Q&A with Donald Snyder, acting president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

A 24-year-old Donald Snyder told his new wife, Dee, that he would one day be president of a bank. That helped them plan and build a successful marriage and life together, but even he couldn’t have imagined the heights his career would reach in the next four decades.

Now 66, he sits as the acting president of UNLV, having paved an oft-heralded executive trail through the corporate and academic world.

Snyder was born a twin in South Dakota and raised to work hard in his father’s tire business, which inspired him to further his education. He was the first in his family to attend and graduate college, having secured a degree in business administration.

After graduating from the University of Wyoming in 1969, Snyder accepted a job as a management trainee at a California bank, and it did not take long for the goal-driven businessman to move up the ladder.

Eighteen years later, he moved to Nevada and started working for First Interstate Bank, now known as Wells Fargo, where he served as the chairman and CEO.

Snyder co-founded Bank of Nevada, then called BankWest of Nevada, which has seen its assests grow from $8 million to almost $9 billion.

In 1992, he joined the gaming industry and lead the development of the Fremont Street Experience. From 1996 to 2005, he worked as executive vice president and president of Boyd Gaming.

After leaving Boyd, Snyder played an pivotal role in funding and developing The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

Snyder served as dean of the UNLV Harrah Hotel College from 2010 to 2013 as well as the university’s executive dean for strategic development.

He believes that universities and business sectors should work hand-in-hand, saying that a university should blend an approach to business — in areas such as financing and management — with its approach to academics.

“There’s no doubt the worlds need to come closer together,” he said.

As chairman of the university’s Campus Improvement Authority Board, he leads the effort to build an on-campus stadium. He’s been involved with the university for decades and spearheads fundraising efforts in an attempt to bring the university and Las Vegas closer together.

No matter his role, board work remains one of Snyder’s passions. From legislative commissions to nonprofit organizations and public and private companies, he has served on more than a dozen boards.

He has volunteered with the university for years and has served as the chairman of the Board of Trustees for the UNLV Foundation.

In 2013, Gov. Brian Sandoval named him Philanthropist of the Year.

Although he is not in the running to serve in the full capacity as UNLV president, “I will never walk away from the university,” he said.

He and his wife have three children and three grandchildren.

Why did you decide to get into banking?

I interviewed with a lot of different industries. Having grown up in South Dakota and Wyoming, I received a couple offers from different banks in California. Going through the interviewing process, it just seemed to be one of those things that appealed to me. I’ve always been good with numbers.

Do you see the stadium project as your biggest effort?

It’s big for the university, and for the community, and important to our primary economy. Another project is the (effort to establish a four-year) medical school. … I don’t know of anything that will change the university in a more positive way and change the community. Both projects are game-changers and projects that when you look back a few decades from now will be seen as major developments for the community. … You can’t have a great community without a great university connected to that community. That really captures my philosophy.

Why are you so passionate about Nevada?

(My wife and I) both felt this would be a stop on our corporate careers. But this is a state where you can get very involved very quickly. I was able to see very early on that you could get involved, you needed to get involved and you could make a difference. When First Interstate Bank became Wells Fargo, I had a chance to go back to California or Texas. (Staying in Nevada) is the best decision I’ve ever made. I had a chance to transition into gaming. … And after retiring from Boyd, to lead development of The Smith Center. That gave me great pride, doing something that made tremendous difference … It’s just something I look back on and say that decision to stay here worked out pretty well. I feel really good about what’s happened and how it’s happened.

You have been recognized for community service, philanthropy and fundraising throughout your career. Where does that come from?

Values come from your parents. So I have pretty good stock in that regard. My parents were at best middle class growing up, and philanthropy was not a big part of what they did. … It became clear to me that building a philanthropic type of infrastructure was as important as any other type of infrastructure. I really characterize it as community-building. For me to ask other people to open their wallets, I had to open my own. The sense of giving back to the community is something I feel very strongly about.

Do you have any hobbies?

I play golf, although my golf game is suffering a little bit since I’ve become president. I’ve played once. We also have a home in the mountains (in Brian Head, Utah).

Is there anything about you that most people wouldn’t know?

I’m a big believer in having a sense of where you want to go. Early in my banking career, I felt I wanted to be involved in a leadership position. I met my wife two or three months after graduating from college. We’ve been married for 43 years. I have one of the world’s 10 best marriages. I don’t know what the other nine are, but I have one of the 10 best. When I told her I was going to be the president of a bank someday, that was important. I was 24 years old when we had that conversation. It’s something we refer back to. That conversation helped us set expectations. To me, it’s about having goals that play off your strengths. I don’t think things happen by accident.

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