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Posted: November 01, 2011

Top Company 2011: FirstBank Holding Co.

Winner in the financial services category

Mike Cote

TopCO_FirstBank042.jpg

FirstBank President and CEO John Ikard
got his start at the Colorado-based bank as a trainee 30 years ago.
If that sounds surprising, it shouldn't - that's how FirstBank operates.

Nearly all of the company's 2,000 employees and 300 officers started as trainees, says Ikard, who joined the bank as a teller after graduating from college.

"We were very much cross-trained in all different aspects of the bank," Ikard says during an interview at the bank's headquarters in Lakewood. "Pretty much our entire officer and staff group has been here for many years, all from internal promotion. So it creates a really unique culture."

FirstBank's do-it-yourself mantra extends to how the bank grows its business. It's never relied on buying other banks to expand.
"In the last 25 years we've opened all of our own branches," Ikard says. "I like to say we grow our own deposits; we grow our own branches; we grow our own people. It's been very successful for us."

FirstBank stayed on the sidelines during the subprime craze, thus it has thrived throughout the economic downturn. It has enjoyed its greatest financial success over the past three years since the employee-owned bank's founding 48 years ago. The bank has a modest presence in Arizona - among the states hardest hit by the real estate meltdown - but benefited from having most of its operations
in Colorado.

"It's a simple model, but really execution is the name of the game for us," Ikard says. "Basically, we're very conservative. We deal with great people, a great customer class. We have not gone off on tangents in terms of subprime lending or any type of exotic securities. We've stuck to what we do well."
Ikard is frank when talking about FirstBank's community connections and philanthropy. As much as he's proud of his company's contributions, it's in the bank's best interest.

"We're only as strong as our communities. And 95 percent of our assets are in Colorado so the stronger Colorado is, the more prosperous and effective we are," he says. "It's somewhat self-serving, but it also helps our community. That's where our people live. That's where our employees go to school. That's where our employees' families live."

Last year, the bank partnered with the Community First Foundation to organize Colorado Gives Day, a 24-hour online giving marathon targeting Colorado charities. It will take place this year Dec. 6.

"We had hoped to raise about $1 million - we ended up raising close to $9 million," Ikard says. "It was so active it actually crashed the computers at Community First. We were amazed and incredibly comforted by how generous people are in Colorado."

Ikard is bullish on FirstBank, but not so much on the economy: "You keep thinking you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but all of the sudden somebody turns the light out and moves it back."

The bank's recipe for success comes from building relationships with its customers.

"We don't do single transactions. We do a mortgage loan; we want to make sure we have the checking account; we want to make sure we have credit cards," Ikard says. "Our whole operating model is based on a long-term relationship with every customer. As long as you pick the right customers, over the long run you'll be pretty successful."
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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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