The Fine Art of Banking and Leadership

By Evan Sparks

What drove Utah’s population to grow faster than any other state in the past decade, with the nation’s most diverse economy, leading it to see the second-smallest rate of lost jobs during the pandemic year of 2020?

What turned Salt Lake City into the region most likely to help low-income kids experience economic mobility, according to research by economist Raj Chetty—a 10 percent increase in income versus the average metro, just from living in Salt Lake?

What has made Utah one of the most efficiently run states, ranking near or at the bottom for public corruption and near the top for tax-dollar ROI—with a track record that includes the most profitable Winter Olympics in history?

What, in short, has made Utah and its capital city into one of America’s biggest economic and social success stories?

Success, as they say, has many fathers—but one particularly unsung one may be Scott Anderson. The president and CEO of Zions Bank is one of Utah’s most influential behind-the-scenes citizens—known by many as “Utah’s unelected governor,” the “Wizard of Oz” and “the consummate corporate citizen.”

Now, he’s the newly elected chair of the American Bankers Association—and his track record of leadership in Utah and at Zions Bank may be a sign about the future direction of the American banking system.

A son of Utah

Anderson has deep Utah roots, tracing his lineage back to the earliest Mormon pioneers. Anderson is a descendant of Ezra T. Benson, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was a member of the “vanguard party” that entered the Salt Lake valley with Brigham Young in 1847.

Jesselie and Scott Anderson. Photo by Douglas Barnes.

But Anderson didn’t stay in the Beehive State. He served an LDS Church mission in French Polynesia, studied in Italy, received degrees from Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University, then joined Bank of America for a career that included time in San Francisco before seven years in Tokyo. Along the way, he married fellow Utahn Jesselie Barlow. Together, they have three grown children.

His globe-trotting background “makes you appreciative of how different people with different ideas and different backgrounds can come together and create great things,” Anderson reflects. “With that diversity, you’re a lot better off, you’re a lot stronger, and you’re a lot more innovative than if you’re all out of the same mold.” It’s a message that Anderson would internalize—and bring to fruition around him—in the decades to come.

Scott and Jesselie felt the pull of home in 1990, when Anderson joined Zions Bank as a retail banking executive. Zions has its own storied history as the oldest continuously operating bank in Utah. Founded in 1873 by Brigham Young himself, Zions was chartered and owned by the LDS Church to meet the cooperative finance needs of Utah’s Mormon settlers and their businesses and farms. The church owned the bank until Roy Simmons led a group of private investors to buy the bank in the 1960s—establishing the company that would become today’s more than $80 billion in-assets Zions Bancorporation, with locations across the West. (In one of those realizations that reminds you Utah is a small world, since 1884, Zions’ corporate headquarters has been located on the original Salt Lake homesite of Anderson’s ancestor Benson.)

Changing the image

However, the Zions Bank of 1991 carried around a perception of its past. Anderson recalls that early on in his Zions career, market research commissioned by the bank asked consumers “How would you describe Zions Bank as an individual?” The response, Anderson recalls: “a middle-aged, white, balding man who drove a Cadillac and lived in a gated community.” He and others in the management team bristled at that description—“that’s not how I viewed Zions Bank”—but took it to heart.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into changing the image to reflect the community,” Anderson says, noting that the bank has built a women’s business center, Spanish-speaking “Su Banco” centers and a banking center designed to meet the needs of refugees resettled in Utah.

Today, half of the Zions Bank board is made up of women and has strong minority representation. Of the bank’s employees, 52 percent are women, Anderson notes, and 18 percent are from a racial or ethnic minority “that largely reflects our population in Utah and Idaho.”

Harris Simmons—the longtime chairman and CEO of Zions Bancorporation and himself a former ABA chair—credits Anderson with that transformation. “Scott was determined that we were going to see a much greater representation of women in senior roles here and he’s been really instrumental in bringing that to pass,” he notes.

And while Utah is known for being a religiously and politically conservative state, Anderson and Simmons were also proactive in making Zions Bank an inclusive environment for LGBTQ employees. “Scott’s always provided a safe working space for the LGBTQ community,” says Stephenie Larsen, CEO of Encircle, a Utah-based nonprofit that runs activity and support centers for LGBTQ individuals aged 12 to 25. “Scott created a workplace that felt like home.”

