It's really no surprise that Jill Leary has become Steamboat Springs' first female bank president. Growing up in North Dakota and Minnesota, she always wanted to climb faster than the rest of the girls and for that matter, most of the boys.
For baby boomers growing up in the 1960s, climbing the rope in gym class was an annual rite of passage. The thick rope was secured to the ceiling rafters for most of the school year. On the day it was lowered by pulleys, everyone in class -- bold or timid -- had to face up to the challenge of combing to its dizzying heights.
"I always wanted to win the 50-yard dash and I climbed the rope fastest of the girls," Leary said. "The fastest boy beat me by just a fraction of a second."
Leary has settled into a marathon pace in her banking career, but remains as competitive as ever. She reached a milestone last October when she was named president of Wells Fargo Bank in Steamboat Springs, replacing the retired Tom Hopp.
Leary came to Steamboat Springs 25 years ago and went to work for Del Scott at Routt County National Bank on the corner of Third Street and Lincoln Avenue. The name of the bank has changed several times over the years, but Leary has remained a constant.
A decade ago, she had risen to vice president, overseeing the deposit side of the bank's operations. Even at that time she was aware that women faced a tough climb to the top of the local banking industry. In a 1993 newspaper article, she said people typically made presumptions about her role when she told them where she worked.
"They just assume that because you are a woman, you are a teller and could never be a manager," she said at the time.
Leary grew up the daughter of Nancy and Elmer Hogoboom. Nancy was a homemaker and Elmer managed meatpacking plants. Her parents were hardworking and even a little strict. She can trace her own personality to her folks. Relaxed and congenial, she is also left-brained and prefers a hands-on management style.
"To end up to be a bank president, I think you have to be a little conservative," Leary said.
Leary is a competitive distance runner and in the early 1990s, she was a familiar sight, pounding up Fish Creek Falls Road during the midday, getting ready for races like the Boston Marathon. She remains a competitive runner and has 20 marathons on her resume. However, her training runs aren't as visible because she avoids the blacktop.
Leary arrives at work early -- most days by 6:15 a.m. -- a habit that allows her to take a 90-minute lunch that permits a workout. Often she runs up Emerald Mountain or on the Spring Creek Trail.
In June 2003, she completed a 52-mile trail run in the Bighorn Mountains outside Sheridan, Wyo. She enjoyed it so much she may return in 2004, or perhaps run an ultra marathon near Lake City instead.
What amazes longtime friend Lynn Donaldson is Leary's ability to balance the various aspects of her life, giving ample attention to her family while working 11 hours a day at the bank, and still finding time to train seriously as an athlete.
"Jill is the whole package," Donaldson said. "She has such a balanced energy."
Leary's friend is aware of the commitment required of banking executives, but Leary hasn't allowed her profession to consume her, Donaldson said.
"There is no other area of her life that suffers because of it," she said.
Even on the coldest days of winter, a stiff workout is only a half block away at the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Association.
Leary has been on the board of directors of "Health and Rec" for a dozen years, helping to guide it through a series of expansion projects.
"I'm into health and fitness, so it has been a good thing," Leary said. "I actually use the facility. Not everyone on the board uses it."
Leary said she values her working relationship with Health and Rec manager Pat Carney.
"Pat is always thinking about what we can do next and I like that," Leary said.
For similar reasons, she said she has enjoyed working for Wells Fargo.
"I like being with a company that has the resources to keep up with technology, and at the same time can be a national company that allows you to be sensitive to the needs of local customers," Leary said.
If her role as bank president limited her judgments strictly to what the balance sheets says, her job wouldn't be as satisfying as it is, Leary said. When customers come to her for a loan, she has the flexibility to entertain a business plan that doesn't entirely fit within rigid parameters.
"That's the good think about banking -- you have the personal element," Leary said. "When we know the personality of a person, we can do something that is outside the box. You can input a loan and you get an answer back, and sometimes you decide to go to bat for a person."
For Leary, "going to bat" for a customer means taking a nonconforming loan application to her boss in Grand Junction and pleading her client's case.
"Usually I don't go there unless I think he's going to agree with me," Leary said. "I think he's only said 'no' one time."
Leary said she tries to stay in close touch with all of her vice presidents and managers without crowding them. It's in her nature to want to understand every aspect of the banking business.
"My big challenge with this job is to get more into the business banking side," Leary said.
It's apparent that one of the ways Leary has been able to recharge the batteries after a week of work is through her friendship with Donaldson. They got together through their shared roles as hockey moms. Leary's son, Taylor, (more often known as Bubba) and Donaldson's son, Trask, skated together throughout their youth.
"I had been through a bad accident on Rabbit Ears Pass and I wasn't comfortable driving in winter any longer," Donaldson said. "I asked Jill if we could ride along with them."
Their friendship was born out of roundtrips to Colorado Springs and Denver. During a weekend on the road, and eight hours of driving, people find ample time to talk about their lives.
"We couldn't have found a better family to get involved with," Donaldson said. "You become like family. You get a comfort level you wouldn't have otherwise. There's an intimacy that wouldn't come otherwise. It's like unconditional love."
Besides, Donaldson said, Leary has an endearing trait -- she laughs at almost any joke.
"I'll say little quirky things and she'll just burst out laughing," Donaldson said.
Leary's husband, Jim, has an appraisal business. Their daughter, Brooke, is a senior majoring in dance at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Bubba is a senior at Steamboat Springs High School, planning to attend the University of Colorado next year.