Capitalist goes environmental in new bank venture

Capitalists go environmental

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  • | 1:19 p.m. May 14, 2014
Photo by: Brittni Larson - From their wheels to their electricity, First Green Bank branches are fueled by alternative energy sources.
Photo by: Brittni Larson - From their wheels to their electricity, First Green Bank branches are fueled by alternative energy sources.
  • Winter Park - Maitland Observer
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It was 2006 and Ken LaRoe had just sold Florida Choice Bank. He had a no-compete contract, which took banking out of his near future, so the always outdoorsman took advantage of his newfound freedom to explore the U.S. with his wife. They got a mini RV and traveled the country taking in the awe-inspiring landscape while LaRoe spent hours driving and pondering: what next?

He’d always been passionate about the environment, and when he spent time on his trip reading “Let My People Go Surfing” by Patagonia clothing company founder Yvon Chouinard he knew he’d found his next endeavor. He was inspired by the philosophy of a company with a social mission, a company that focused on much more than profits. He was going to create a business that had a green mission, but had to figure out how to incorporate his banking expertise. That next year the idea of First Green Bank was born.

A lot of people told him he was crazy. Not only was he trying something completely unheard of in the conservative financial world with his green mission, he was starting a bank during the worst financial crisis many had seen in their lifetime.

“I’ve always felt this way, but I was always afraid to take the leap, and now I’m taking the leap and I don’t care if anybody likes it or not, it’s what I’m doing,” LaRoe said. “If I can be a rabid capitalist, then I can be a rabid environmentalist too.”

First Green Bank opened its first location in Winter Park, expanding the Central Florida community bank with a mission to conserve the environment to its fifth location. All the branches are built using sustainable materials and are energy efficient. The Winter Park branch is pending LEED Gold certification and its Mount Dora headquarters is LEED Platinum, both getting energy from solar panels. They offer discounted interest rates for projects that meet LEED green building criteria, fixed-rate loans for solar power panels, and the bank’s First Green Foundation offers grants to locals for solar panel installation, and bank employees have offered thousands of hours of community service, including building community gardens.

LaRoe is hoping to be a leader and educator about green building and sustainability. He does talks and fields questions from business owners about going green. Lauren Maxwell, marketing director for First Green Bank, hopes that they can inspire big corporations to start considering environmental conservation.

“At the end of the day the strongest impact comes from those that have the biggest carbon footprint, and if the companies out there – the private organizations, banks included – all did something to contribute to the health of this planet, we could ensure that the planet as we see it today will live on for generations and generations,” Maxwell said.

Many people who walk in the banks’ doors aren’t there because of their environmental mission, but for those who are or just so happen to be looking for information on green projects, lenders can act as a resource to connect customers to architects and construction and solar companies that do LEED certified work. Many times they’re the first stop when people don’t know where to start with a green project, said Chris VanBuskirk, vice president for the bank.

Former Florida banking regulator Rod Jones – now attorney giving banks legal advice and representation – said that he’s never seen anything like what First Green Bank does in Florida. They’ve created a niche for themselves, and while he said it remains to be seen whether it will draw more customers in the long run, their mission can’t hurt.

“I think you’ve got to commend and respect that as a model of social responsibility and corporate responsibility,” Jones said.

And LaRoe’s sense of responsibility reaches to his employees, too. He’s got a passion and warmth that makes him an easy man to work for and be inspired by, said Nancy Little, Winter Park’s branch manager. The only time you might get a dirty look, VanBuskirk joked, is if he sees you with fast food.

But that’s mostly because he is focused on employee health. No company money pays for junk food, but it will pay for athletic competition entry fees such as 5K races, and the Mount Dora headquarters has an on-site gym with a personal trainer available.

They also offer green loan incentives for employees, like a zero percent interest rate on loans for vehicles that get 30 miles-per-gallon and above, and there’s a loaner electric car anyone can take on a long road trip – it’s even been to the Grand Canyon.

LaRoe’s done all this because “it’s the right thing to do.” He hopes that one day his model of doing business will be required for a company to be viable. He wants to disrupt the whole banking industry with First Green Bank.

“It’s my personal belief that you do good by doing good,” LaRoe said.