Byron Russell agrees. A community advocate in Salt Lake City who has known Anderson for decades and who once worked at Zions, Russell marvels at what it took “for Scott to be a leader in that space and to talk about that openly in the community—it was really Scott and Harris who opened up their hearts and their minds to what is right.”

“I was amazed to watch how they understood how best to navigate this tricky space in a community that probably didn’t have the same impression or acceptance or empathy for LGBTQ rights and issues,” adds Russell, himself a gay man.

But for Anderson, there’s not as much of a gap between Utah’s heritage and the DEI-focused culture he’s cultivated at Zions today. The bank and the state were founded by a small religious minority fleeing religiously motivated violence in pursuit of a place where they could live in peace as themselves. The Mormon pioneers “were coming here because they lost their homes and they were persecuted back East,” says Anderson.

Anderson intends to build on his work at Zions and the work already done at the American Bankers Association on DEI. “We, as an industry, have to do a better job with how we staff and how we reach out to customers,” he says, noting that banks need policies that “reach out to different groups, to minority groups . . . and find ways to bank them.” As an example, he cites a special purpose credit program, aligned with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s Project REACh, “that will allow our employees to reach out to minority-owned businesses and do that within the confines of fair lending and do it in a way where we can provide banking serves and loans that might otherwise not have been available.”

‘Give everyone an opportunity to prosper’

Anderson’s DEI-driven vision goes well beyond the walls of Zions Bank. As he puts it, the bank’s goal is to “use our balance sheet to create an inclusive economy that can truly give everyone an opportunity to prosper.”

“Scott helps build the pipeline for female leadership,” says Pat Jones. “He looks out for potential, he sees it, and he supports that potential.” Photo of Anderson with the Utah Women’s Mural by Kevin Brusie.

Anderson’s advocacy for DEI in Utah spans multiple dimensions. Patricia Jones was a Utah state senator who was planning to retire when Anderson invited her to a meeting. “Scott asked me to take a new job,” she says, as CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute. Zions Bank provided two years of startup funding for the initiative. Since it launched in 2015, WLI has focused both on coaching women for business leadership roles and running for elected office. “We’ve trained almost 300 women to run for political office,” Jones notes. “They are running and they are winning. Scott helps build the pipeline for female leadership. He looks out for potential, he sees it, and he supports that potential.”

More recently, Anderson pulled together a diverse group of leaders to sign what he calls “a document that everyone could adopt”: the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. The signers of this document committed themselves to five “anti-racist principles and actions”:

  1. Acknowledgement and action. We acknowledge that racism exists, and our actions make a difference. We call out racism wherever we see it and take purposeful steps to stop it.
  2. Investment. We invest our time and resources to create greater opportunity for people of color. Eliminating racial and ethnic disparities requires our significant effort and investment.
  3. Public policies and listening. We advance solutions to racial ills by listening and creating policies that provide equal opportunity and access to education, employment, housing, and healthcare.
  4. Engagement. We engage to effect change. Broader engagement, equitable representation, and deeper connection across social, cultural, and racial lines will uphold the principle – “nothing about us, without us.”
  5. Movement, not a moment. Utahns unite behind a common goal to create equal opportunity. We affirm our commitment will not just be a passing moment, but a legacy movement of social, racial and economic justice.

The driving force behind the compact was the influential pair of Anderson and his longtime friend Gail Miller. As one of Utah’s most prominent business leaders, Miller is chair and owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies founded by her late husband and a former owner of the Utah Jazz NBA team. “It was a document written with a sense of personal reflection,” says Byron Russell. “You could hear Scott’s voice in it. You could hear Gail Miller’s voice in it.”

The way the compact leans into hard conclusions about racism suggests Anderson and Miller’s deep engagement with these issues, Russell adds, noting with a chuckle that professional contacts at a large philanthropic foundation focused on racial equity “were so amazed they thought I wrote it, that people of color wrote it—but it was really the corporate community that spoke to us.”

In addition to Anderson and Miller, signatories include a bipartisan who’s who in Utah, including sitting Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.; Salt Lake City’s Democratic mayor, Jackie Biskupski; plus an array of local CEOs and nonprofit leaders. In fact, “the very first thing [Cox] signed [after his 2021 inauguration]was the compact on race,” Russell notes. “That speaks volumes to the fact that Scott is this great leader who’s an amazing businessman, who’s an incredible voice, a great supporter and very generous, and what does he do? He gets the governor to actually follow the lead of the community and make it more palatable to a lot of Utahns.”

