After Chris Kelley’s accident, FirstBank became a major supporter of Craig Hospital

Chris Kelley headshot

Chris Kelley

A bit of good luck in a bad economy led Daniels College of Business alumnus Chris Kelley (BSBA 2007) to his career in commercial banking.

It was 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, and the real estate appraising firm Kelley worked for after graduating from Daniels had just gone out of business.

“Honestly, at that point, I was just looking for any sort of entry-level job,” Kelley remembered. “I walked into a FirstBank branch and started filling out an application to be a teller. I just needed health insurance, and I needed to be able to pay my rent. But when they heard a little more about my background and my degree from DU, they said, ‘Have you heard about our management training program?’”

Kelley was accepted into the six-month program, rotating through several roles and responsibilities as he learned the ropes, including teller transactions, new accounts, bookkeeping and lending. Due in part to his BSBA from the Reiman School of Finance, Kelley became a loan officer after completing the management training. 

“I started with small unsecured cash reserves and things like that, and then I got into doing more complex loans, mostly real estate loans,” he said. “A lot of residential mortgages, along with some commercial real estate lending: apartment buildings, retail shopping centers, small office buildings, industrial manufacturing and smaller industrial spaces.”

After working in loans for a few years, Kelley was ready to move up in his career. An opening in FirstBank’s treasury management department caught his eye, and he got the job, helping businesses manage funds and pay their bills. And then, everything changed.

A moment that changed a life

While on vacation with some friends in Nebraska in 2012, Kelley dove into a lake that was shallower than he realized. He landed headfirst on the lake bottom and was instantly paralyzed.

“I was awake and conscious of what had happened,” he said. “I hit the bottom and immediately couldn’t move anything.”

Kelley was transported by emergency helicopter from North Platte, Nebraska, to Denver Health. After a couple of weeks, he entered a rehab program for spinal injuries at Craig Hospital in Englewood, which specializes in spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury rehabilitation and research. He spent three months there, adjusting to his new normal.

“The same day I had my injury, my wife found out that she was pregnant with our first child,” Kelley said. “When I got out of Craig Hospital, she was about four months along with her pregnancy, and I was starting to think about, ‘What does life look like using a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury, as well as having a kid on the way?’ It took the next five or six months to get settled with my new life. Then I slowly started back to work.”

The injury was to Kelley’s C4 vertebrae, allowing him little movement in his shoulders, arms and legs. Now a full-time wheelchair user, he is on the board of directors at Craig Hospital, where the office of community reintegration is named in his honor, thanks to a donation from his employer.

“FirstBank is an employee-owned company, and they really view their employees as part of the family,” he said. “Our CEO came and visited me in the hospital and, after that, FirstBank became a large supporter of the capital campaign the hospital was going through at the time.”

The bank also helped Kelley through the difficult transition back to the office.

“They gave me a ton of flexibility to return to work at the speed that I needed, and they provided a bunch of resources and things to make it easy for me,” he said. “I’ve gotten more independent as the years have gone by, but, at first, simple things like opening my lunch and being able to feed myself were challenges. There were people at work I could go to and say, ‘Would you mind opening this up for me?’ Having somebody there that you’re comfortable asking even for those small things is important.”

Advocacy and representation 

Since those early days, Kelley has gone on to become an advocate for awareness of people with disabilities in the workplace. Part of that mission, he said, is being visible in the community as a wheelchair user with a spinal cord injury who works full time and is involved in leadership and philanthropy. He spoke at the Daniels Academic Hood ceremony last November; earlier that year, he joined the Daniels Executive Advisory Board, which provides insight to the College, acts as a sounding board, and shares best practices and lessons learned from its members’ experience.

“I figured out pretty quickly that that I was going to be happier if I was contributing to my success and getting back to regular life instead of relying on programs to help me with that,” he said. “The thing that’s been most rewarding and exciting to me about the Executive Advisory Board is learning what the school is doing with some of the emerging technologies that are coming out. With artificial intelligence and ChatGPT, we’re thinking about ways we can use those in the banking world, but Daniels is thinking about how to prepare students for a world where this is the reality, and these are skills they need to have.”

At FirstBank, Kelley eventually moved out of treasury management and into consumer online banking, where he manages the bank’s customer-facing websites and mobile applications. Now in a role as executive vice president of digital banking, he says what he likes most about his job is that every day offers something different.

“In the digital space, there’s a new innovative product or feature popping up pretty much every day,” he said. “The hardest part of my job is deciding what not to do.”

Day by day

Outside of work, Kelley frequently goes downhill skiing in a special bi-ski created for disabled athletes, and he enjoys adaptative sailing in a boat designed to be controlled from a seated position. The latter brings back fond memories of a weeklong sailing trip he took through the Greek islands during his junior year at Daniels.

Kelley, whose son just turned 11, still thinks back on the day in Nebraska that changed his life forever, but he said that looking forward is the best way to keep himself motivated.

“You take it day by day—there are new challenges that are presented every day,” he said. “For the most part, it’s something I’ve learned to live with. It’s who I am. There are certainly things that I miss about my life before the accident, but you can’t change the past. You can only work toward the future and do what you can to make the best of your situation.”