“So, a smart aleck comes in and starts asking all kinds of questions …”
It’s not the start of a punchline. But as Linda Childears reflects on her career in banking and as president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, it does often sum up her approach to her work. Her curiosity and drive propelled her first in banking and today as head of one of the largest private foundations in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region.
“I never feel finished with anything,” she said. “I can always see a waysomething can improve or be better and I want it to be as good as it can, particularly when you’re dealing with someone’s legacy.”
She’ll take the gavel of the Chamber’s Board of Directors in September, the first from the philanthropic community to do so. As the Chamber enters its 151st year, under her leadership, Childears says she’s committed to the same things that have kept the organization moving forward for the last 150 – smart, forward-looking policies and collaboration across the region and the state.
“Linda really is someone that the business community can rely on to have their interests at heart but also can see the big picture,” said outgoing Chamber Chair Denise Burgess.
Her longstanding relationship with the Chamber, first in the private sector and today with the Daniels Fund, makes her a perfect fit, said Chamber President and CEO Kelly Brough.
“Linda has served in almost every role that we have,” she said. “She has contributed to economic development strategies, she’s served as chair of our committees, she’s helped guide policy positions at the Chamber— she knows us.”
It was a phone call Childears received in 1987 that would change the trajectory of her life and career.
“This gentleman by the name of Bill Daniels calls, and he was trying to start a bank for kids,” she said. As a consultant who had cut her teeth at First National Bank, she knew the steep regulatory challenges to open any bank, let alone a bank for minors. “I’d read it in the paper and thought, ‘Oh boy, this guy’s nuts.’”
An expert in helping banks start and navigate regulatory issues, it was regulators who had referred Daniels, a cable TV pioneer, to her. He only wanted to know one thing – could she help him get the charter and open the bank? She said she could. And she did.Young Americans Bank opened in Cherry Creek on Aug. 3, 1987.
“We had kids lined up for three blocks to open accounts and we were there until 11 or 12 every night to get them in the system,” she said.
They opened almost 2,000 accounts in the first three weeks and received national and international attention as the first bank for people under 21. She stayed on with the bank until 2005.
“It was so fun because it was all the banking stuff that I knew and loved but it was also the kid
focus, which was another parallel in my life,” said Childears who had led Camp Fire troops while in college and would go on to chair the national board.
As a young woman, Childears jokes she was 18 going on 40.
Passionate about foreign language and a student in a pilot language program of Denver Public Schools, Childears was fluent in Spanish and dreamed of being an interpreter for the United Nations. But at 15, an after-school job at her neighborhood drug store, Hodel’s, sparked her interest in business.
The more she asked questions, the more she learned – and took on – until she was managing the business’ payables and receivables. Still a teen, the bank that shared Bear Valley Shopping Center with Hodel’s recruited her away. The bank was closed Sundays and gave her more time for homework.
What she loved about First National Bank of Bear Valley was that she still worked with small businesses. At 19, she was promoted and running much of the bank’s operations, building a reputation of “being the person that always questioned” and gaining more opportunities at the bank and then its holding company.
She moved on from First National Bank to the Women’s Bank, helping launch a second location in the just-blossoming Highlands Ranch in 1983. From there, she launched a consulting company with fellow First National alums to help banks start or navigate regulatory issues.
“We could roll in and just give them extra horsepower,” she said.
Her expertise would lead her to sit on the Colorado Bankers Association board, where she would meet her husband, Don Childears, head of the association. Daniels coined their wedding, on New Year’s Eve 1995, as the “latest merger in banking.”
“Don is so comfortable in his own skin and so supportive of me and whatever I do – and I try to be the same way with him,” Childears said. They married at Daniels’ home, though ever the marketer, he’d encouraged them to do so at Young Americans Bank.
Though Childears loved her work at Young Americans Bank, after Daniels died in 2000 there was one more role she could play in furthering his legacy.
Before his passing, he asked Childears to do two things: be among his estate trustees and serve on the board of directors of the Daniels Fund, the foundation he set up in 1997. It serves four states where Daniels had personal connections – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – and grants funding in specific areas outlined by Daniels, from amateur sports and aging to addressing homelessness and K-12 education reform.
As the organization focused on staying true to Daniels’ philanthropic intentions, talk of Childears coming on board as its CEO started.
“That was hard to make the decision to leave (Young Americans Bank) – and I mean it’s across the street,” Childears said, laughing. But her mind was made up. “I wanted it right for Bill.”
She was the only candidate considered, and in 2005 was named president and CEO of the organization, succeeding Hank Brown, who went on to serve as president of the University of Colorado. Daniels Fund has $1.5 billion in assets. As of 2017, it has awarded nearly $575 million in grants across those four states and more than $186 million in scholarships to students.
“The impact that Bill has had with this foundation is really amazing,” Childears said. Joe Blake, former Chamber president and CEO and current chancellor emeritus of the Colorado State University System, says Childears’ impact on the organization and those who have benefitted from it can’t be understated either. And, he says, she had the best mentor to make that impact.
“There’s only one ‘I’ in Linda and that’s all you’re going to get out of her, because Linda is always about ‘we’ – what can we do? How can we make this better?” Blake said. “She’s an extension of those qualities (Bill valued) and Bill was a ‘we’ person.”
She can feel that impact when she’s with the people Daniels Fund serves, including a recent welcome to their incoming scholars: “I stood there and looked at 230 scholars and thought, who in this room is going to cure cancer?”
To date, Daniels Fund has named more than 3,950 scholars.
“She believes in providing people with opportunities to succeed,” said University of Denver Daniels College of Business Dean E. LaBrent Chrite, who also serves on the Chamber’s board.
Some of those scholars have become part of the Childears’ adopted family.
“We just recruit kids we meet,” she said. They have a brood of 16, ranging in age from 25 to 45, who she and husband Don have met through Young Americans Bank, Daniels Fund or the Colorado Bankers Association. “They’re the joy of our life. We really get a lot of energy from them.”
Whether as part of the family or as a mentor, colleagues remarked at the personal attention she brings to her work.
“We try and do it the way Bill would do it, so it’s all about the people,” Childears said.
That approach will serve her well as Chamber chair, too.
“She is capable of seeing the big picture, she is capable of navigating tough conversations,” said Jena Hausmann, who sits on the Chamber board with Childears and is CEO of Children’s Hospital Colorado. “I think she will honor (the Chamber’s) legacy and make sure we continue to strive for excellence.”
Sara Crocker is the communications manager for the Chamber.