Sunday Profile: Bob Young rooted himself and his bank in community
When J. Robert Young opened his first bank in January 1973 with $250,000 of mostly borrowed money, he never imagined he was starting a small empire.
“When I opened in Carbondale, I really felt that if we could become a $10 million bank we could all live happily ever after,” he recalled. “I really didn’t ever envision growing like we have.”
Today Alpine Bank has grown to 41 locations with around $2 billion in assets. The secret to his success, Young says, is all about the personal touch.
“The bank that does the best is the one that deals in relationships, not in deals,” he said. “It really is a reflection of the community, so it behooves you to do everything you can to make the community as strong as it can be.”
Young, now 77, grew up in Kansas. He went by his middle name from a young age, though his mother always called him John when he was in trouble.
As soon as he completed his business degree at Wichita State University, he began looking for an opportunity to head west. In 1965, he got a position as a federal bank examiner in Summit County.
“My dad was born in Colorado, and we used to vacation here. I never could understand why we were living in Kansas instead of out here,” he explained. “Once you take a boy from Kansas and put him in Vail, he’ll think he died and went to heaven.”
He later decided the other side of the desk had more opportunity, and went to work for First Bank. As that bank continued to expand, he decided to resist the pull of the Front Range.
“I really wanted to stay in the mountains,” he said. “I figured the best way to stay in one spot was to be a significant part of the ownership.”
He went looking for an under-served community where he could get a license and charter.
“In those days, competing bankers took a very dim view of people encroaching on their territory, so I had to find a place that I found desirable but wasn’t overly banked,” he said.
ROARING FORK BANK
The gap between Aspen and Glenwood Springs looked promising, and so Roaring Fork Bank was born. Once ensconced in the community, Young began to see other opportunities.
“In 1974 I was up skiing at Snowmass, and thought, ‘Boy, this town needs a bank,’” he recalled. “From there, little by little, we expanded in communities that were relatively close and they had at least a little feel of who we were.”
At the time, regulations were stiff on branch banking, so the locations operated somewhat independent of each other.
“We decided we could do everything with enough economies of scale that it worked,” Young said. “Being able to do this for so many years without a strong amount of competition really gave us a huge head start.”
With an expansion to Eagle in 1983, the growing company decided on a unified brand, becoming Alpine Bank.
“When we were venturing a little farther away from home, we really saw the need for a common identity,” Young said. “It was just a name that was out there that I liked. I thought it was unique.”
The brand has since expanded out to Grand Junction, down to Durango, up to Steamboat Springs and recently even to Denver.
“This was a huge step for us. We’d never been out of western Colorado,” Young said. “Locations closer to home are much easier to manage, but it wasn’t totally like starting over. A lot of people recognize the Alpine brand.”
He doesn’t feel the need to be too aggressive on expansion. While small banks used to be a disadvantage for traveling customers, technology is changing that.
“Now in the day of electronic banking when so much is done remotely, it isn’t the big issue it was 10 years ago,” he said. “Most of the products that large banks have, we also have.”
Despite the similarities, Young sees a key difference. Although it’s not publicly traded, Alpine Bank’s largest shareholder is the employees themselves, through a special stock plan.
“The commitment I’ve made is that we want to stay independent forever,” Young said. “This puts it in the hands of the people that make it possible.”
It may also have something to do with the Alpine Bank’s strong retention rate. More than two-thirds of its more than 500 employees have been with the company for more than five years, and two of the officers have been around nearly since the beginning.
“The most important thing I think is the retention of quality people,” he said. “That it’s a good place to work and that people are proud of it. Employees say that to me. I hope they say it to others. That to me means everything.”
The bank has also been a major philanthropic institution, and Young himself has a family foundation. He is particularly proud of the Latino scholarship fund, which pays for a score of students to attend Colorado Mountain College every year.
“To me, the key to success is to be fully invested in your community,” he said. “It doesn’t happen instantaneously, but over a period of years those dividends pay off.”
It seems to have worked on a business level. Alpine Bank has never had a mass layoff, and weathered the recession better than many larger institutions.
“I think the banks that bore the brunt of the fallout from the recession are the big banks – justifiably,” he said.
“It was still hard on us,” he added. “We only had one unprofitable year, but it was a loss of almost $50 million. A lot of the problems we had were securities that were packaged by larger institutions. We had to kind of accept it and go on.”
The bank has done better each year since 2010, and Young is optimistic that the worst is over.
“I’m convinced that if another downturn hits, it won’t hurt us in such a major way,” he said. “I wouldn’t relish to go through that again in my lifetime. It’s made us smarter and a little more cautious. It’s still a business where you have to take some risk, but know who you’re betting on. I’m afraid that the top five or six financial institutions are still too big to fail, and that’s not a good sign, but the amount of due diligence we do now is so much greater than it was in the past.”
Although Young has devoted most of his life to his business, he also finds time to play. An enthusiastic outdoorsman, he enjoys skiing and golf, but his greatest passion is sports car racing.
“I did not miss a year of racing from 1968 until 2008,” he said.
He started out splitting the cost of a car with a fellow banker and joining the Sports Car Club of America.
“Little by little we went from a Formula V up to Formula 4,” he said. “It’s a little bit addictive, but never got to the point where it was a huge money drain.”
Young’s team won division titles in Sports Car Club of America seven times. He finished fifth in class in both the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Baja 1,000.
He still does a few lower key events occasionally.
“It’s not competitive so long as nobody passes you,” he said.
Still, he finds himself slowing down.
“I’m afraid one of my kids might retire before I do, I still love coming to the bank and truly enjoy the interaction with people at every level,” he said. “I don’t think that will ever change, but I don’t have the energy or the time to do what I did 20 years ago.”
Young has three biological children who will be in charge of managing his foundation someday, as well as two adopted kids.
“I told them early on that I’d help them some but that giving you a lot of money isn’t going to help a lot,” he said. “Bequeathing values will make a big difference. People are pretty quick to identify people who are too full of themselves.”
Young remains head of the board and makes a point of interviewing every management trainee.
“Life is so much better when you hire well,” he said.
Though he spends much of his winters in the Florida Keys, he returns to the valley on a monthly basis and he has no plans to settle anywhere else.
“This is still my place,” he said. “Life has been good to me, not because I’m smart or a visionary, but because we’ve had the support of the community. We try to give back in every way we can.”
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