By Kerry O’Leary“I wasn’t afraid to zag while others were zigging.”
This is the way in which Jim Reuter describes his thirst for innovation at an early age. The president and CEO of FirstBank, based in the Denver area—and the 2018-19 chairman of the ABA Government Relations Council—grew up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin, in a town with a population of 700. “My roots are very much a small town,” says Reuter.
In Wisconsin, he played and studied classical trumpet, with a goal of going to college to pursue music. In a tiny rural town where extracurriculars like athletics were more prominent, this was the very “zag” he talks about that set the tone for numerous accomplishments, both in banking and personally. He refers to his work ethic as “find your own boot straps and make it happen.” And that’s what he did, as the first in a family of three brothers to go to college. While attending Iowa’s Luther College, he added a degree in finance to his music credentials, and his banking ambitions began to take shape.
Reuter recalls his initial interview with FirstBank, where he met with a notably young bank president to discuss an entry-level position making loans. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is the entrepreneurial spirit I am looking for’,” he says. After a two years in the bank lobby, he transferred to FirstBank’s corporate headquarters.. This led to an opportunity to manage some new projects in technology and payments, an area in which he quickly excelled. It was the beginning of a 30-plus year career that would mark him as an innovator, culminating with his promotion to CEO in 2017.
With Reuter’s influence, FirstBank has lived up to its name, earning pioneer status on many pivotal moments in banking. The bank took an aggressive approach to issuing signature debit cards, working on a faster and simpler authorization process than what others were doing. “Believe it or not, that was innovative at one point in time,” says Reuter, adding that “we saw right away the convenience it gives the customer, so we made it a priority.”
And FirstBank continues to push the envelope. They were the first non-founding adopter of bank-owned digital payments provider, Zelle. Reuter admits the leap of faith. “The ROI on Zelle is still unknown. But the thing I do know is our customers’ utilization of Venmo and Square told me it’s certainly something they would value.” He knows this because he considers his customers every step of the way. Today, one-third of the now $18 billion bank’s accounts are opened online. “Behind the scenes, getting there wasn’t very glamorous, but to the customer it seemed seamless and smooth,” says Reuter. “As time has gone on we refined it.” And being first has its advantages. “Clearly those are individuals whose preferred way to establish a relationship with us is digitally. So when they pick a bank to park their idle funds, or when they want a mortgage, we’re top of mind because we’ve been there where they needed us.”
This innate ability to succeed in new territory plays out in his free time, too. He’s developed a longstanding passion for cycling, both in sport and as a hobby. Reuter is humble about his cycling resume, but is an avid mountain biker (he has even raced competitively for nearly 30 years). He works a 75-minute session into his morning exercise routine most days. “I’ll put a light on my helmet and ride a singletrack trail before work.” It’s a trail only as wide the bike itself, with technical elements like hills or sharp curves, and natural obstacles like rocks and tree roots.
The image fits with Reuter’s ability to trust what lies ahead—a skill he has applied to his career with a great degree of victory. The trailblazing mindset is exactly how things get done at FirstBank. “Culturally, we have always had a vision toward going somewhere when others hadn’t been there yet. Sometimes that means moving before all the math makes sense.” He mentions more firsts. “We were one of the first to put branches in grocery stores, to have a seven-day staffed call center, and to offer online banking services…”
But there has to be a balance, says Reuter. “I think some people see technology and an end in and of itself, and we don’t.” To FirstBank, technology works when it adds value to the customer experience, eliminates friction in the somewhere along the customer relationship and meets the customer where they are—as long as it follows what Reuter calls the 80/20 rule. “We focus on what is a positive for the 80 percent, and for the 20 percent of super-savvy tech users, we’re a little more careful, because all of the additional functionality you have to add could end up being noise and clutter for the majority.”
Monitoring the 80/20 line is also Reuter’s leadership approach as chairman of the ABA Government Relations Council. His “listen first” practice ensures the agenda is guided with the greater constituency in mind. He seeks input from individual council members through tabletop exercises and pre-meeting surveys, which then steer the conversation. “My concern is that it’s always the loudest voice that gets heard,” says Reuter.
This ability to narrow in on an audience’s collective needs before tackling a new endeavor is a direct reflection of how Reuter runs FirstBank. And it works. “I look at my fellow GRC members as customers of ABA, and my job is to bring forward what the customers are saying,” says Reuter. He mentions current priorities like BSA/AML reform and CECL implementation that remain top of mind as the year’s agenda unfolds. “Looking at whether or not we have a level playing field with fintechs and other emerging players, knowing what’s next for cannabis banking, and how CRA reform can be affected by what happens in the BSA and AML space are also what we are hearing from members,” he notes.
And while Reuter’s marker of success has everything to do with improving the customer-constituent relationship, putting in the work to get there makes all the difference. He traces this back to his childhood on the farm. “The thing I still look back fondly on is baling hay,” he says, then laughing a bit about his use of the word “fondly” to describe the chore.
But Reuter can see past the daunting qualities of the work. It’s how he came to be known as the hardworking, forward-thinking, calculated risk taker—never afraid to imagine the end result. “It was such a rewarding thing to start a day with a field full of fresh cut hay, and when the sun sets the field is clean, because you did the work,” he says.
“The challenge in your professional life is you rarely get to cut the hay and have the field clean in the same day. You get there but it takes a little longer. The key is trusting it can become clean, and knowing you’ll do what it takes to get there.”