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First National Proud

by Apr 25, 2022Finance, Magazine

First National Bank Alaska

Started on January 30, 1922, as The First National Bank of Anchorage inside a furniture store at 4th Avenue and G Street, FNBA has grown and prospered over the last century while other banks have fallen by the wayside or been absorbed by larger institutions.

The fireworks display over Anchorage on January 30 was too late for New Year’s Eve, too early for Fur Rendezvous. What was it for? The fact that it happened at Cuddy Family Midtown Park is a clue, for those who know the history of the Cuddy family and what happened on that day 100 years earlier.

The Cuddy family has run First National Bank Alaska (FNBA) since 1941, and the institution was already nineteen years old by then. Started on January 30, 1922, as The First National Bank of Anchorage inside a furniture store at 4th Avenue and G Street, FNBA has grown and prospered over the last century while other banks have fallen by the wayside or been absorbed by larger institutions.

Don’t confuse FNBA with National Bank of Alaska (NBA), started in Skagway in 1916. Led by the Rasmuson family, NBA used to be Alaska’s largest bank, but it never marked its hundredth birthday. Wells Fargo bought NBA in 2000, a couple years after the San Francisco-based Gold Rush bank was itself bought by Minneapolis-based Norwest Corporation, a bank that will celebrate its centennial in 2029.

First National changed its ‘A’ in 2001. “I was here when the bank transitioned from The First National Bank of Anchorage to First National Bank Alaska,” says Chief Administrative Officer Cheri Gillian. “When Wells Fargo purchased NBA, we were like ‘Okay, now we get to be First National Bank Alaska.”

Given that NBA did not obtain a national charter until 1950, FNBA has a strong claim to really be the first national bank in Alaska. “First” has been part of its identity, says Board Chair and CEO Betsy Lawer. FNBA had the first drive-through window and computerized banking in Alaska, both in 1960. A year later, it opened the first branch in Bethel, the only bank for an area the size of Montana. The first bank branch inside a US federal building was FNBA’s in Anchorage in 1980. And FNBA ranked first in the nation for return on assets in 1984, 1985, and 1986.

That’s a lot of firsts.

Family Values

The first countertop at FNBA’s flagship location in downtown Anchorage was a slab of marble from a candy kitchen. Winfield Ervin furnished his new bank with salvage from his candy factory in Idaho. Across that counter slid assets from Ervin’s early customers: railroad workers, fur trappers, and gold miners.

Lawer recalls seeing gold nuggets weighed on a scale in the bank. “Then the gold would be put in the vault as collateral, along with pelts. The challenge was the pelts were often stinky,” she says. “We don’t have pelts as collateral anymore.”

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The branch at 4th and G didn’t make it to the hundredth anniversary. “It was not our choice,” Lawer says.

In 2020, the metro branch relocated a few blocks west because FNBA had to divest itself of the building. “Banks are not allowed to own real estate,” Lawer explains, “and with technology, the bank’s footprint downtown had gotten small enough that they [the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] felt we were not occupying enough of the building, using it as a bank, that it was considered a real estate investment.”

For now, the old FNBA building is as empty as the 4th Avenue Theater next door. That theater was built alongside the bank in 1941, the same year FNBA changed hands from Ervin to a new owner. Warren Cuddy, a former federal prosecutor in Valdez, acquired a controlling interest. When he died ten years later, his wife, Lucy Hon Cuddy, became the new board chair and his son, Dan “D.H.” Cuddy, became president. In 1982, J.P. Pfeifer became president while D.H. Cuddy stepped into the role of chairman of the board. His son, David Cuddy, became president in 1992, with David’s sister Betsy as chief operating officer.

Betsy Lawer figures her involvement in the family business began around age 2. “Pop would periodically take one of us on his Saturday morning business calls, and I always behaved because I thought they were fascinating,” she says. “From an early age, I realized what banking could do for people because I was tagging along with my dad in the morning and talking to these old-time Alaskans and hearing their stories and their business plans.”

Lawer earned a degree in economics from Duke University, and her first job was as secretary for her father. “Never any other place where I wanted to work,” she says.

As board chair since D.H. Cuddy died in 2015, as CEO since 2018, and once again as bank president upon the retirement of Doug Longacre soon after the centennial, Lawer has created a culture that invites others to think of FNBA as if it were their own.

The first drive-through window at an Alaska bank in 1960, one of FNBA’s many firsts.

First National Bank Alaska

“I didn’t have a family member working here,” says Chief Banking Officer Ryan Strong, “but my parents did a lot of banking with the bank, so they were familiar with Mr. Cuddy and Betsy Lawer… It’s probably no coincidence I got a summer job there for a couple summers between college, so when I came home to Alaska with a finance degree… First National was the natural spot for me.”

Gillian, originally hired by Lawer in the ‘80s as an artist in a two-person marketing department, credits FNBA with having accessible leaders. “I’m not going to fool myself and say every front-line person knows who Betsy is or knows who I am or has an appreciation that we’re making decisions on a daily basis that we think will lead to the best possible workplace, but I think a lot of people do,” she says.

Strong appreciates it. “I’ve worked a few places [and] I’ve never seen a leader who cares genuinely as much for the employees of the organization,” he says of his boss.

