Zsolt Bessko Looks Bank to Push Forward

National Bank Holding's Zsolt Bessko reflects on the year that helped set the bank up for their best year yet

Photo: Gillian Fry

Since coming to National Bank Holdings (NBH) in 2013, Zsolt Bessko has helped shape NBH, a company which was initially born out of the Great Recession through a series of acquisitions of failed or seriously troubled banks with a mission to get back to “common sense” community banking. When Bessko spoke with Profile in 2015, he didn’t realize that the year would ultimately be a turning point for the organization at large. It ended up being one of intentionally bold moves that yielded lasting and powerful results.

Zsolt Bessko National Bank Holdings
Zsolt Bessko, National Bank HoldingsPhoto: Gillian Fry

Bessko is no stranger to turnaround culture or operating within uncertain times. The now chief administrative officer and general counsel at National Bank Holdings cut his teeth in both the banking boom of the 1990s and in helping keep organizations afloat in the midst of the late 2000s economic downturn. When told that he seems like he’s the kind of guy that’s calm in a storm, Bessko laughs. “That’s not the first time I’ve heard that.”

Two moves in 2015 helped set up the Colorado-based banking organization for continued and lasting success—moves where Bessko was able to be a significant contributor. The first involved changing the bank’s charter. NBH was initially chartered with the OCC and, for supervision and regulation purposes, included in the OCC’s “midsize” group of banks, which generally comprises banks $10 billion to $50 billion in assets. “What we found was that the midsize distinction didn’t fit well with what we were trying to do strategically,” Bessko says, as NBH was only around $5 billion in assets at the time. “It made much more sense to change our charter and become regulated by the State of Colorado and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.”

From Bessko’s perspective, it made perfect sense. Over the course of his firm and in-house career, the lawyer had developed relationships with all the regulators in the region and felt that those regulators, in turn, better understood the nature of NBH’s business. “It just was a better fit in terms of the local presence; it really aligned with our goals of being a community bank,” Bessko says. Looking back nearly four years later, the GC says the move was absolutely the right one and has ensured an enduring relationship with NBH’s regulators and an ability to grow and engage in acquisitions as needed.

The second difficult decision involved NBH’s core-processing provider. “We felt our existing core processor wasn’t providing what we needed or what our clients expected, especially at the pricing we were subject to,” Bessko says. “So we went through a painstaking RFP and negotiation process and converted our systems in 2015.” While still not as perfect as the GC would hope, he says the switch offered a much wider swath of tools and options to better serve the bank’s clients. “We are in a period where we’re going to see even faster technological change in the banking space,” Bessko says. “We absolutely believe we have to be on top of it.”

Zsolt Bessko National Bank Holdings
Photo: Gillian Fry

Continuing to drive change at NBH certainly hasn’t been easy, but Bessko says the numbers speak for themselves. “This first quarter [of 2019], we had the best earnings yet as a company,” Bessko says. “That’s coming off an already great, record 2018, but we’re not going to rest on our laurels.”

Bessko says ensuring success means taking strong ownership of company culture, especially important since NBH essentially came about through the acquisition and consolidation of several formerly troubled and failed institutions. “You have to rebuild that culture from scratch and bring all these different cultures together to create a new one,” Bessko says. “It’s not something that you just create one day and put it on the shelf.”

Creating culture has also meant being willing to have sometimes difficult conversations. “We strive to make sure we’re a relationship-based bank,” Bessko says. “That includes our relationship with our associates: if our associates are taken care of, they will take care of our clients.” A willingness to be personal has accounted for NBH’s continued progress.

Success aside, the question remains: what makes a successful executive seek out helping a company turnaround a coalition of troubled and failed banks? Bessko isn’t sure, but he’s always done okay with chaos. The first-generation Hungarian was sent back home to live with his extended family at the height of Cold War tensions in the region. It made the lawyer self-sufficient and self-assured from a young age, not only willing to deal with potentially difficult situations but also running them down by choice.

Do-ing More

Zsolt Bessko expressed a great deal of pride in the sheer number of charitable causes National Bank Holdings (NBH) not only contributes to but also actively participates in. The Do More Charity Challenge is in its fifth year and has already contributed more than $1 million to a variety of charitable causes across the footprint that NBH serves. NBH cofounded, hosts, and sponsors the event, bringing together CrossFit teams looking to raise money for charities of their choice.

NBH is also active in aiding the Kansas City-based Hope House, which supports victims of domestic violence, and the Colorado-based Third Way Center, providing help to high risk, mentally ill, disadvantaged and homeless adolescents and their families. NBH supports a number of additional organizations across its markets, particularly those that advance education, quality housing, and workforce development.