Not everyone's family business boasts a century-old legacy, but Jay Davidson, CEO of First American State Bank in Greenwood Village, can look back more than 100 years to the bank started by his grandfather as his own business celebrates its 25th anniversary. Davidson’s grandfather, Will, emigrated from Scotland, and eventually landed in North Dakota, where he started First National Bank in 1903. According to Davidson, “it was a one-horse bank, but he took it through two World Wars and a Great Depression.” Young Jay didn’t spend much time learning banking from his grandfather, but he picked up “a moral and ethical system rather than the actual profession. It’s important to learn an ethical code from your parents and grandparents.”
The younger Davidson earned a degree in mechanical engineering (minoring in nuclear engineering), then worked with a multinational electronics firm. He rose through the ranks, joining the company’s leadership program and was fast-tracked into executive management. But after almost two decades of working for a large corporation, Davidson says, “I yearned for freedom, autonomy and independence. Mathematic and engineering training lend themselves to understanding balance sheets and income statements, so, combined with my knowledge of banking from the bank my grandfather started, I agreed to start a bank. We opened in 1995.”
Davidson had fallen for the Centennial State during a visit years earlier to Greeley, where his sister was attending school. Even the brief visit felt “really good,” he recalls, and later in his career, he was ready to move back.
With such focus on the role of private enterprise and 25 years of lending to other entrepreneurs, what advice would Davidson give to other entrepreneurs? He says to first of all be honest with yourself. Examine the premise of what you’re building and plan for a difficult start-up (and no cash flow, for at least a while). It’s also important, he says, to be “absolutely painfully customer-, employee- and client-oriented.” Extend that honesty to “everyone who comes through your doors,” and build for the long term. Finally, be prepared for economic cycles that are both good and bad.
In the middle of 2020’s turbulent economic cycle, which Davidson calls “extremely unusual times or even a paradigm shift–hopefully to the positive,” he believes the “underlying issue for Americans is individual freedom. With that comes rights and responsibilities.”
According to Davidson, businesses can affect positive change by setting an example. At First American State Bank that means “Be honest with all your actions, be good to people.” Davidson says “the bottom line is that any job can be taught–but can you fit into our culture? We’ve actually gotten into trouble with our so-called culture statement. If we make a mistake in hiring, the other employees often figure it out before I do. I tell our management team that if we’re not living according to our culture, then our words and deeds need to match.”
Today, part of that management team includes daughter Michelle Gruber, assistant vice president. “Dad always made it very clear that there would be no nepotism, that we had to get real jobs,” Gruber says. But she also fondly remembers that “When Dad started the business in 1995, we moved close to the bank and I got to go to some of his business lunches, so I loved that.”
Family and relationships remain central to the operating ethos of First American State Bank. Davidson’s wife, Kristina, is a key figure in the bank’s community involvement. Hailing from Sweden. Kristina raised more than $1.3 million for Cherry Creek School District via the First American State Bank Fitness Festival.
Following in both her mother and father’s footsteps, Michelle Gruber started the First American State Bank Toy Drive. A joint effort between Gruber and Sarah Dennis, the toy drive sends more than 1,000 toys to Volunteers of America each year. For some of these children, this is the only gift they receive.
With such attention to community, it makes sense that Jay might be thinking about a succession plan. He says “the bank will go on in whatever form is necessary. My grandfather’s bank is now 140 years old. My kids are now all grown up and I have four grandchildren. It really is such a pleasure to see your children grow up and see your children develop their own intelligence and moral system.”
Chiming in, Gruber notes, “We like to say that we’re the bank that people graduate to. We offer a relationship and we’re out-of-the-box thinkers. We also live, play, breathe, and work within this community.”
Elizabeth Kosar is a writer for Colorado Expression and a strategic communications consultant. Her first bank was a porcelain piggy bank shaped like a clown. Today, she prefers something FDIC-insured.
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