In another life, East West Bank Chairman and CEO Dominic Ng, an avid fan of rock ‘n’ roll, might have made a living by strumming his guitar in a quaint Pasadena coffee shop.
But thankfully for the city, he instead became a financial guru for East West Bank, transforming the institution from a small savings and loan association with $600 million in assets in 1991 into a full-service commercial bank today with $35.3 billion in assets. He’s been named by Forbes as one of the 25 most notable Chinese Americans and one of the 100 most influential people in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Times.
But the arts have never been far from his heart, and as part of encouraging business ties between the U.S. and China, Ng has also made it his mission to bridge the cultural divide between the two countries, shepherding the bank to become a patron of Chinese art, music and culture throughout the region and the United States.
“We wanted to bridge the gap between East and the West, not only for banking, commerce, investment or trade, but also for culture, art and music,” Ng said recently, sitting down in a corner office overlooking Pasadena. “It’s an East West dream. We have a bigger purpose and cause to be the ambassador of cultural exchange, to promote that exposure and help widen that perspective.”
Ng took the helm of East West Bank in 1991, sharply shaping its purpose for “mission, vision and values,” carving a niche in the fast-growing Chinese American community through “customer-centric” guidance, the kind of bank that “would never offer sub-prime loans, because it’s not in the best interest of our clients.”
First based in Chinatown, the bank moved to San Marino and then to Pasadena, due to its rich modern day reputation for art and culture as well as business opportunities.
Mayor Terry Tornek said having East West Bank headquartered in Pasadena has enormous benefits.
“Dominic is a very powerful guy and he’s a good neighbor,” Tornek said. “When you have a hometown headquarters, when they’re your neighbors as well as employers, the corporation tends to be more engaged and philanthropic in the community.”
Tornek also praised Ng’s influence at USC’s Pacific Asia Museum, noting that with the Asian community the city’s fastest-growing population, the cultural ties East West Bank brings helps tourism and business.
“Culturally, (East West Bank) offers a kind of a legitimization of Pasadena as an appropriate location for big corporations. When people begin to cast about to make a locational decision and they see other big names like East West Bank and Alibaba, it helps influence others to make it theirs.”
East West Bank started out as a simple bank with eight branches, introducing Chinese immigrants to other financial services available in the U.S., helping them to navigate language barriers. Now, it’s a one-stop shop, financing high-growth industry sectors such as real estate, entertainment and media, high-tech, private equity and venture capital and health care. It’s been ranked among the 25 largest publicly traded banks in the U.S. by market capitalization, has been selected in the top 15 of “America’s 100 Best Banks” by Forbes since 2010 and has earned a place on Fortune magazine’s list of Top 10 Stocks for 2011.
But that growth didn’t come without some resistance, Ng noted. “Our branch managers, who are quite intuitive, said ‘Just because you want our clients to open up, that doesn’t mean they want to,’” he said. “But I had this vision: I thought if East West could step out of our comfort zone, and not only do business with Chinese American customers, if we could open our banking business to all different ethnicities, we could help our customers assimilate even faster to American society.”
And so began Ng’s real passion and pride, bringing awareness to the Chinese-American melting pot, on both sides of the Pacific. A lover of contemporary art, Ng was instrumental in East West Bank collaborating with the Museum of Contemporary Art, resulting in a new permanent collection, as well as work with the Huntington Library and the Bowers Museum. Although Ng said he “holds no real artistic talent,” he surrounds himself with others who do, including his wife, Ellen, who loves to paint.
As a member of the USC’s Board of Trustees, he’s worked closely with the USC Pacific Asia Museum, according to its director, Christina Yu Yu. As a corporate sponsor, East West Bank has been instrumental to the museum’s refurbishment, exhibitions and the fundraising gala the museum holds each year, she said. The museum recognized Ng in 2014 as an honoree for promoting Asian art in the community.
“Apart from the financial support, Dominic is very well-connected and makes introductions with other artists and art advisers, for which I’ve been very grateful,” Yu Yu said, noting that she often consults with Ng on exhibits or ideas.
“He has such a pulse on the American Asian community, we often consult with him personally to help us understand how as a museum, we can best serve them. Now with our affiliation with USC, there is this younger Asian American crowd … it’s very interesting. I feel there’s need within that group, to express that cultural affiliation. Asian Americans are rising up and they want to express that identity to a much broader audience.”
Apart from art, Ng is dedicated to philanthropies such as the United Way, where he made history as the first Asian American campaign chair for the Los Angeles chapter in 2000, raising record funds of more than $66 million. The campaign he spearheaded now serves as a model for all the United Way chapters around the country.
Pasadena City Councilman Andy Wilson noted that Ng’s charitable work has established him as “one of the most respected business and community leaders in our region.”
“Dominic’s great success at East West Bank and deep commitment to philanthropy is an inspiration,” he said. “He has demonstrated firsthand the terrific opportunity we have to bring East and West together to enhance commerce, business and understanding. He and his wife, Ellen, are very active in our local community and we are lucky to have them as engaged residents of Pasadena.”
With no plans to retire anytime soon, the Hong Kong native said he plans to continue solidifying the bank’s national online presence and comprehensive system over the next two years, stepping away from increasing the brick and mortar model.
And within the East West melting pot, there also is so much more to be explored, Ng said, noting he’d love to help organize an Asian pop music concert here in Pasadena.
“There is some wonderful contemporary pop music in China. I think if more Americans could hear it, it would really have a mass appeal,” he said, noting that someday, he’d like to get back to learning more of the guitar. Just don’t look for Ng in corner coffee shops anytime soon.