Sowing potato seeds helped reap successful career
Mysterious that Bill Farr still would grow potatoes in a garden plot on the acre of land that surrounds his west Greeley home.
One of his first – and least favorite – jobs was thinning seed potatoes on the farm his family tilled on the city’s fringe.
“I’d walk the rows, picking out the diseased potatoes, leaving only those that would produce the best seed,´ said Farr, now president and CEO of the booming Centennial Bank Holdings Inc. “That was an OK job – for about an hour.”
Potatoes, like banking, are woven into the history of the Farr family, a clan that traces its roots to the time Farr’s great, great grandfather stepped off a stagecoach in Greeley in 1877. Farr even married into potato royalty, choosing the 1969 Colorado Potato Queen, Sharon Magnuson, to be his wife.
While rooted as deeply in the dark, rich Weld County soil as any potato that ever grew, Farr has transcended his family’s agricultural base to grow one of Colorado’s most successful banks. His efforts have earned him the 2000 Bravo! Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Greeley.
“One of the reasons we do so well is because we know the people and we know the area,” Farr said. “That’s been a difference for us.”
The state of doing “well” has lots of definitions, but hardly a one can measure up to the record of Centennial Bank. Since the Centennial holding company formed with the 1993 merger of Greeley Farmers Bank and Eaton Bank, assets have grown from $27 million to $490 million – an 18-fold increase in seven years.
Farr even has a celebration planned – complete with special gifts for each Centennial employee – when the bank hits the half-billion-dollar mark, sometime in December by Farr’s estimate.
“Every once in a while he’ll stick his head out of his door and tell me where we are,´ said Glenda Cazer, for three years Farr’s executive assistant at the bank headquarters on 47th Avenue in west Greeley. “He’ll say, ‘Glenda, we’re getting close.'”
The milestone and the growth curve that brings it closer are events someone would expect to mark the end of a long banking career.
But Farr’s is not. His first bank job was as a loan officer at Greeley National Bank in 1988. He did not take charge of a bank until 10 years ago, when he became president of Farmers National Bank in Ault, which was, along with Greeley National, a holding of Affiliated Bankshares of Colorado.
The Farmers-Eaton merger and ensuing formation of Centennial gave Farr the foundation for an independent bank empire that now has 11 locations so far, most of them strung like beads along Interstate 25 and U.S. Highway 287.
“We need to put the banks where the people are, where the business is,” Farr said in 1999 of his strategic move westward for new branch locations.
While Farr’s banking career spans just 12 years, his involvement in the industry is almost lifelong. He has served as a director of banking companies since the early 1960s, following his graduation from Iowa State University with a degree in animal science.
The banking roots tap his great grandfather’s role as president of Greeley’s Union Bank in the early 1900s.
“My wife found a calendar at a garage sale,” Farr said. “It was put out by Union Bank, 1911: ‘William H. Farr, president.'”
Agriculture paid the young Bill Farr’s bills, though. As a partner in the family-owned Farr Farms Co., he worked with his two brothers and father, W.D. Farr, in a farming and feeding business that spanned three generations.
A downturn in Weld County’s boom-bust agricultural economy changed Farr’s course.
“Cattle feeding got so rough in the late 80s,” Sharon Farr said. “The market was awful, and farm prices were terrible. There came a fork in the road where they had to get with the program or get on with something else.”
The Greeley National Bank job, at $35,000 a year, plugged the gap. But banking is where Farr found his talents best applied, Sharon Farr said.
“He was in private business for a long time,” she said. “He thinks that most people in banking have never really run a business. But he relates to people and understands them, because he’s been there.”
She also said her husband benefits from a sense of business clairvoyance that has led him into wise decisions.
“Honestly, it sounds like bragging, but its not,” she said. “It’s as if he has psychic abilities. He instinctively knows what’s going to happen before it does. Not only that, but how it’s going to happen, and why.”
The Farrs met in 1959 when Bill Farr and friends were having lunch at the Hut Club Cafe in Eaton, where Sharon Magnuson, the potato queen, was a waitress.
“As we left, instead of a tip I left her a note,´ said Farr, then 30 years old. “The note invited her out on a date.”
Sharon Farr recollects getting a glimpse of Bill Farr, the tightwad.
“He was kind of a cheapskate,” she said. “I mean, instead of a tip he gives me this promissory note.”
The two married in 1964, and are the parents of one child, son Andreas, now 26 and working as a lobster fisherman in Maine.
While Sharon Farr said her husband spends too much time on his job – including most nights and weekends – the couple find time to get away to their favorite trout stream, the North Platte River where it flows through Encampment, Wyo., and where the Farr family own cabins.
Farr said more time on the glistening waters of the North Platte is in his future.
“I don’t think I’ll do what my father does,” he said, referring to 90-year-old W.D Farr, who still puts in 9-to-4 days at his downtown Greeley office and never misses a meeting of the Greeley Water Board, of which he is an emeritus member.
While Bill Farr said he regards his father as his wisest, closest and most trusted friend, he won’t follow the model of extending his working life into his 90s.
“Maybe 65,” Farr said, responding to the retirement question. “Maybe a little later. As for what I’ll do then, I’m not sure. How about more fishing? That wouldn’t be bad.”