David Kemper,

David Kemper,

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 14 1998 12:30 AM

David Kemper,

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

       I woke up early today, as I was scheduled to take a day trip to the wilds of Arkansas--Paragould and Marmaduke, to be specific--to tour some plastic-packaging plants with one of my customers. I opened the paper to the rather startling news that NationsBank and BankAmerica as well as Banc One and First Chicago/NBD were merging. Deregulation and a sky-high stock market have indeed provoked human nature--a number of 50- and 60-something bankers are making some big, empire-building moves, while others are counting their options and golden parachutes and heading for the door.
       When I was but a cub banker on Wall Street in 1977, I wrote an article for the New Republic about life at Morgan Guaranty. I titled my piece "Lush Places" in honor of William Boot's nature column in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop and, in fact, life was pretty lush around Morgan. Now bankerly antebellum gentility has vanished into right-sizing, top line growth, and demanding mutual fund investors. Mighty Morgan's stock went up 7 points today--on the hope, no doubt, that some unknown financial angel will emerge to buy it. Morgan even stopped serving free lunch to its officers last month. Well, you know what they say ...
       We took our Citation 2 (your basic corporate jet) down to Jonesboro (yes, the Jonesboro), Ark., which, our pilots said, had the longest landing strip in northeast Arkansas. Hooey! Arkansas has been a favorite refuge for many St. Louis industrialists fleeing unions; last year, I toured Yellville, the biggest town near that wonderful resort of Whitewater. This is not glamorous business travel--we jogged around 400,000 square feet of warehouse, avoiding large bubbling machines extruding plastic in a Dickensian landscape that would have pleased William Blake. The surrounding neighborhood, however, is booming--orderly new subdivisions of brick and frame houses, most of which are equipped with satellite dishes. Despite the fact that we're in the middle of nowhere, there don't seem to be any available new workers. Most of the nonbusiness talk is about the start of the turkey season, which, I have to admit, will probably start without me.
       We arrive back in St. Louis by midafternoon, landing in a strong crosswind right before a fierce spring thunderstorm. Having been incommunicado all morning, I check in with my trading desk and find our stock is up 1 3/4--the market likes these morning deals, for reasons that are beyond me. Returning to my office, I find several messages from investment bankers and the Post-Dispatch--Missouri banks over the last couple of years have been falling like flies. In fact, I had just had a shrink session last Friday with our investment adviser, the aforementioned Morgan, about current mergers and the Travelers/Citicorp deal. (That was the deal of last week.) The fact that Morgan is rumored to be on the block adds that nice ironic twist, as if you had just discovered your own psychiatrist is in therapy. The most salient point of the Travelers deal is that Sandy Weill's net worth went up $300 million the day of the announcement. There is no question who the alpha male is in that merger, but the phrase enrichez-vous does come to mind. In the words of Marcel Proust's financial adviser, "Où sont les banques d'hier?"

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