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David Arthur Walters

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Kansas City Style First Class Regional Banking
By David Arthur Walters
Posted: Saturday, September 29, 2007
Last edited: Saturday, September 29, 2007
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.
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How awful it is to be hated for your wealth.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003
Kansas City, Missouri

I awoke this morning with a horrible thought, that I had been born rich and was hated for my wealth. I kid you not - I was feeling sorry for a poor little rich kid and that kid was me!

Well, wake up and smell the coffee! I told myself. I am not rich. Far from it. Why not? First of all, I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Furthermore, I have never wanted much, just enough to get by. According to the calculations of investment counselors, who say that a man my age should already have a cool million saved up in order to get by, I am almost a million in the hole. But not to worry, for all I have to do is to sell, sell, sell.

According to his son, Kansas City banker Rufus Crosby Kemper, Jr. likes to say, "Nothing happens in the world until you sell something." Kemper Jr., Senior Chairman of UMB Financial, ought to know: he has guided UMB (United Missouri Bank) for over thirty-five years.

The Kemper family hails back to making cannon balls for George Washington. William Thornton Kemper (1865-1938), founding patriarch of the Kansas City branch of the family, was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. He worked as a traveling salesman and store clerk, then moved to Valley Falls, Kansas, where he paid $2,000 for a general store and married Charlotte Crosby, a banker's daughter. He ran his store and worked as a bank teller at his father-in-law's bank. He moved to Kansas City in 1893 with his wife and son and a small fortune of $25,000.

W.T. started a grain mill and elevator company in Kansas City as well as a mail-order company. He made a considerable fortune in the Twenties with a daring investment in and sale of the troubled Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railway - his group sold it to Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe. He took up banking in 1906, this time not as a teller but as vice president of the Commerce Trust Company, a trust with four emloyees, expressly organized for the purpose of constructing a bank building and not for becoming the successful bank W.T. Kemper soon made of it. In fact, he effectually established fiscally conservative banking in the region, taking to heart the"SOLID" banking principles of his father-in-law Rufus Crosby (1834-1891).

The Kemper bank survived the 1933 run on banks with flying colors: W.T. and his son Big Jim handed out apples to people making withdrawals; deposits were back to pre-depression levels within ten months. Personalized customer service helped assure his success. He was a Populist Democrat, a people's banker who fought the city bosses and invidious interests, a man who knew the importance of shaking people's hands, talking to them, and remembering their names.

Two divisions of the Kemper family now control two competing regional bank-holding companies: Commerce Bancshares, Inc., with $13.3 billion in assets, and UMB Financial Corporation, with $8 billion in assets. The Crosby-Kempers have a reputation for maintaining a "consistent vision" throughout the years. That vision, of "first class banking", puts the customer in the forefront by virtue of highly personalized customer service. Each Kemper employee was told to be a salesperson for the bank.

Of course to say that sales is the key to success, no matter what the product or service might be, is a commonplace understatement, yet it is one well worth repeating if success is to be had. Therefore when I arose this morning I repeated the old Kemper saw for my own good, that nothing happens until you sell something.

"Maybe I can even sell something to the Kempers!" I exclaimed to myself as I groomed the gray hairs of my beard. I decided then and there to visit both banks and get copies of their financial statements to become better acquainted with their businesses.

I half expected Rufus Crosby Kemper, Jr. or his son, CEO Rufus Crosby Kemper III, to greet me and shake my hand as I strolled into the UMB bank building. But things are not like that nowadays. Personal banking is delivered remotely, at far greater length than arm's length. Why, a customer should be thankful if a banker does not charge him just for looking at him. Anyway, the UMB employees in the lobby were all quite friendly as I strolled about. Several looked my way and smiled; the security guard said "Hi" and waved as if I were an old customer; a lady walked up and asked if she could be of service - I almost felt like Daddy Warbucks.

"Say, do the Kempers still have a hands-on approach to banking customers?" I inquired. "Do they come down here and shake all comer's hands and talk to them like W.T. did in the old days?"

"No," she said with a smile, "they don't do that."

"I thought maybe they did. I heard the Kempers have a consistent vision, that they have continuity."

"Continuity, yes, continuity. I like continuity," she declared meaningfully - UMB has been terminating employees in order to "enhance profitability."

I got a copy of UMB's Annual Report for 2002, then walked across the street to the Commerce Bank. It is a larger, more real-estate risky and more profitable bank than the UMB, but it's old lobby is stodgy, the atmosphere staid, the employees sedate - perhaps sedated would be a better word figuratively speaking. CEO David W. Kemper was not in the lobby to greet me. In fact, no one looked at me unless I walked up to them and said something, and even then there were no smiles for me although the people were courteous when prodded for information.

I wanted the latest Annual Report, I said to someone. I was advised to wait for the lady in red, who was talking to the only customer in the bank besides three people at the teller windows. I waited and waited, then took a slow tour around the entire lobby, stared at the officers in turn, looked at the drawings of the way the lobby used to be in the old days - about the same - and so on. Still nobody looked at me.

I sat down in one of four chairs drawn around a small, round coffee table, and meditated at length, absorbing the atmosphere. Eureka! It came to me, something of personal interest I might sell to the Kemper family!

A financial officer finally got up from his desk, approached me and asked what I wanted. I told him I was waiting for the lady in red because I had been told that she was the only one who had an extra copy of the bank's Annual Report. No problem - he went and got a copy and gave it to me. I asked a question about regional banking. He was knowledgeable on the subject and answered my question graciously, repeating himself until I got it right.

I sat down again and compared the annual reports. UMB devoted the first eight pages of its report to customer testimonials and descriptions. Commerce Bank talked about itself for the first nine pages of its report - customers appeared later on, in small boxes. It appeared that customers on the whole loom larger at UMB than at Commerce Bank. Maybe that has something to do with the real estate.

So far I only know one UMB customer personally - my father. When I told him I was writing about the banks, he said: "I've done business with UMB for many years and they have always been wonderful to me. If you want to know about Commerce Bank, go try and open an account there. You will practically have to open it by yourself. By the way, who is that guy with the cane who walks around UMB?"

Such was my first experience with first-class regional banking in Downtown Kansas City.


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