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Monday, May 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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As their numbers grow here, Hispanics become big business

Seattle Times business reporter

Even from his 37th-floor headquarters in downtown Seattle, Carlos Guangorena can see the potential of the state's growing Hispanic immigrant community.

Down in Kent, he is launching the first bank in Washington to be owned and managed by Hispanic immigrants, and to be geared toward them.

Plaza Bank is due to open next month with a branch at Kent Station, a snazzy new mall, near Latino communities in South King County and South Seattle.

Guangorena, a native of Delicias, Mexico, who came to the U.S. in 1957, said Plaza Bank will be a place where immigrants can save, send money home or secure a loan to start a business.

It will have an important role, too, as an icon of achievement.

"A bank is something the community can look up to and say we have arrived — with a Latino CEO," said Guangorena, who has that title at Plaza. "When I was growing up, there were no Latino bank CEOs."

As Mexican President Vicente Fox arrives in Washington state Wednesday for a whirlwind 24-hour visit, he will be greeted by a fast-growing Hispanic population that is important to the state's economy and its business world.

The number of Hispanic-owned businesses in Washington surged by 69 percent, to about 10,270, in the decade through 2002, the most recent data available, according to the University of Washington's Business and Economic Development Center.

The growth in Hispanic businesses was faster than any other minority-business segment, said Michael Verchot, the center's director.

Mexican or Hispanic entrepreneurs have developed some well-known local brands, such as the Azteca restaurants and Gene Juarez Salons and Spas. There are also many doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals, often aiming their services at Latinos.

"Not a niche"

"It's not a niche," said Raymundo Olivas, owner of Multiservicios, a Seattle company that prepares taxes for many Hispanic immigrants, including undocumented ones. "Now every service — chiropractor, loan officer, travel agent, real estate — any service that the general population needs, there's a market for the Hispanic population."

Microsoft employs about 150 Mexican technical or software workers in Redmond, and hires five to 10 new Mexican recruits a year, said Pedro Celis, who holds the coveted Microsoft designation of "distinguished engineer."

A Mexico native, Celis spoke from a research conference in Guadalajara, Mexico's Silicon Valley, where he and other Microsoft workers were looking at new research and ways to collaborate with Latin American professors and universities. He said he hopes the trip will open doors for future recruiting..

"Mexico has been a very effective [recruiting] area for us," Celis said. "When we compare the numbers we get from a university here with the U.S., they compare favorably. They're as good as any of the universities in the U.S."

Economic symbol

Plaza Bank is a symbol of this wider participation of Hispanics in the state's economic life.

"It's important to show the community who we are," Guangorena said. "There's nothing wrong being in landscaping or migrant labor; we come from that. But we're more than that. We're doctors, lawyers CEOs of banks, Gene Juarez."

While Plaza Bank will serve anyone, it is focusing on Latinos. Tellers and bankers in the Kent branch will be bilingual. The board, executives and the small-business loan officer are Hispanic.

The bank will offer remittance service for those sending money back home, getting into the business that Western Union and payday-loan centers have dominated.

It's a big segment; most recent immigrants send an average $300 at a time, seven to 10 times a year. Last year, an estimated $36 billion was sent to Latin America by immigrants to the U.S., according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

This has drawn attention from major banks, which see the remittance business as a way to draw Latinos into making deposits and using other bank products.

"Bank of America in 2001 had no interest in the Latino community at all," said Pedro de Vasconcelos, coordinator of the development bank's remittances program. "Today they are, in Illinois, sending remittances to Mexico for free so they can capture the Latino community."

Plaza Bank is among a handful of such banks across the country; others are in Arizona, Texas, Chicago, Florida and California.

According to the Census Bureau 2004 American Community Survey, Washington was home to 517,000 Hispanic residents, about 9 percent of the state's population.

One in five are in King County, and King County Hispanics have an average household income of nearly $40,000 a year, above the national average for all U.S. residents of $36,000.

For Plaza Bank, Latino customers mean good business.

The Hispanic population is already large, and it is growing faster — and becoming wealthier faster — than the general U.S. population, according to a study by North Carolina consultants CMG Partners.

Between 1995 and 2001, Latino households' median income jumped 27 percent, compared with 7.5 percent for the general population.

Another sign of growth: In the past two years, membership has jumped eightfold at the Washington State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

A dynamic new director has restructured the organization and started community and school programs. The membership roll of 170 now includes State Farm Insurance, American Family Insurance and Washington Mutual, said Mike Sotelo, the chamber president.

"They see the market opportunity," Sotelo said. "And we don't want to be joined for any other reason."

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 ascott@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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