DUANE BUSSEY is a guy who stands out. Hard not to at 6 feet, 8 inches, but his height is the least of his tall measurements.

Bussey steps down this week as CEO of San Luis Valley Federal Bank, where he’s been working since graduating from Adams State in 1982. To say he’s cast a large shadow, has big shoes to fill, are both true. It’s also true he’s a gentle giant, generous with his time and always willing to support a good cause.

Bussey sat down with The Alamosa Citizen to talk about his banking career, his life in the San Luis Valley since arriving as a college student from Colorado Springs, and the fishing and golfing that await him in retirement:

Alamosa Citizen: You’re leaving just as all this construction we’ve been seeing around San Luis Valley Federal Bank is getting completed.

Duane Bussey: Yeah, a lot of it was just long overdue, deferred maintenance. So our HVAC system, which like any house or, certainly a commercial building, is the nerve center of a place, that has to function behind the scenes in order for everybody to be comfortable doing business there and working there. Honeywell installed the original system in the building, it was built back in 1975, ’76, and really we hadn’t done anything to it. So we started there and said, ‘Okay, we know we have to do that.’ And we’d had some other components that we’d held off on, knowing that was the big piece. So we finally got that all engineered and bid out and decided that some of the windows were shot, they’d lost their seals and they just weren’t efficient. So we needed to do that, and we contemplated some other energy-efficient improvements.

Then we said, how does the building need to function differently, though, for the way banking is done now? There’s more and more remote work being done. Transactional kinds of things are done off site, through mobile and online channels, and so there’s not as much lobby traffic, not as much teller line or drive up. So we thought, ‘Does the space need to change significantly to adapt to the way we work?’

We opened it up a little bit, brightened it up a little bit. Re-did carpet, paint, dropped the ceiling down, changed out a lot of the furniture, so it has a little more modern look to it. The outside’s been spruced up a little bit.

AC: How does it feel to you to have the remodel and renovation almost done, and the bank looking good as you make your exit?

DB: It feels like we’ve refreshed the space for the staff. I think it’s energizing for people to work in a place that’s modernized, and we got a lot of good feedback from our members. So I think they enjoy coming into a place that has been redone. And I think it sends a message of confidence that we’re here for the long haul. We’re investing significant money in this space that we’re going to continue to do business in.

AC: How does it feel to you personally to be leaving as this gets done?

DB: It feels good. It feels like there’s something done, and there will be a few projects that are going to get done, not necessarily remodeling, but just things that we’re working on. It’s hard to wrap everything up. . .It’s nice to have this practical thing done. There’s a lot of other innovative things that we’re working on, that they’re going to have to continue on with, but good to have this finished.

AC: We would imagine the banking business has changed a lot in your time. Can you go through that, in terms of how it’s changed and what that has meant for the consumer, or for your members, or just you in managing the change or seeing that evolution of banking?

DB: Well, what hasn’t changed is it’s still a relationship business. It’s still a people business and we don’t make little widgets that we ship off somewhere, where we never get to see the end buyer. We’re developing human relationships. Some are very complex and some are very, very simple, but that hasn’t changed. A lot of it is face-to-face, we’ve pushed a lot of the simple, transactional things, as I said before, under these other devices, and that’s great and convenient for people. They can check accounts 24/7, do a lot of business without us being here, but it’s nice to still be able to sit down and talk to people face-to-face.

It’s gotten more complicated, for sure. The regulatory environment for banking is as complicated as, probably, any industry out there, because we deal with consumers, and Congress is always concerned that we’re not taking advantage of people and that there’s lots of disclosure so people understand what it is that they’re doing, and a lot of financial products are complicated. So there’s been a greater emphasis on compliance and providing information to people, so they have a better idea of what they’re getting into, and they can compare between our bank and some other financial institution, and make a good, sound decision. 

So, when I started here, it was a two-page paper application, that grew to a four-page application, that grew to a longer list of, things you have to bring me if you want to get a home loan, and if you’re self-employed, it grows even more, and then I’ve got to provide you with many more disclosures, so you know exactly what kind of transaction you’re getting into here. And if you want to bail on it, you have rights to do that. And if you want to go someplace else, you can take my stuff and you can go, ‘Well, here’s what they were offering me. Now you need to show me the same kind of paperwork so I can compare apples to apples.’

