Banking on the community

Ninety years ago, Jay Durfee walked through the doors of Sundance State Bank and took a job under Henry Weare and Harry Ilsley. This week, his grandson begins a well-earned retirement after following in those footsteps to serve as the bank’s president for almost three decades.

It’s been quite a ride, says Jim Durfee, who will remain on the Board of Directors but will no longer be involved in the day-to-day running of the bank. He hadn’t planned to take over as president, he says, but it’s been a sincerely fulfilling career.

“I had initially thought about being a stock broker. My uncle Dick asked me to start working at the bank in the summers during high school and said, get your degree and you can have a job here,” he recalls.  

Durfee did indeed earn his degree in 1980 from the University of Wyoming, then graduated from the Colorado Graduate School of Banking in 1985. He married Kimberly Chatfield, with whom he has two sons, six grandchildren and five great step-grandchildren, and began his working life at the bank, where he was made an assistant cashier in 1981 and was elected to the board in 1982.

“Unfortunately, things changed quite rapidly when Dick passed away and Frank Blakeman retired in 1989; I was 29. That left me to take over as president at that time,” he says.

Durfee was not, he says, as ready for the responsibility as he might have liked.

“I just wanted to keep plugging along, keep taking care of the people in our communities and do a good job for the bank. I was green and young, so it was just day by day, learning as I went,” he says.

“Then we had to advance with technology – back in the day, we used to post all the checks by hand and now they’re captured and imaged and we’ve got internet banking. That sort of thing wasn’t even thought about – we didn’t have pcs on the desk until the late 90s. All that changed – a lot.”

Sundance State Bank has grown significantly since Durfee took over as president. From a size he estimates at around $35-36 million, it’s now at $180 million with more employees, and has expanded into the surrounding towns and further afield to southern Montana, South Dakota and Newcastle.

“We’ve grown a lot in size, but the bank has always done well. I was able to keep it doing well,” he smiles.

Branching out has allowed the bank to introduce the features of a much larger bank, Durfee says, such as online banking and check-free banking.

“There’s very little we can’t do. It’s been a challenge, but it’s fun,” he says.

That growth is not, however, the part of the job that Durfee has enjoyed the most. The best bit, he says, has been helping people get started in business.

“Probably the highlight of my career is watching those individuals that have really taken their business to a new level and really done well for themselves,” Durfee says.

“I’ve had some ranchers and some commercial businesses we helped start out from basically nothing and they’ve built it up to a really nice business and that’s fun, that’s really fun.”

The bank is known for its unwavering commitment to this community, whether it’s in donations to a good cause or supporting new ventures.

“It’s very important to me and it’s very important to our organization. We expect our employees to participate in the community and we’re also going to help with those donations in the community as they need them,” he says.

“You need manpower, but you also need funds from time to time, and we’re very centered on giving back to the community. We do an awful lot – but we live here too, you know?”

Believing a strong bank that’s willing to support the community is of huge importance to a town, providing that benefit has always been Durfee’s driving force. He is also deeply grateful that his career has given him the chance to get to know so many of the people around him.

“And it allowed me to get on some different banking boards, and I got to go to D.C. and lots of different places, so I got some benefits out of it, some travel and stuff that I maybe wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to do,” he smiles.

“We also have a great staff of people here and we’ve had great people over the years. We’ve had many who have been here 25, 30 or 35 years and then retired – we’ve had three of them that I knew who went 40 years.”

Of course, he continues, banking does have its challenges and there will always be times when things don’t go so well.

“I’ve had some customers who have had to liquidate and sell and that’s the worst part of the job because you know the people so well and, when something doesn’t go right, you feel it as bad as they feel it. They may not think that, but truthfully we do – it hurts here too,” he says.

The bank has always tried to help its customers through difficulties, he says, and he feels it has done that well in the majority of cases – to the point that many people in the community never knew the customer was having issues.

“They maybe knew they sold their business or retired or whatever, but people never knew the underlying reasons, so they could keep their pride and move on,” he says.

“Sometimes you can’t avoid some of those things, but I pride myself on not having a lot of foreclosures because you can usually sit down and work with the people and get something figured out. It just keeps it a little more low key for them, it’s not as embarrassing for everyone involved.”

For the next two years, Durfee plans to do nothing but play.

“My wife and I are going to play some golf and do some things and figure out how much time we want to spend doing what and get that balance figured out – and then I’ll be back volunteering or doing something, I’m sure. At this point, I just want to take a break and catch my breath,” he says.

As he bids farewell to his familiar corner office, Durfee wishes the community the very best.

“I want to thank them all for their support of us. I appreciate their relationships and as customers and I wish them all well, I really do,” he says.