David Kemper,

David Kemper,

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 15 1998 3:30 AM

David Kemper,

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       I arrived at my office at 7:45 this morning to find messages from three different investment bankers saying they'd like to chat, as well as another voice mail from a consultant claiming the tornado that went through north St. Louis last night had led to the cancellation of her flight. Investment bankers and consultants are remarkably resourceful people; I just sensed I'd get another call from those bankers and that the consultant would show up somehow for her appointment this morning. I was certainly right about the bankers--by 9 I'd got thorough post-mortems on the NationsBank and Banc One deals. The analyses were remarkably similar to those in the Times and the WallStreetJournal but, of course, the whole point of the calls was to see what I was thinking. There was the underlying implication from my informants that commercial bankers (e.g., me) who were not in the middle of a deal were like the Grande Armée waiting behind the Maginot line while the panzer divisions blitzkrieged across Poland. I decided the best course of action was to get out of my office and away from the phone.
       The consultant's office called; she'd found a non-TWA flight from Newark and actually showed up close to our appointed time. She was a little glazed over, since TWA had called her at 3:30 a.m. to let her know she wouldn't be flying with them today. I spent most of the morning with her and my retail people, talking about databases, phone routing, and whether or not customers would pay for extra service. Luckily, we concluded they would. My favorite course in college (I was a history major) was Anthropology 103 (Primate Behavior), which, among other things, pointed out that most aboriginal tribes had about 500 members. (I can't remember if they ate the extras.) My professor claimed that was the ideal size for a society where everybody could know each other. It turns out most of our bank branches have about 500 really profitable customers and a lot of, shall we say, marginal contributors. Perhaps our defense against the mighty Citigroup and BancNations would be the TribalBanc, a confederation of friends using their local bank branch in defiance of 800 numbers and in support of myth-telling while waiting in teller lines.
       By midafternoon, people seemed to be having some second thoughts about all these big deals. America Online had set up an e-mail center for people's opinions on bank mergers, while a few members of Congress were beginning to rattle their swords. One of the more perceptive e-mail messages (perhaps in the wrong chat room) claimed credit unions were communists (something I had long suspected) because, among other things, they didn't pay taxes. The politicians were talking about the dangers of concentration of power and the cost for deposit insurance if a really big bank failed. Jacksonian democracy was raising its righteous arm to slay this hydra--well, it would certainly pep up our company's annual meeting tomorrow.
       I ended the day with an open house at my third grader's school. Four children and countless similar evenings have made us wise in school logistics. Despite being late, we crept past cars being ticketed on the road and in adjacent subdivisions to squeeze the minivan under a crab apple by the back door. Didn't even need an SUV. We spent a good part of the evening looking at the computer with Billy's best friend, Andrew Chang (yes, the smartest kid in the class). Billy's journal on growing his bean plant was pure Into ThinAir. The final entry? "Plant is dead."

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