Shift into banking becomes lifesaving move

Chris Lee, CFO at Gate City Bank, Fargo, N.D., grew in communication, patience and perspective as he traveled through a banking career that likely saved his life.

Chris Lee traveled a lot when he worked for accounting firm Eide Bailly. Criss-crossing North Dakota in a car brandishing Future Farmers of America license plates, his boss Darrell Lingle in the passenger seat, a young Lee chatted politics, family and weekend plans ­— the most important things to him at that time. Once when he and his audit team flew to New Mexico, their luggage flew to Chicago instead. Showing up at a client bank in jeans and a t-shirt, groomed by whatever travel-sized toiletries the hotel had to offer, Lee was frustrated — as anyone would be. By the time Lee moved to the other side of the audit process, taking a job at Fargo-based Gate City Bank, his view on sweating the small stuff started to shift. And the career change probably saved his life.

When Lee joined Gate City in 2018 as CFO, he seized an opportunity to get an executive physical, which the bank encouraged. He felt fine; he had no health symptoms; he just thought it’d be interesting. The physical revealed Lee had stage three kidney cancer. He had one of his kidneys removed within a week. A fist-sized tumor had spread into the vena cava, the main vein that brings blood back to the heart. By the time he’d have developed symptoms, doctors said, it would’ve likely spread to his heart — too late to have surgery.

“If the doctor hadn’t caught it when he did,” Lee said, “he figured I’d probably be dead this October.” 

Lee, a 2020 Rising Star in Banking, doesn’t naturally or easily dive into the unanticipated. He’s led by the numbers and backed by the data, “which is not always easy to do the higher you get up in your career,” he said.

He picks apart the data into palatable pieces, understanding “why” behind the numbers, and strives to portray that to the board and executive management team. “They can always read the numbers and see what they say, but it’s understanding why the numbers are the way they are — what’s the rest of the story?” Lee said. 

However, he’d naturally rather talk in numbers over narrative. 

Lingle, having watched Lee grow during the decade the banker spent at Eide Bailly, said Lee has particularly improved his ability to present data in a digestible form. 

“He’s worked and improved his ability to communicate his thoughts to make it more understandable for someone who maybe doesn’t have the same financial acumen as he has,” Lingle said. “It’s leaps and bounds how much growth he has shown through the years. His potential is just unbelievable.”

Lee was involved in FFA in high school and credits the experience to developing some seminal public speaking skills. He judged livestock and gave oral arguments for his winning picks. “When you do that three or four times on a Saturday for three months a year for four years, you get good at forming analytical arguments, and developing support for why you think the way you do,” Lee said.

Lingle loved to joke with Lee about those FFA license plates on their road trips together, but lauds Lee’s embrace of his Lisbon, N.D., ag roots. The windshield time together took the two men three hours outside of Albuquerque, five hours up to the far northwest corner of North Dakota and to a lot of golf courses (though Lee isn’t much of a golfer, Lingle said.) 

Looking back, Lingle has said he’s seen the most growth in Lee when it comes to patience. “People used to laugh that he was probably the second most impatient person behind me,” Lingle said. 

After the diagnosis and his recovery from cancer, Lee said he doesn’t sweat the small stuff — if a project doesn’t get done on time, a payment is a day late, or his luggage gets lost — as easily anymore. “You get a new perspective,” Lee said. “You realize what’s important in life and you do your best to reprioritize.”