That’s the loyalty that brought about 350 employees out to the park on a winter night for the centennial celebration. Chief Credit Officer Darren Franz was wowed by the pyrotechnics, as well as the camaraderie. “I’ve celebrated every day I’ve been over here because, I gotta tell ya, if you work for somebody that doesn’t care about people… you hugely appreciate working in a place where you’re valued and your opinion matters,” he says.

A Century of Success

On the cover of volume 1, issue 1 of Alaska Business Monthly in January 1985, there’s D.H. Cuddy with his skewed smile. His portrait is framed by FNBA’s signature color (some call it maroon; others are sure it’s burgundy) and underscored by the headline, “First National’s Cuddy cashes in on conservatism.” From the beginning FNBA and this magazine have had a close relationship.

For six years running, FNBA has topped the category of Best Place to Work, 250+ Employees in our Best of Alaska Business awards. Lawer says that achievement is among her proudest, next to FNBA’s national rankings, such as being named a “Best Bank to Work For” by American Banker magazine.

The success of the bank depends on the success of its people. Strong says, “We’re always looking for ways to turn banking for our employees from a job into a career,” and every other officer interviewed for this article voiced a similar sentiment.

FNBA’s mission statement also hitches the bank’s success to its customers and community. As Strong puts it, “We only succeed if our customers succeed, if our communities succeed, if the state succeeds. If none of those succeed, we’re out of business, basically.”

One of those customers is Mike Mortenson, president of Alaska Rubber Group. When the Anchorage-based industrial supplier acquired five new locations in Washington, FNBA expressed reservations about lending for an out-of-state venture. But Mortenson says the bank had faith, based on the history of the business—which in some ways paralleled FNBA’s own scrappy beginnings. “It was the hometown bank that really saw something in us from the very beginning, jumped on board, and has been with us every step of the way,” Mortenson says

Of D.H. Cuddy’s six kids, Betsy Lawer says she’s the one who wanted to work at the bank for the long haul.

First National Bank Alaska

When Alaska Rubber Group transitioned to an employee-owned business, FNBA helped navigate the transaction. And when the COVID-19 pandemic cut off revenue, Mortenson says FNBA handled the paperwork for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “We at no time had any concern that we were gonna have to lay off people,” he says.

Nearly one out of every three PPP loans in Alaska passed through FNBA. “Out of all the initiatives we’ve done, that stands out to me the most,” says Franz. He explains that FNBA processed approximately 5,500 PPP loans worth hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes before the federal government figured out how to reimburse the bank.

“It definitely stretched us financially,” Franz says. “It was out of our purse, so to speak… But it worked out. They honored their word, and as the loans were made, within a few weeks of them being made, we would get funding for them.”

Franz says FNBA came together as a team because the bank recognized that PPP was vital to helping customers—but it was tense. He thought, “’Good grief! I don’t want to tank the bank before it’s a hundred years old, if we do something wrong here.’ We all knew we had to try to make this work.”

A similar “across-the-organization effort” prepared FNBA’s computers for the Y2K transition, Gillian recalls. “This bank will adapt and thrive,” she says. “That’s what I know. Because the heart of the bank, the values of the bank, they’re unmatched almost across the nation… We’ve overcome many a challenge.”

Those challenges include the 1964 earthquake. FNBA’s headquarters building was damaged, but D.H. Cuddy pledged to rebuild even taller as a signal of confidence. “My father always believed in Alaska, something he instilled in all of his kids,” says Lawer. “It’s the culture of the bank today.”

“From an early age, I realized what banking could do for people because I was tagging along with my dad in the morning and talking to these old-time Alaskans and hearing their stories and their business plans.”

—Betsy Lawer, Board Chair and CEO, First National Bank Alaska

The Next Hundred

“Change in the banking world has never been going as fast as it is now, so the delivery methods and the way banking is done continues to evolve at a very fast pace,” Strong says. “We have the ability to provide all the products and services and keep up with that change.”

About 350 FNBA employees gathered at Cuddy Family Midtown park to celebrate the bank’s 100th birthday.

First National Bank Alaska

From pelts to computerized punch cards to video conferencing, FNBA has been through a lot. Lawer has been directly involved for 70 percent of the bank’s centennial. Remember when banks used to shut the doors at 3 o’clock? She does. “In a sense, it was good because you were totally focused on customers until 3 o’clock, and then you could focus on the paperwork after 3 o’clock,” Lawer says. “Right now, you’ve got customers and paperwork that you’re doing at the same time.”

Franz has been with FNBA for only 2 percent of its existence, but his career extends further back. “When I started on a teller line, we had stamps and everything was paper oriented. We didn’t even have computers at every teller window. A lot more manual processes thirty years ago than they do now,” he recalls. “Maybe a hundred years from now, I bet there’s no such thing as a teller.”

Franz figures that the commercial banker, normally backstage at the neighborhood branch, will retain the front-facing customer service function. Assuming a human has the job at all; might artificial intelligence take over?

Lawer says no. The relationship between banker and customer can’t be automated. “We do enough complex things to provide value added for our customers,” she says.

As rapidly as business changes, some things must remain the same. Will FNBA remain, as well? Banks fail almost as often as restaurants, Franz observes, yet FNBA has survived this long thanks to a combination of caution and luck. Can it last another century?

“I would hope so,” Lawer says. “If we keep hiring great people; if we embrace innovation and change, like we have for the last hundred years; and if we continue to provide value-added services for our customers, I don’t see any reason why not.”

Alaska Business Magazine October 2022 cover
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