FirstBank in Vail — the town’s very first bank — opened on Nov. 30, 1967 | VailDaily.com

FirstBank in Vail — the town’s very first bank — opened on Nov. 30, 1967

VAIL — It took a good bit of courage to invest in Vail in the 1960s. In 1967, the small holding company that became FirstBank did just that.

The Bank of Vail opened on Nov. 30, 1967, becoming the first financial institution in the fledgling resort town. Now, FirstBank has branches in Vail, Avon and Eagle and has more than 45 percent of the Vail Valley's banking business.

That business comes in part from size and reputation — it's a $17 billion company, and the largest Colorado-owned banking company in the state. But people who work there say that popularity also is due to still maintaining a small-bank attitude.

The Bank of Vail was the third opened by the company, which at the time had banks in Lakewood, near Denver, and in Erie, a small town north of Denver.

"We still operate like a small-town bank," said Ellen Moritz, president of all the Vail Valley branches, adding that most loan decisions are made in local offices.

Before the Bank of Vail opened — in the space on Wall Street where the Wild Bill's retail shop is today — people in Vail had to do their banking in either Denver — then a four-hour drive — or in Eagle.

Recommended Stories For You

"You had to hide your cash until you were able to get to the bank," Rod Slifer said.

No more driving to Denver

Slifer, who came to Vail during its first season, said finally having a bank in town was "great," adding that before the Bank of Vail opened, business owners had to plan ahead just to have cash on hand.

And in those days, most transactions were conducted with cash. A busy weekend could tax the bank's night depository.

Former Vail Valley FirstBank President Roger Behler remembers a Christmas holiday weekend in the 1970s when so many deposits came in that the deposit drawer started to overflow.

"I got a call from the police department about it, and we had to go (to the bank) and empty it out," Behler said.

Of course, Vail's history wasn't all bustling weekends. There were some tough times, too.

Behler said the years of sky-high interest rates in the late 1970s and early 1980s were rough. Times got interesting when Mexico devalued the peso in those years.

Through it all, the bank kept to its core philosophies of working with local customers.

"They were our primary customers," Behler said. That changed a bit over time, but locals were, and still are, the heart of FirstBank's business.

Moritz said despite an industry-wide shift to online banking, the branch offices are still important.

"There are people we see every day," she said from FirstBank's office just next to the Vail Interfaith Chapel outside of Vail Village.

Those everyday customers are another long tradition at Vail's first bank. Behler said the Bank of Vail was the first bank in the state to open on Saturday mornings. In an era when "banker's hours" meant eight-hour days and no weekend work, the move shook the industry across the state, Behler said.

"It became a wonderful social hour," Behler said. People would come in, have a cup of coffee — or two — and a doughnut — or two, and just shoot the breeze with friends and neighbors.

"When we closed at noon, we'd have to ask people to leave sometimes," he said.

Loyal customers, employees

A lot of those customers remain FirstBank customers today. And a lot of FirstBank employees stay with the company for big parts of their careers.

Behler worked 32 years in the banking business, starting at that first bank in Lakewood. FirstBank is the only company he worked for through his retirement in 2008.

Moritz's first job out of college was with FirstBank. She came from her home state of Minnesota in 1990 having never been to Colorado. A few years later, her mom said, "You aren't coming back (to Minnesota), are you?"

Mom was right.

Behler and Moritz aren't unusual.

In an email, Moritz wrote that 41 of the 74 Vail Valley FirstBank employees have been with the company for at least 10 years. Out of that group of 41 veterans, 14 have been with FirstBank for more than 20 years.

"There are people who have been here longer than I have," Moritz said. "It's a great company to work for."

Behler is retired, but it's obvious he's a FirstBanker for life, and the banking company itself has shown remarkable staying power.

"It's quite an accomplishment in today's world that a bank stays in one place for 50 years and doesn't get bought out or merged (with another company). We still have the same ownership."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

Why is it Wall Street?

Wall Street in Vail Village wasn’t paved when the Bank of Vail — now FirstBank — opened on Nov. 30, 1967. But how did that little dirt street get its name?

Rod Slifer, who came to Vail for its first season, 1962-1963, said Vail co-creator Pete Seibert’s office was on the upper floor of the original building, with an office that looked out toward the original ticket office and gondola.

“Pete always wanted to work on Wall Street,” so that’s what he named it, Slifer said.

Through the years

Nov. 30, 1967: Bank of Vail (which later becomes FirstBank) opens in Vail Village on Wall Street.

Dec. 31, 1967: The bank has 615 accounts one month after opening, with $608,000 in deposits.

1970: Bank of Vail moves to Crossroads shopping center (where Solaris sits today).

1973: FirstBank moved to its current location at 17 Vail Rd.

1978: Bank of Vail, along with about 10 other banks in its group, becomes part of FirstBank Holding Company of Colorado.

1981: FirstBank opens in Avon.

1982: FirstBank opens in West Vail.

1982: The Vail FirstBank opened the its first ATM machine outside next to the front door. It froze due to the extreme weather in Vail and the bank removed the machine 6 months later.

1999: FirstBank opens in Eagle.

2017: FirsBank is the second largest bank in Colorado, the largest privately owned bank in Colorado, and the third largest privately owned bank in the U.S. It has nearly $18 billion in total assets.

2017: Since 2000, FirstBank has donated more than $57 million to area nonprofits, making it one of the most charitable organizations in Colorado.