David Kemper,

David Kemper,

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 16 1998 3:30 AM

David Kemper,

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       This morning we held the company's annual meeting at the local Ritz-Carlton Hotel. I arrive at my office early to review my presentation and then walk across Clayton (a business suburb of St. Louis) to the hotel. My route takes me past our snappy new $100 million jail, which, from the outside, looks like a beautiful office building. This St. Louis Justice Center (the jail) is topped only by our spanking new $200 million downtown Federal Court Building--crime does pay if you're in the construction business. I then enter the wood-paneled, clubby confines of the Ritz. It doesn't matter where a Ritz-Carlton is--Beaver Creek, the Kona Coast, or Clayton--they all look the same. The Old World charm of the lobby, with its Gainsborough oil knockoffs and Sri Lankan tapestries, might be what Donald Trump would create after reading the Cliffs Notes of a Trollope novel. In the corner of the lobby is a large sign advertising a commemorative Titanic dinner (seven courses, eight different wines, $150 a head--they'd better have a head) or an entire Titanic weekend ($495 a head). I suppose the ambiance the Ritz is really trying to create is that of James Cameron's set--Edwardian glitter with no third class. I observe a moment of silence and then head up the serpentine stairs in search of the Plaza Room.
       Our annual meetings are usually pretty tame, but today, with all the bank news, there is a little more excitement. Since our stock is up 70 percent from a year ago, I'm assuming the crowd will be friendly. Every year our accountants, Peat Marwick, send me a massive book of possible trick questions, but once again I wait in vain for a zinger. In fact, although there are six questions (a record), everybody is in a pretty good mood (which they should be), and the meeting is over in 40 minutes. We then have our board meeting (top-secret), during which we have an interesting discussion about computers and the new millennium (i.e., the dreaded Year 2000). Banks are particularly sensitive to computers and software, as we have found customers just hate not knowing where their money is.
       I end the day with a dinner we host for about 20 of our customers. Everybody is enjoying Pax Greenspana--low rates, good economy, etc.--and I then give a short talk making the none too subtle point that, despite what you read in the papers, bigger is not better as far as giant banks go. In fact, I point out that $10 billion (our size) is just about right. Our idea of the big community bank (that's our bank) plays very well in Peoria (we in fact have a bank in Peoria) as well as at a dinner in St. Louis, but by 9 everybody is ready to go home. I return to great joy in the land (well, Kemper land); our older jock daughter, who is deciding on where to go to college, has got a chummy letter from her first-choice college field hockey coach. Then, our college sophomore son calls from campaign headquarters at Stanford--it's election night on campus and his roommate, Matt, is running for student government president. The fact that Matt has absolutely no experience is, apparently, the key to the election. Our camp figures all the seasoned candidates will split the electorate and the know-nothings will steal the election. At least they're not staging a war.

David Kemper is chairman, president, and CEO of Commerce Bancshares, Inc., in St. Louis.