AC: What year did you come here to the bank? And what was your entry point?

DB: 1982. I started Adams State in ’76 and I graduated in ’82. This was my first job out of college, and the only place I’ve been.

AC: And what was the first job here?

DB: It was a loan officer. So we didn’t really do very much commercial lending. By regulation, we couldn’t do a lot of that, and so I was a mortgage loan officer that handled home loans, plus if you wanted a car loan or some personal loan, I could do those things. And that’s another thing that’s changed from a regulatory standpoint, is we are a mutual thrift savings and loan, by charter type. We have a federal charter, you can get a state charter or a federal charter, and we’re a thrift institution. So our mission, through the charter, was to really provide home loans and personal finance stuff.

Before I started here, and that’s probably what led to the S&L (Savings & Loan) crisis, there were government controls on interest rates, what we can pay, what we could charge, and there were very narrow requirements on what we could offer. A lot of institutions, when interest rates started moving up in the late ‘70s, we had all these fixed rate loans on the books that, for years and years, did fine. We charged six, and we paid three, and you had enough to make a profit and pay the bills.

When the economy really tilted and part of that was the oil embargo and acceleration of prices in there, and the economy started unraveling in the late seventies (1970s), and a lot of the S&Ls got caught taking bigger risks to try to gain more return, when the government finally pulled the regulations off interest rates. It was delayed, allowing us to start making the adjustable rate loans. We had to meet all these fixed rate loans. So your yield was locked in, but deposit rates started going up, and so here we sit with all these 6% mortgages, and deposit rates start going up and you were upside down. And a lot of these thrift savings and loan companies started taking more risks to try to get the yield to match that cost of funds, and a lot of those risks went bad and they just lost. They didn’t have enough capital, so they went out of business.

I think we were well-managed, obviously, conservatively managed, and we were out of the rat race of the metropolitan areas, where the competition probably wasn’t quite as heavy. And we, and this was right about the time we started, maybe just a year before I did, the bank just barely broke even. That was the toughest year they’d ever had, and we eventually started to climb back out of that and started making a reasonable profit again. We’re extremely well-capitalized today, and it’s been conservative management, and not having a stock institution where you pay dividends out to stockholders. So we’re able to retain a lot of those earnings and built a pretty strong capital base.

The government eventually pulled the regulations off, and allowed us to start doing more consumer lending. We couldn’t even offer checking accounts, when this institution was, 1976, we built this building. We were still savings accounts and CDs. And they started allowing us to do checking accounts. And then they said, “Okay, you can start doing some commercial operating loans and that kind of thing.” So we really look a lot like a bank today, with all the services we offer, but when I started, we couldn’t do all those things, we were really consumer focused, retail focused.

AC: You were a good basketball player at Adams State. Did you play for Coach Loren Lutz?

DB: I came the year after he left. Rick Marriott was his assistant. He (Lutz) still taught, but he retired from coaching. So I played for Rick Marriott for years. 

AC: And you were a good player. You had game.

DB: I had some good games. I started most of my career, not all of it, but I had, I’d say, a decent career, probably a little better than average career at Adams State. We had my best season when I was a senior, and up to that point, we had three losing seasons. We lost some guys Marriott’s first year when some of Lutz’s recruits didn’t come back. . .So we really had to rebuild, or coach Marriott did. It took us a few years, which as you know, is probably normal. And by the time I was a senior, we had a good ball club. 

AC: What high school did you come out of?

DB: Coronado (Colorado Springs).

AC: What are your thoughts about Adams State? You’re an alum, you’re active. You’re part of the Adams State Foundation. You’ve seen the cycles. What are your thoughts about Adams State, where it’s at, and then what it means to the San Luis Valley?

