Zions still pushing frontier
Bank of '90s building big presence in the West

Published: Sunday, Nov. 29 1998 12:00 a.m. MST

This institution is a cooperative one, and we think it is likely to meet with favor. The interest allowed is at the rate of ten percent, per annum compounded semi-annually. It will be found of considerable advantage to those who wish to save money for the emigration of their friends, as the interest is large and sums as low as $1.00 will be received, which, if continually added to, will soon reach a considerable amount, and the depositors will hardly miss the money. We expect in time to have branches of the Bank all over the Territory and perhaps extend it into Europe. -- Brigham Young quoted in the Deseret News July 28, 1873

The glorious future that Brigham Young confidently predicted for Zion's Savings Bank and Trust Co., three months before its opening, must have seemed laughable to the Eastern banking establishment of 1873.After all, Young and the Mormon pioneers had been in the Salt Lake Valley only 26 years, Utah was still 23 years away from statehood, and the little bank that he and a dozen local business leaders were organizing had all of $200,000 in capital, meager even by 19th century standards, and only $50,000 had actually been handed over at the time of incorporation.

But, as has so often proved to be the case with his prognostications, Young's confident expectations of growth and greatness for Salt Lake City's first chartered bank and trust company were close to the mark.

No, Zions Bancorp. hasn't yet made it into Europe, but the financial institution launched 125 years ago not only has branches all across what was then Utah Territory, it is now doing business in most of the Western United States.

Zion's Savings Bank and Trust Co., the predecessor to what is now Zions Bancorp., opened for business on Oct. 1, 1873, and took in deposits of $5,876.20 from 46 customers. Today, the bank holding company has grown to 329 branches in eight states with assets of $15 billion and some 8,000 employees.

But while Zions had shown steady growth over the past century, the real explosion has occurred just in the past 18 months, a period of unprecedented expansion in which Zions has acquired more than a dozen banking companies in California, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Arizona and New Mexico as well as major expansion in Utah.

The merger mania begun by Zions Bancorp. and its president and chief executive officer Harris H. Simmons in May 1997 has made Utah business reporters dizzy trying to keep track of them. It has also spawned some lame jokes: "Simmons has formed the bank of the month club" or "He needs to swallow a bank a day to keep the doctor away."

If so, the medicine has worked like magic because Zions has never been healthier. The holding company routinely sets quarterly earnings records; has been ranked first among the nation's 100 largest publicly traded banking companies for return to shareholders, capital strength, productivity and its ratio of non-performing assets; and its principal subsidiary, Zions National Bank, has been lauded by federal regulators for its "outstanding" record of making loans and serving all segments of the communities in which it does business.

If you're a banker, it doesn't get much better than that. As for the unprecedented growth of the past 18 months, Simmons makes his bank's version of manifest destiny sound like no big deal.

"We've been taking advantage of some opportunities, and we've been wanting to achieve better diversification of our footprint so that we have less volatility when the economies of Utah and our neighboring states slow down," he said.

Mission accomplished. Zions' "footprint" now covers much of the West. Is it going to get even bigger? Probably, but not at the pace of the past year and a half, said Simmons.

"I expect our growth will slow down. We have been creating a foundation from which we can grow internally, and we now have some superb operations in some neighboring states so we'll now work on expanding what we've already bitten off.

"As we see opportunities that meet our criteria, and that make sense, we will continue to make acquisitions, but I don't expect it will be quite as robust in the next couple of years."

Could future acquisitions include expansion beyond Colorado, currently the easternmost edge of the Zions realm? "It is certainly a possibility," said Simmons, "though our focus will remain very clearly in the Western United States."

Ironically, while Zions Bancorp. has been remaking itself from a relatively small regional player into a force that must be reckoned with by every financial institution west of the Mississippi, Zions itself pops up regularly as a potential takeover target by even bigger fish in the churning sea that is the U.S. banking industry of the late 1990s.

Simmons recognizes the threat, but it doesn't keep him awake nights.

"I never say never (to Zions being taken over). Public companies, by their nature, are always 'for sale,' but that doesn't mean you have to hold yourself out as being for sale."

The risk of being sold usually comes when you don't perform to shareholders' expectations, said Simmons. If the bank meets or exceeds those expectations, he believes it reduces the desire of stockholders to sell their shares in a takeover, even if they could make a quick profit.

"The way you fend off buyers that you don't want coming at you is by performing well, and we've been one of the strongest performers in the industry. That gives us hope and the prospect of continuing to manage our own destiny."

If Rip Van Winkle had decided to take his big sleep in Salt Lake City 20 years ago and awakened today, the only pre-snooze banking names he'd recognize would be Zions and First Security with many of the 1978 banks found locally having changed owners -- and names -- several times.

There's no question that the game of bank musical chairs of recent years has created confusion and weakened "brand loyalty" in the minds of the public, but Simmons believes the state and its financial institutions have held up pretty well in the age of merger mania.

"Financial services in Utah is really pretty healthy," he said. "It's been an extraordinary decade but our economy has weathered the storm quite well, including the rise and fall of some very significant employers, such as WordPerfect. We've seen a lot of change, but the industry today is on solid footing."

Even the credit unions?

"Even the credit unions. Contrary to popular belief, the banks are not trying to put the credit unions out of business. We believe the big banklike credit unions ought to be subject to the same regulations as banks and the court has validated that now. But I don't have any qualms about them at all."

In fact, Simmons said he intends to continue pursuing a goal he first announced last spring: create a credit union within Zions Bancorp.

"We are still pushing that. I expect we will pursue it further in the near future."

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS