Ray Allen is supposed to be retired. He remembers it from time to time. But the tireless community advocate is cut from a different kente fabric. Every career move is intentional, rooted in his enduring determination to build relationships that benefit the community as a whole.
By Yvette L. Craig
Allen’s career path is on the move again. The former secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, who came out of retirement in 2019 to lead the Greater Madison Urban League workforce team, has left the local civil rights organization to run the state’s first black-owned financial institution.
Allen is now president and CEO of Columbia Savings & Loan, a Milwaukee-based financial institution founded in 1924 to provide mortgages to the city’s African-American community. George E. Gary, a respected Milwaukee businessman, oversaw Columbia’s management and operations for nearly five decades. The Mississippian, who picked cotton in his youth, is leaving his post as bank manager. Gary turns 75 this summer and as a gift he has decided to slow down a bit, embrace retirement and enjoy his golden years.
“I believe Ray can take this institution to the next level,” Gary said. “It’s going to be a real challenge because it’s very competitive today.”
Drawing on his strong leadership experience in government, coupled with his drive and razor-sharp instincts, Allen is up for the challenge.
“I want to congratulate Mr. Gary on his career and certainly wish him the best as he retires,” said Allen, who took over as chief bank officer on June 1. “The goal now is to maintain and improve the only minority-controlled financial institution in the State of Wisconsin. I want to contribute to its net growth, continued development, and service to the community. He has been here for 98 years old and we want to put him in a position to do another 98 years.”
FROM POVERTY TO PROSPERITY
Allen is a Milwaukee native with strong Madison roots. His father was a factory worker and janitor. His mother was a housewife and cleaning lady. When his father was injured while working in the factory, a young Ray Allen stepped in to help make ends meet. Janitorial work at a rubber company earned Allen his first salary and his first savings.
“My dad was very insistent that we be financially responsible,” Allen recalls. “And, although my parents did their best, growing up in poverty made me realize that I didn’t want to be poor. I wanted to do things that would improve, you know, my standard economic status in life.
Allen earned a journalism degree from UW-Madison and landed a job with John Deere Co. before embarking on a career in state government.
“I spent my career, originally at John Deere, in finance,” Allen said. “So one of my early career jobs was in finance, and then later I spent time running the agency that regulates all banks and credit unions in Wisconsin’s financial system. That reinforced my need to help our community grow in wealth.
Home ownership is key to big wealth gains over time, he said. According to a study conducted by the National Association of Realtors, the typical homeowner has accumulated $176,123 in home equity over 10 years on a single-family home at the median price. In 30 years, the wealth gain has grown to $307,979.
“Our goal at Colombia Savings is to expand our ability to help people become homeowners,” he said. “For the most part, you’re not going to get rich unless you’re in a stable house.”
Allen’s talents were noticed and he began working for the state. In 2016, former Governor Scott Walker moved Allen from the Department of Financial Institutions to the Department of Workforce Development, to oversee Wisconsin’s critical role in providing cutting-edge worker training solutions that enable job seekers learn the skills needed to succeed in a 21st century economy. Allen, who served three terms on the Madison School Board, worked for DFI for nearly two decades. Allen also held a position as the former owner and publisher of the Madison Times Weekly Newspaper.
He currently serves on over 10 corporate and community boards including 100 Black Men, the Overture Center, UMOJA Magazine Board, United Way of Dane County, American Red Cross, Downtown Madison Inc. and Madison College.
LEAVE A LONG-TERM MARK
Urban League president and CEO Dr. Ruben L. Anthony Jr. said he wanted Allen by his side, knowing the pivotal role his leadership skills would bring. At a time when there are more remote workers than the norm and job seekers demand more flexible work arrangements and increased development opportunities, Anthony turned to Allen for a new approach to optimize the workforce development team.
“When Ray joined us in 2019, it was like hiring an extra CEO,” Anthony said, hiring Allen to lead the workforce development services division. “I just knew having him here would be transformative for the staff. I saw how he really developed a kind of paternal interest and mentorship with the staff.
Under Allen’s leadership, the Urban League has achieved a major milestone by placing 1,500 people in jobs by the end of 2021, Anthony said.
“With his knowledge and expertise in workforce development, credibility in the community and name recognition, it made it easier to approach the industry and really helped move the program forward. “, Anthony added. “I’m pretty sure Ray will take Columbia Savings & Loan to new heights. They couldn’t have chosen a better person to step in and usher this organization into a whole new era.
The Urban League is one of the largest community providers of career development and job placement training. With his workforce team, hundreds of Dane County residents have found employment with companies like UW Health, UnityPoint Health – Meriter, SSM Health, Exact Sciences, and Findorff.
Trista Whitehorse, employment specialist supervisor at Urban League, relishes the last few years she has spent learning and growing under Allen’s guidance.
“When Ray first came to Urban League he really relaxed and just watched how we worked,” Whitehorse said. “He didn’t make any drastic changes. He just wanted to see what we were doing and learn our strengths. He placed people in jobs where their strengths would shine through, instead of feeling like someone didn’t belong or thinking they just couldn’t do a job. He’s always been a big proponent of putting someone where their strengths lie so they can excel.
She witnessed his successful efforts to work with companies offering wages above $15 an hour, so they could support their families. And when he held a “counsel” in his office or over a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, those who had his attention improved their financial literacy.
“Ray taught me two things,” Whitehorse said. “One was that the smartest thing to do is buy property and land. Buy land where you think you can build in 10 years. And, second, he told my partner and I it was really, really, really hard to make your first million dollars, but it’s super easy to make millions after that.
Whitehorse and her partner recently purchased a house. The millions will come next, she smiles.
The Importance of Black-Owned Banks
Black-owned banks offer an alternative to residents who have been consistently discriminated against by other financial institutions. According to Investopedia, they have generally provided more money to low-to-moderate income borrowers than other banks. Black-owned banks are also more willing to tolerate higher levels of risk than alternative institutions.
Without black-owned banks, countless vulnerable consumers could be forced to rely on high-interest loans from pawnbrokers and payday lenders for their financing.
MAJOR BLACK OWNED BANKS AND CREDIT UNIONS
• 1st choice credit union
• Alamerica Bank
• Brookland Federal Credit Union
• Brooklyn Federal Credit Union
• Carver Federal Savings Bank
• Carver State Bank
• Citizens Bank
• Citizen Trust Bank
• First bank in the city
• Columbia Savings and Loan
• Commonwealth National Bank
• Atlanta Credit Union
• Faith Community United Credit Union
• Faith Cooperative Federal Credit Union
• Federal Credit Fund FAMU
• Federal Credit Union for Financial Health
• First bank of independence
• First Legacy Community Credit College
• First security bank and trust company
• GN Bank
• Greater Kinston Credit Union
• Hill District Federal Credit Union
• Hope Credit Union
• Howard University Employees Federal Credit Union
• Industrial Bank
• Liberty Bank
• Liberty Savings Federal Savings Bank
• Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union
• Bank of mechanics and farmers
• Mount Olive Baptist Church Federal Credit Union
• Oak Cliff Christian Federal Credit Union
• Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Federal Credit Union
• One United Bank
• OPTUS Bank
• South Side Community Federal Credit Union
• Southern Federal Teacher and Parent Credit Union
• Community Credit Union of Saint-Louis
• Port Bank of Maryland
• Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union
• United Bank of Philadelphia
• National Bank Unit
• Federal Upward Urban Credit Union
• Virginia State University Federal Credit Union
This article was originally published in UMOJA magazine.