Then, in May 2021, Anderson worked with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah to publish a data book on diversity in Utah. The report uncovers metrics on racial and ethnic disparities across most lines (excepting Utah’s population of Asian descent, the report notes) on income, wealth, poverty, educational attainments, homeownership and housing costs. The report is designed to point to pathways that might address the challenges acknowledged in the compact.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t want that report unleashed,” Russell says. But he highlights “Scott’s insistence that data be shared. ‘If we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where we’re going.’ I don’t think there was the slightest fear in pushing that forward. Without Scott, and his generosity and his leadership and his foresight and leaning into uncomfortable conversations, I’m not sure that report would have seen the light of day.”

With both the compact and the Gardner Center research, Anderson deflects credit and personally hones in on the policy areas of focus: education, housing, healthcare and jobs. “We want to focus on having housing for everyone, having education for everyone, having healthcare for everyone and having a job that offers a sustainable salary that will sustain a family,” he says. To that end, “I look at it as a banker: What can I do to ensure I’m providing access to credit so someone can buy a home, can finance an education, and finance businesses that are providing jobs?”

For Anderson, the path to addressing disparities in the community is all about creating and expanding opportunity.

The world stage

“I look at it as a banker,” says Anderson. “What can I do to ensure I’m providing access to credit so someone can buy a home, can finance an education, and finance businesses that are providing jobs?” Photo by Kevin Brusie.

Anderson’s vision for an inclusive world goes well beyond Utah. Like Anderson, Utah defies common misperceptions with its worldwide connectivity. For example, Utah leads the nation in its export growth rate, says Miles Hansen, CEO of World Trade Center Utah, whose board Anderson has chaired. “It’s an internationally minded culture that leads to internationally minded businesses, and that leads to our economy being so globally connected,” says Hansen, who notes that Zions supports Utah businesses’ international activity through its robust trade finance offerings.

One driver for that global connectivity is having the headquarters of a worldwide church—and one in which many Utahns live overseas for two years on a church mission as young adults. This has led to 130 languages being spoken in Utah. “Scott has promoted Mandarin education in schools,” Hansen adds, noting that Utah accounts for 20 percent of all Chinese immersion students in the country.

That global vision extends to welcoming refugees. In 2017, then-Gov. Gary Herbert made headlines by extending a welcome to refugees of Syria’s civil war at a time when many states did not wish to welcome them; Gov. Cox made the same invitation to refugees fleeing the imposition of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2021. Zions Bank has been part of the welcome effort, including by hiring refugees—with Harris Simmons noting that they make excellent employees. “Scott has been highly involved in creating that kind of culture, not only in the bank but in the state,” says Simmons.

Anderson also helped Utah step onto the world stage when the state hosted the 2002 Olympic Winter Games for the first time—an event that, despite a huge rise in post-9/11 security expenses, still became the most profitable Winter Olympics in modern history. “He spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears to bring the Olympics here to Utah,” says Russ Olsen, CEO of Stein Eriksen Lodge, a high-end mountain resort in Park City. “He had a vision about what the Olympics could bring to Utah, and he put his whole weight and force behind bringing the Olympics here.”

The Scott Anderson production function

On his popular podcast, the economist Tyler Cowen asks his extremely distinguished guests about their “production functions”—how do they accomplish all the remarkable things they get done. One might well ask the same question about Scott Anderson.

“Scott’s everywhere!” exclaims Dinesh Patel, a Utah-based healthcare venture capital investor. Anderson is in so many places “representing Zions Bank that we’ve accused him of being cloned!” Laughs former Gov. Gary Herbert, “Whether it’s clone one or clone two, he’s everywhere!”

But while omnipresent, Anderson’s style is very much out of the spotlight. “Scott is not a big-talking, back-slapping individual,” observes Sen. Mitt Romney. “He works in a subtle, behind-the-scenes way to make sure people understand the needs of our broader community.”

Real estate developer Kem Gardner describes him a bit more cinematically, noting that Anderson is “always staying in the shadow like the Wizard of Oz, pulling the cords and the buttons —but there’s no question that he’s one of the major reasons for Utah’s sustained economic success.”

