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Financing the frontier - Valley National Bank of Arizona

Banks are pretty darned important to the growth, and continued health, of a city. In Arizona, especially Phoenix, the most important bank was Valley National Bank.

Valley Bank in 1911, when it was on Adams between Central and 1st Avenue.

As someone who worked for Valley Bank, I'll admit to having a bit of prejudice for that bank. Although I really don't know anything about banking, I was a Graphic Designer in the Marketing Department. I worked on brochures, and that kind of stuff. But I like the history of Phoenix, and I got curious enough a few years ago to read the dullest book that I've ever read, called "Financing the Frontier", which is about the history of Valley Bank in Arizona. A friend of mine bought it for me, and while I do appreciate it, and learning more about banking in Arizona, it's not exactly a page-turner.

The headquarters for Valley National Bank in the 1940s, when it was in the Professional Building, Central and Monroe.

If you know more about banking than I do (which wouldn't be difficult!), you know that it's all about loans. And without getting into any detail that I don't understand, Valley National Bank was very liberal about loans, beginning with the Presidency of Walter Bimson in 1939. His motto apparently was "loans, loans, loans!" And while Valley Bank had been there for over forty years by the time Bimson became President of VNB, he transformed the bank into what would become a powerhouse, and would drive the growth and expansion of Phoenix after World War II.

Yes, there were other banks in Arizona, and Phoenix, but no other bank made it as easy to get a loan as Valley Bank. Bimson built a LOT of branches, all over Arizona, and he empowered the managers there to make loans. Managers had unprecedented power to make loans, sometimes on just a handshake, so the story goes. Real Western stuff. And it was very successful, and Phoenix grew like wildfire.

Phoenix, and Maricopa County, exploded with growth in the late forties, and all through the fifties, driven by a robust American economy, the desire for Americans to live in a warm climate, and Valley Bank loans.

Valley National Bank building its new headquarters, Valley Center (now Chase Tower) in 1972, Central and Monroe (right across from its old building).

Nowadays, of course, banks that are too liberal about loaning money aren't seen quite the same way. Making loans without careful research and secure collateral got the banking industry in trouble just a few years ago. Personally, I was surprised to see the outrage against banks that made loans too freely. When I was a kid, or when I watch old Western movies, it's the bank manager that WON'T make a loan (to the poor old widow, for example) who's the bad guy. Nowadays it's just the opposite.

When I started working for Valley Bank, in 1989, they were on the verge of bankruptcy. People who understood the situation better than me were genuinely concerned, not just for their jobs, but for the city of Phoenix, and all of Arizona. I still remember someone explaining it simply to me by saying, "If Valley Bank goes out of business, we'll all have to leave Arizona, and the last one turns out the light". Luckily, VNB was bought by Bank One, which in turn became JP Morgan Chase, which is a very solid bank, headquartered in Manhattan. And they continue to finance the frontier.

Image at the top of this post: 1902 ad for the Valley Bank of Phoenix.

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