Gleason steers bank through growth years 2001 Bravo! Entrepreneur — Lifetime Achievement

FORT COLLINS — The story of Fort Collins’ phenomenal growth over the last 40-plus years wouldn’t be complete without including the impressive career of now retired banker Tom Gleason.

Fort Collins was a sleepy little college town of about 15,000 when Gleason arrived in the mid-1950s. His rise through the ranks to become president of First National Bank in 1965 and holding that position until 1994 parallels Fort Collins’ rapid growth to a now bustling community of more than 120,000.

“When I started, our assets were about $7 million, and now they’re over a billion, thanks to the growth of the community,” Gleason said.

Because of Gleason’s community-first style of banking that set a standard for others to emulate, he is this year’s Bravo! Entrepreneur Award winner for Lifetime Achievement.

Past recipients of the award include the late Ken Monfort of Greeley, Bob Everitt of the Fort Collins-based Everitt Cos. and W. D. Farr, president of Farr and Co. in Greeley.

A Sioux City, Iowa, native and finance-company employee who was transferred to Fort Collins in 1954, Gleason fell in love with the area and declined an offer of another transfer to South Dakota.

“I said, I don’t think so,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Career starts in 1956

In 1956, Gleason went to work for First National Bank — one of only two banks in town — in the consumer-loan department. It was the beginning of a career at First National that would span more than 40 years.

“I just went through the chairs,´ said Gleason, who moved up until he was simultaneously president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors.

“As the town grew, the bank grew and I grew, so to speak,” he said.

The 1960s was a time of major growth for First National. The bank moved from its original location at the southeast corner of College and Mountain avenues to a new building at its current location of 205 W. Oak in 1961. Eight years later, the bank added its 12-story tower — a local landmark that has become synonymous with the Fort Collins skyline and the first high-rise condominium-office building west of Chicago.

“When we moved to this location, we never looked back,” Gleason said. “It gave us the momentum we needed to be the dominant bank in Northern Colorado.”

Gleason said First National Bank — known as First Interstate Bank from 1981 until 1993 — has always had a close relationship with local merchants, especially those in the downtown. Another key aspect, he said, was in “taking care of the consumer,” whether they were a business owner, farmer or individual account holder.

Taking care of those relationships was a large part of the fun of banking, Gleason said.

“The interpersonal relationships with the customers and the opportunity to grow the bank through those relationships and the opportunity to help the community to grow, that’s the fun of banking — serving their needs.”

Big banks bring challenges

Gleason recalls the challenges the bank faced with the advent of the “super regional banks” based in other parts of the country, a phenomenon that sharply increased competition for customers and borrowers. But it’s a challenge First National has embraced.

“We’ve been able to do that because we offer as good of service or better than they do,” he said.

Gleason said he believes First National continues to “set the standard” for the region’s banking community, taking the lead in such innovations as offering the state’s first automatic teller machine and opening the first branch location in Colorado.

“I’ve always said we are the innovators,” he said. “It’s my belief that the competition looks up to First National Bank.”

Gleason turned the reins of the bank over to current president Mark Driscoll in 1994 but remained on board as CEO until Dec. 31, 1998. Even without those titles, Gleason maintains an office at First National and his contributions continue on a regular basis, says Driscoll.

“When he’s in town, he’s in every week,” Driscoll said. “He’s a wonderful mentor and adviser to me and he always has been. We want to have his involvement as much and as long as he wants to.”

Driscoll said Gleason occupies a central role in Fort Collins’ recent history.

“When we look back at the history of Fort Collins, Tom will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the finest businessmen this community ever had,” he said.

Driscoll points to Gleason’s advancement of branch banking, ATMs and leadership in the early 1990s in moving First National out of the umbrella of First Interstate ownership back to a more community-centered bank.

“Tom was amazingly entrepreneurial,” he said. “The whole effort Tom led to buy the bank back from First Interstate and make it an independent bank was an incredibly entrepreneurial move.”

Driscoll notes that Gleason’s strong commitment to the Fort Collins community continues to this day, as he co-chairs the “Imagine Fort Collins” campaign to raise money for the arts.

Gleason, who’s been married to his wife, Ginnie, for 47 years, has a grown son and daughter and two “real special” grandchildren. An avid bicyclist, he spends his time traveling and serving on First National’s board and those of several community organizations, including Poudre Valley Hospital and the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art. He recently left the board of the Colorado State University Research Foundation after 31 years.

“We have a huge hole on the board now,´ said Kathleen Byington, CSURF president and CEO. “Tom helped form CSURF in 1970 and he’s been such a faithful steward of it.”

Byington said she also considers Gleason a mentor and an invaluable resource on almost anything.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, Tom is a fountain of knowledge,” she said. “His expertise and guidance will be very, very sorely missed. I’ve learned a lot from him and I respect his judgment completely.”

Gleason, who continues to serve as the bank’s chairman of the board, said he believes First National’s future remains bright, even with growing competition from huge, national banking conglomerates.

“If we can continue to treat our customers as if we’re a $200 million bank as opposed to a $1 billion bank, we’ll do just fine,” he said.