Anderson is quick to downplay just how much time he spends on his dozens of community commitments. “My philosophy is: I point them to the circus, especially the juggler spinning plates on the top of the poles. The trick is to know when to go back to each pole to give it a swing to keep the plate from dropping. It doesn’t mean you have to be at each pole the same amount of time—you just need to know when to be back at the pole to give it another whack.”

But he puts in the hours. “I always thought I worked long hours, but I got tired of trying to get [to the office]before Scott or leave after him,” says Harris Simmons with a chuckle. “I get emails from him at three in the morning that I don’t read until six,” adds Gardner.

“Anybody running for office feels like one of the things you’ve got to check the box on is, ‘I’ve got to go visit Scott Anderson and see what he thinks about this issue or that issue and whether I can garner his support,’” says former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (left). Photo by Douglas Barnes.

Anderson is careful to steward his earned influence wisely. “Anybody running for office feels like one of the things you’ve got to check the box on is, ‘I’ve got to go visit Scott Anderson and see what he thinks about this issue or that issue and whether I can garner his support,’” notes Herbert.

Simmons thinks of Anderson’s approach to political engagement—on behalf of banking issues and on behalf of the community—is a model for banks. “Scott is quite a nonpartisan guy. He’s has close friends on both ends of the political spectrum.” Anderson’s credibility in advocating for banking issues is strong in large part because of his credibility as an advocate for what’s best for Utah. “Scott takes a much broader view,” explains Romney. “He doesn’t just look for those specific issues that relate to business in Utah, but instead looks more broadly at what he thinks is right for our entire state.”

‘Creatively entrepreneurial’

Anderson’s banking career intersects with yet another of his passions: the arts. “I have no talent in playing or singing or painting, but I enjoy the talent that I witness,” Anderson says with a smile. In addition to his involvement with the Utah Symphony and the Sundance Film Festival, he has continued—and accelerated—a Zions Bank tradition started by Roy Simmons of purchasing visual works by Utah artists depicting Utah scenes. Every Zions location is full of beautiful Western landscape paintings.

By investing in local artists, Zions encourages painters to make viable careers out of their craft, Anderson explains. This investment plays out across the state, but perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in Helper, a small mining town a few hours southeast of Salt Lake City ringed by striking red cliffs. With much of the mining exhausted, Helper was a town in decline. Its historic Main Street became an emerging hub for artists seeking inspiration and creative space. Anderson and Zions support the Helper Project, a cultural revitalization and civic beautification nonprofit that provides space for a new generation of Utah artists.

“Even though we’re small, he has a huge impact here in Helper,” says Roy Jespersen, co-founder of the Helper Project. Jespersen’s wife, Anne, is a working artist and the pair own a home and gallery on Main Street. Anderson does more than support the Helper Project, though. After a bank closed Helper’s last branch, Zions installed a new ATM on Main Street and put in a classic neon sign that matches the vibe local businesses are creating on their historic strip. “It’s a great historic sign welcoming people to Helper,” says Jespersen. “What’s happened here in Helper, we could never have done what we are doing without Scott and Zions Bank.”

“I think banking is really an innovative and creative business,” Anderson says of the connection between Zions and its Utah art collection. “You’re trying to push the envelope. You’re trying to come up with something new—whether it’s a painting or a checking account or a home equity line of credit.”

Anderson sees harmony between banking and art. “I think banking is really an innovative and creative business,” he says. “You’re trying to push the envelope. You’re trying to come up with something new—whether it’s a painting or a checking account or a home equity line of credit.”

While he may not admit to artistic talent of his own, his clients see the artistry in Anderson’s work as a banker. “We had a time when CTI Construction was growing exponentially, and we’d been awarded five big jobs all in the period of one month,” reflects Don Salazar, the owner of one of Utah’s largest minority-owned construction companies. The growth was “so significant that we were blowing through the bonding company levels.” The bonding company might take two or three weeks for a review that would provider higher levels of coverage—leaving a gap at a critical moment.

“Somehow it got back to Scott,” Salazar says. “He instructed the Zions representative: ‘You do whatever it takes to help CTI get through that bonding gap.’ They did, and everything came out good, but I don’t know if they realized just how much that helped CTI.”

It’s a reflection of Zions’ core value of being “conservatively entrepreneurial.” Says Anderson: “I hope that within the bank we’ve built a physical environment that is inspiring and that facilitates this spirit of innovation and creativity.”

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Evan Sparks

Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal and senior vice president for member communications at the American Bankers Association.