Rural banker answered Buena Vista banking crisis by helping to create Collegiate Peaks Bank

Lewis and Jean Lowe were hallmarks of the Buena Vista community in the late 20th century. They were members of several community organizations, but the Buena Vista Boys & Girls Club was especially important to Lew. A building fund for the BV club has been established in Lew’s name.

 

The year 1986 was a hard time for Buena Vista. The nation’s economy was in a recession, and the Climax mine north of Leadville, the Arkansas Valley’s largest employer and at one time the largest source of steel-hardening molybdenum in the world, had suspended production in 1982 ahead of closing in 1987.

On the Thursday before Labor Day weekend that year, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation came in and closed the Buena Vista Bank & Trust, the only local bank in town. 

A full-page advertisement in the Sept. 4, 1986 issue of The Times bore a letter from Don Taylor, a local accountant, announcing the intention of obtaining a state charter for a new bank, proposed to be called Collegiate Peaks Bank.

Lewis Lowe, the first president of that new bank, died earlier this month at the age of 90. Those who knew Lowe said that his approachable, personal, community-focused style of banking was invaluable to the community during those tough times.

A staff of about 30 FDIC specialists took over the Buena Vista Bank & Trust at about 2 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 28, 1986, The Times reported. Security guards loaded boxes of money out of the bank into armored trucks. 

The bank had about 4,200 accounts at the time. The Buena Vista school district had $1.5 million and the town of Buena Vista had $1.2 million deposited in the bank. Chaffee County itself had $2.7 million in the bank.

Nancy Burke, the bank liquidation specialist for the FDIC who spoke with The Times about the situation, said that problems with the Buena Vista Bank & Trust’s cash flow were caused by “poor loans here … insufficient money coming in.”

The bank was ordered to pay $4 million for loans deemed unrecoverable or face closure. By Wednesday the 27th, the bank was $1.4 million short. The FDIC notified several buyers that the bank may soon be up for sale, but got no takers.

Burke was surprised that no other firms had put up bids for the bank, The Times reported, and speculated that the lack of interest could be due to economic downturn in the area or the “heavy load of bad or questionable loans being held by the bank.”

In 1991, a jury convicted the Bank & Trust CEO Roy Bowen on charges of misapplication of monies belonging to the bank, making false statements to the FDIC and making false statements to federally insured banks which made loans to him. Bowen was sentenced to six 5-year prison terms to be served concurrently and two 2-year terms to be served concurrently, but consecutive to the 5-year terms.

Charlie Forster was running Chaffee County Bank in Salida at the time, where he said 40 percent of the storefronts downtown were empty. It was a challenging time for banking. 

Burke, the FDIC specialist who handled the Buena Vista Bank & Trust closure, told The Times that the BV bank had been the fifth in Colorado and the 98th nationwide that had closed so far that year.

Forster said that Bowen had tried to “grow (Buena Vista Bank & Trust) out of its problems” during that economic downturn, and “was able to talk the directors into doing things that just shouldn’t have been done.”

From that point until March of 1987, when Collegiate Peaks Bank opened in the same location the Bank & Trust had occupied and where it still stands today, the only banking operation in Buena Vista was World Savings and Loans.

Lew Lowe was a man who grew up in Sheraton, Iowa, during the Great Depression, and who knew the value of hard work. He had worked his way up to vice-president of the 30-bank Hawkeye Bancorporation, where he started as a cashier, his son Jim Lowe said.

When Don Taylor, a fellow Iowan, made the call up to Hawkeye looking for someone to run Buena Vista’s new bank, Lowe was not the person he had been looking for. But Lowe was the one who answered the phone.

“Don called Hawkeye, asked for this guy, ended up striking up a conversation. Somehow, the phone transferred to Lew. They were visiting, Don told him what they were doing and Lew said ‘Well, what about if I come to work for you?’” Forster recalled. 

“Lew came out, talked. In the end, the investor group said ‘Lew would be a good person to come out as president of the bank.’ So, that’s the way it started,” Forster said.

The agriculture industry that dominated Iowa was struggling at the time, and Hawkeye banks would end up closing, leading Lowe, then in his 50s, to depart the fertile Great Plains for a tiny town nestled in the high Rockies.

Lewis arrived in a snowstorm, Jim remembered. 

“He went out there, pretty much cashed in all his savings and retirement,” Jim said.