DB: Yeah. It’s a center for enrichment, in so many ways, for the Valley. It’s obviously an educational institution, but cultural things, whether it’s bringing in a theater performance, or athletics, a business symposium, contributes incredibly economically, we all know that. It brings a youthful vibe to the community, that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and maybe a little bit more of an accepting intellectual, although we don’t run, really, a college town. I’ve heard people say we’re a town with a college in it. I don’t know how you get to where you’re considered a college town, maybe it has to be bigger enrollment-wise to dominate the community a little bit more. But I think it brings a good intellectual vibe, and maybe just a broader way of thinking for the Valley. And I think TSJC does some of that as well.

AC: You’ve been a very generous supporter of many things, many organizations and groups in the Valley, both in your role with the bank and then you and your wife personally have been big supporters. Why is that?

DB: Well, from the bank standpoint, and I think all the more significant businesses feel that sense of corporate philanthropy, that there’s a responsibility that you need to give back. We certainly support that. We feel like anything we can do to make the community better ensures the success of the bank. Sometimes it’s economic improvements, sometimes it’s a cultural benefit, that makes it a better place to live. We’ve been able to give at a little bit of a larger rate, probably, than the other financial institutions, because we are a mutual. I think it changes the core of who you are, because we’re a little bit like a credit union, or the co-op, in that if you have a deposit account here, you’re a member. You’re not just a customer.

So our board, before I got involved in the management team, targeted that 10% of our net income should be set aside for community contributions, and that’s become a pretty significant amount. I went back and looked, from the time that I took over as CEO in 2004 through this year, it’s been over $3 million that the bank has contributed back to a variety of organizations, Adams State being the biggest recipient or beneficiary of that giving. And it goes beyond that, because we’ll sponsor certain things that don’t really come out of the donation budget. Then, there’s just, it’s built into the culture, that the board feels like the mission statement is we want to have great people, that take care of our members and give something back, financially and volunteerism, those kinds of things.

AC: You’ve also been a supporter personally of many groups.

DB: From a personal standpoint, it’s pretty hard not to have a sense of obligation, and then have it be genuine, when you are close to a lot of these things that are going on. If you’re involved at this kind of level at the bank, then you see how the bank is giving back. It’s an example of, ‘Hey, you need to do some of the same things yourself. And it comes from volunteering your time and some of your own success, financially, and Adams State is such a huge part of the community that it’s hard not to want to give back and support there. I know how important it is to the success of the community, and the livability of the community, that it’s easy to give back.

AC: Where do you think the San Luis Valley is in 2021, going into 2022, from a health perspective, economically, socially, emotionally? You’ve been here many decades now, where do you think we are collectively?

DB: Well, we’re still obviously lagging the state economically, but it seems like we’re starting to be considered as an alternative to some of the congestion on the Front Range. So we’re seeing people come in, we see that from some of their customers and members that we have coming in, applying for a home loan. It’s like, ‘Well, what do you do?’ ‘Well, I work from my house and I consult.’ So we have a little bit more of a remote work population. We see more people coming, buying second homes and deciding, after living here for a while, that they’ve got an internet connection, they’re going to move here permanently.

So it’s nice to see some of that transition, but we look at the demographic stats and we just plod along. It seems like there’s been a shift to Alamosa. Alamosa has been the beneficiary of the shrinkage in some of the other communities. So it’s nice to see the growth here. I hope it will continue to spread back into some of these other supporting communities around the Valley.

Ag is obviously critical, but the water situation, it’s going to continue to cause consolidation and going to be a challenge. If we’re in this, whatever they call it, a mega drought, this thousand-year thing, it’s not going to get dramatically better. So we got to find some other sources of economy here, and it’s not easy. And so I think remote is one of those opportunities, the sort of rural agritourism, get out of the city, come down here, refresh, get away from some of the lights and the noise and the rat race. I think that’s an area we can continue to grow. All of our recreation, obviously, is a big part of that. So still it seems like we’ve missed a lot of the economic growth that Colorado has had on the Front Range. We’re picking up a little bit of a tailwind, and I hope that a reasonable amount of that continues. You hate to lose your character of the place, but I think everybody would agree, we could use a little bit more economic success.

AC: What have you seen change about Alamosa, the San Luis Valley, in your time living here? What has changed, if anything, since the time you set up shop here and called Alamosa home? 

