use all the water to irrigate and to flush toilets. The lighting system is activated as you enter a room, and it’s metered to where it measures ambient light and adjusts light settings based on whether it’s cloudy or sunny outside. We have LED parking-lot lights that save massive amounts of energy over regular parking lights. We just doubled our solar power to 23 kilowatts. Our Winter Park, Fla., office is LEED Gold and we’re shooting for net zero [producing all of the energy it consumes] on it. It has 50 kilowatts of solar.

Q Does being a “values-aligned” bank mean anything to your customers? Do they care about First Green Bank’s principles?

A: I think less than a majority of our customers bank with us because of [our green principles], but even the most jaded in their heart of hearts like something out of our values. If they’re climate-change deniers, they may not like the environmental aspect, and they may not like some of our social values, but they like our integrity.

Q: Speaking of social values, First Green Bank offers employee benefits that few employers would even consider providing. Are you trying to send a message to other businesses?

A: Absolutely. I’m trying to tell them that you can provide for your people far better than you are now and far better than you think you can. There is a cost, of course, but I contend that you can become more efficient and not have to raise your prices. [First Green Bank’s benefits include wages of at least $30,000 per year; 100 percent employer-paid health, dental, vision and life insurance; paid parental leave; a 401(k) retirement plan with 6 percent matching contribution; tuition reimbursement; paid sabbaticals; use of company-owned hybrid vehicles; and zero-rate auto loans for cars that get at least 30 miles per gallon.]

Q: What does winning the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year (2015) award in the Florida Financial Services category mean to you?

A: Vindication. Our bank is in the top quartile and usually the top 10 percent of all the banks in Florida in every financial category, and yet we’re doing all this other good stuff at the same time. So I get really frustrated: Why isn’t everybody doing that? Why isn’t everybody up at 3 in the morning worrying about something other than the bottom line? It’s just vindication that you can do both and be exhibiting and experiencing growth levels that put you at the top [and] get you Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young.

Q: That’s quite an accomplishment. Describe a disappointment since opening the bank.

A: Probably the biggest disappointment is we’re not going to exist in perpetuity. We’ll be sold or bought. That’s the play for community bank investors, especially in Florida. They’re not looking for a long-term thing; they’re looking for a liquidity event.

Q: What do you do personally to reduce your carbon footprint?

A: We have solar panels on our house; we’re trying to get to net zero. I drive a Tesla. All our landscaping is indigenous Florida plants or Florida-friendly plants that we don’t have to water. Our yard is not sod; it’s whatever grows there, and we seldom mow. We compost everything that is compostable. We put a garbage can out once every six to eight weeks. Cindy recycles everything that can be recycled. But I don’t feel like I’ve gone far enough. I want to get my carbon footprint to zero.

 

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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Mike Boslet

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