“You could have gotten a young guy at that time to come in and run your bank, even, maybe, very capably. But the failure of the bank was just absolutely devastating in that community, and the way the bank failed was a devastating event in that community because of the crazy stuff with Roy Bowen. So, in my mind, I’ve always said, when Collegiate Peaks Bank was chartered, they couldn’t have picked a better person than Lew Lowe as the CEO of this new bank,” Forster said.

Lowe had a good record of performance banking in Iowa, but more importantly, he brought with him a community banking mentality that was at that time becoming a thing of the past.

“Banking has now moved to where you don’t have all of the small community bank operations that are locally controlled and grow within the communities. Lew was one of those old, traditional, community banking guys that just sit so well in this circumstance,” Forster said.

Rob Ferris, a former member of the board of directors for Collegiate Peaks Bank, remembered Lowe as “someone who was just extremely easy to be with. A person with a lot of empathy for other people, understood their situations and related to people well, and that carried through to his business relationships.”

Ferris said that opening the new bank in the same location as the bank whose sudden closure still left a bitter taste in the mouths of many BV residents was a challenge, but Lowe’s professional manner washed away that taste within a matter of months of CPB opening.

“He was very much focused on the customers, he was focused on the community. He was very focused on ensuring that this new bank had a solid base of operations,” Forster said.

Ferris said, “He had an agricultural banking background in Iowa. He understood the ranching end of it and he understood the small business end of it.”

“He would go more on a customer’s integrity or personality rather than being a numbers guy,” Ferris said.

Jim recalls a story from his father’s youth that he was fond of retelling about a job he had putting up billboards to try to earn money to pay for college.

“The president of the company offered him, if he had good grades, he’d pay for his college for him,” Jim said. “That’s kind of what he always did with people, too … he always wanted to give loans to get people started, to pay it forward.”

Ed Swisher was a young entrepreneur at that time, trying to get his business Swisher Diesel up and running. He thought of Lowe as a mentor figure who not only took a chance on Swisher but gave him advice on running a business.

“He hadn’t been in Buena Vista for very long when I walked into his office and wanted to talk to him about a loan,” Swisher said. “Lew declined that because I didn’t have any experience and wished me well. 

“I went ahead and opened up a checking account with him. About six months later, Lew saw me come into the bank to make a deposit and he called me into his office to tell me that, apparently, we were going to do business together, and I needed to know his ground rules about cashing checks and depositing checks and when funds would be available. That was the beginning of a really good relationship between Lew and I … He was always there to keep an eye on us and make sure we were doing things right.”

Cindie Swisher said that Lowe and his wife Jean were like “an extra set of parents” to the Swishers, who traveled to Pennsylvania about five times to visit the Lowe’s after they retired there.

“He was one heck of a businessman,” Cindie said. “When Ed said he helped us out financially, it came with some guidelines. It didn’t come with ‘Here’s some money, this is what your payment is every month.’ It came with ‘I’m going to sit down with you and I’m going to teach you what you need to be successful for yourself.’ A bank doesn’t really do that.”

Swisher said, “He did so much for our community that he did behind the lines, that nobody knows about … They helped out a lot more people than us, and they did it individually.”

The Lowes were always focused on giving back to the community. Jim Lowe remembers his father’s involvement in organizations like the Optimists growing up in Iowa.

According to Lowe’s younger son Tim, Lew’s kindness even extended to a trout that lived in the creek under the bridge near his home.

“He found out that the water for the creek was going to be shut off … he went and got a little fish hook, took off the barb, put some bait on it, caught the trout and brought him somewhere else,” Tim said.

During one visit to Buena Vista, Tim “went out to one of the whitewater rafting places in town, and I went to pay and the lady behind the counter saw my name was Lowe on my credit card and said ‘Oh, do you know Lew Lowe?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s my dad,’ and she said ‘Well, you don’t have to pay here. If it wasn’t for your dad, we wouldn’t have a business.’”

Forster said that Lowe would read The Chaffee County Times and, whenever he read about the achievement of a local person, he would cut out the article, write a note of congratulations, paste it to the back of the clipping, laminate it, and mail it to the person.

“He did this especially with every kid that had his picture in the paper for a scholarship at graduation time. Anytime they had a picture in the paper, even if not, he would write a note, cut out the article, and send it to that person, whether he knew them or not,” Forster said.

In Chaffee County, Lewis was an ardent supporter of the Boys & Girls Club.

His family requests that donations to the Boys & Girls Club of Chaffee County be made in his memory.

Forster would go on to become Lowe’s successor as CEO of Collegiate Peaks Bank after Lowe’s retirement in 1995.

“He got out of banking when all the ATM machines came in,” Jim Lowe quipped.

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