As Chairman and CEO of Zions Bank, Harris H. Simmons embraces a philosophy of saving and considers success something more than what you earn.
by Amanda Kelly
“In my personal life,” Simmons says, “the most important legacy I’ll leave is the character of my kids. There is a lot of leverage in that. If your objective is to do something useful in the world, kids with strong values is a legacy that multiplies over generations.”
A young Simmons started his banking career at 16 years old when he came to work for his father. “The profession found its way into the DNA of my family and spans over four generations,” he says. It was a tumultuous time for the financial industry when Simmons’s father began his career—the 1929 stock market had crashed and the worst economic crisis of modern times would beset the market through the Depression. In spite of this, Zions First National Bank prospered and in the 1960s, the older Simmons led a group of investors to acquire majority control from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Subsequently, in 1965, the bank’s parent organization, Zions Bancorporation, became a publicly-traded company.
“My father used to talk about his work and I had always liked the idea of a profession where I could make a difference and help people.”
Zions has roughly 200,000 business customers, and a majority are small- to medium-sized businesses. Simmons prides himself on Zions’s commitment to small business loans. “We do more proportionally than virtually any other large bank in the US and we focus on helping entrepreneurs and family-owned businesses succeed. That’s highly satisfying for me as I consider what I’m doing with my life.”
A heavy-lettered quote by Zions founder Brigham Young decorates the wall at the main branch in Salt Lake City. It reads: “If you wish to get rich save what you get. A fool can earn money, but it takes a wise man to save and dispose of it to his own advantage.” Simmons has framed his legacy in this tradition, cultivating in his children a strong appreciation for savings. “There is so much wisdom to that quote,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve witnessed people who are pretty good at earning money but who are not good at building a solid financial foundation.”
“In all of my experience,” he continues, “what I’ve seen is that financial success isn’t derived from how much money one makes; it is derived from how disciplined one is at saving and making whatever one has work for them. I feel strongly about this and have tried to teach my kids the same.”
Simmons and his wife have four teenage children. He isn’t certain whether his kids will find their way into the family business or not, but he adds that it is not something that concerns him much either. “I care more about what kind of people they are,” he explains. “They’ve grown up in a reasonably privileged home and this is not something that I ever want them to take for granted. My wife and I emphasize the importance of doing well in school, honesty, working hard, and other values like these.”
His interests go far beyond bank savings and sums — Simmons has an affinity for classical music, a gift passed down from his parents. He also collects art – primarily western landscapes, including those of renowned Utah artist LeConte Stewart. “I frequently saw him in Kaysville where I grew up, painting old barns and landscapes. A variety of his works now adorn the walls of my home. Great art, music, and literature are a really important dimension of life.” Simmons doesn’t have a firm retirement date in mind.
“The whole idea of retirement is a bit strange to me. It’s something that we don’t do a very good job of preparing people for—of how to continue contributing post-retirement. When I do retire from my day job, I expect I will find myself working in some fashion until I can’t get out of bed anymore.”
He draws from his childhood experiences in Boy Scouts when determining his overall personal and professional success—”It may sound trite, but in my observation, there are people who end up as net-takers in life and the principle I’ve strived for is to live my life as a net-contributor, to leave the campground in better shape than I found it.”
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Harris H. Simmons is the Chairman and CEO of Zions Bank. He has served on numerous boards in the Salt Lake City area and he is the past chairman of the American Bankers Association. Simmons, a lifelong Utah resident, lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and four teenage children.