DB: Well, obviously, Alamosa has got some more retail services and that’s good. You’ve got an expanded hospital. It’s nice to see some of that. We still lag in healthcare in some areas, but we’ve got pretty good little systems, for the size of our community and the wealth of our community. Good to see the airport enhance itself, the retail services. It’s a little bit harder to get out on the river and find an open stretch, versus what it used to be, and I think guys that hunt probably feel the same way. More people that come from the outside and have big bucks, that can shut a place off if they want to. I hope that some of those owners will be a little bit more generous with their property acquisitions, and allow a little bit more public use, or enter into some kind of agreements for that to happen.

But there’s a little bit more congestion, certainly. It’s nice to see broadband come in and allow our people to do some of the remote work, and have access to the various online resources out there. So I don’t know. Agriculture, obviously getting much more consolidated, fewer farms, less people, more mechanization on the farms. We’ve made some loans to some farmers who have gone more to the robotic operation, so it’s more efficient for them. They can run the systems longer, so there’s fewer manual labor people going on. So, it reduces some jobs.

AC: The world’s changing.

DB: Yeah. Yeah. And the quest to recruit businesses from the outside, it almost seems like it’s as hard as it’s ever been. You do have some of these folks coming in that can consult, but it’s not easy to start a business here. You lose population in the winter time, you don’t have the same tourism base. We don’t have a lot of manufacturing, so it’s not easy to run a business here. Getting young people that have the resources, the initial capital investment to do that, is challenging.

AC: What’s your favorite fishing hole?

DB: I can’t tell you. There’s so many of the little streams I go to the Rio Grande, the canals a fair amount. I love to take my float tube out and fly fish the lakes and some of the little streams, whether it’s Elk Creek, or the Los Pinos, or the upper tributaries of the Rio Grande.

AC: Were you always a fisherman? Or did that happen here?

DB: Well, my dad had us out fishing by the time we were young, but I didn’t ever do very much hunting. It was all about spinners, lures, fly in a bubble kind of stuff. We’d do a little bait fish when I was young, but I got into fly fishing here.

AC: When the sun comes up and you don’t have to come to work, you’re retired, what’s that day like for you?

DB: It’s going to involve a little daycare initially, with grandkids. Emily’s (daughter) helping to coach volleyball this year. So we said, ‘Well, we’ll help a little bit.’ … So we’re not going to take off on a nice, long trek, like we thought we would, but we’ll do that next year. Just a little help with this year, and then we’re going to take some time. So I’ll take these little day trips and I’ll head out and hit the stream. And if I can drag along a buddy, I’ll do that. I’ll play a little more golf, I’m not very good, but I’m going to take a few strokes off my handicap. And I’ll stay involved in some of the community. I’m going to stay on the board here, the Adams State Foundation, the hospital, and Trout Unlimited.

I try to keep it contained, so I’m not doing that full time, but I’d like to get involved a little bit more in the housing issue. You know as well as anybody, we’ve got a hell of a challenge in providing housing, and that’s not just unique to the Valley, but I think we sometimes have more challenges because you can’t bring in a big housing subdivision developer. We’re not going to get US Homes to come in here and do a 300-unit development. So we can’t get economies of scale. You can’t develop big tracts, because the absorption time to get those all sold to pay you back for your investment is tough. It’s really a challenge. I’d like to get involved in that a little bit more, and try to find some solutions. We’ve got a couple of housing studies, one was done for Alamosa and one for the Valley, and I really want to immerse myself in that, see if I can maybe help somewhat, from the bank standpoint, and within things we can do, because we’ve got a little bit more muscle. And then, what can I help with personally?

Then, I’d really like to try to help with some of these financial literacy issues, because the whole country is challenged in that regard. We don’t spend enough time in school with kids, it’s not really a part of the mandatory curriculum, and even as adults, we don’t spend enough time learning about this stuff. And our country and economy is so complicated, and it’s about business, the business and America’s business. And you have to understand more than savings accounts, and stuffing it in the mattress, and buying a home. There’s so much more out there. We’ve got to improve that. I think that would improve people’s lives an awful lot.

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