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2008 Lifetime Achievement in Business Honoree: Jim D. Morris

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There was a time when “Jimmy” Morris would cut out Sears-Roebuck catalog pages the size and shape of dollar bills.

“I had them in my pocket, and I’d act like they were money,” Morris recalls.

Now, he’s got real greenbacks, but he’s not one to keep them all to himself.

Morris has become a noted philanthropist – evidenced by his full name, Jim D. Morris, gracing several buildings and made possible by determination to be successful in any business he chose.

A Great Depression baby turned wealthy via farming, real estate and oil, Morris earned every penny – even if it meant picking cotton and peaches in Missouri’s Bootheel or shining shoes for 15 cents a pair at Venice Beach, Calif., where his family spent the winters.

In his early years, an aggressive and gutsy “Jimmy” from small-town Campbell made it big by hard work and relentless determination. His character was formed on his family’s southeast Missouri farm. A boy who battled a severe speech impediment until high school, Morris was emphatic about carving a better life for himself.

His first job off the farm was as a Standard Oil truck driver, earning $120 a month for 60-hour weeks in 1952. Morris remembers putting in a few extra hours a week to impress “the Big Oil people.”

“I always had to be on top,” Morris says in his south Springfield office, surrounded by awards and pictures of colleagues, politicians and entertainers he’s known through the years.

Six years later, at a ripe 23, Morris set his sights on the Campbell Standard agency and bought it on a $4,700 loan – the first and only 100 percent loan that Standard ever made, he says. Standard officials nicknamed him “the kid.”

In 1961, Standard offered him the agency in Branson, and that began a lucrative career in southwest Missouri. He went on to own the agency in Springfield, and at its peak, Morris Oil Co. moved 50 million gallons of fuel a year operating and supplying 60 stores in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Morris was wise enough to buy into the Branson hospitality business, and at one time owned more than 1,000 guest rooms among several Branson properties and one in Springfield under the banner of Morris Group Hotels. He never lost his farming roots, amassing 2,500 acres in the Bootheel for growing cotton, rice and peaches. Morris still owns about 1,800 acres there.

A particularly significant moment for him was the 1997 opening of Signature Bank in Springfield. Morris founded the community bank, which grew to a staggering $320 million in seven years before merging with another local institution – The Bank. In 2006, the bolstered bank drew interest from regional bank BancorpSouth, which finalized its $170 million merger of The Signature Bank last year.

Today, the 74-year-old Morris works in a modest office walled with memories. “As long as I’ve been around, I could cover them again,” he says, glancing at a picture of himself and Branson entertainer Roy Clark when they started a celebrity fishing tournament fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity almost two decades ago.

In one corner rests a piano played by Glen Campbell. On the opposite wall hangs a painting of his Branson oil plant near Branson Landing, of which he says, “I’m not going to tell you what I’ve been offered for it. I’m just not ready yet.”

The personal drive that delivered so much success seems to be waning as Morris settles into his golden years.

He’s slowly selling off his hospitality holdings, moving four in the last year, as well as Dick Clark’s Theater. His last two are on the block – Clarion Hotel in Springfield and Quality Inn in Branson – and he thinks he’s lined up a buyer for the Quality Inn. Morris’ grandson, Brandon, a Missouri State University business student, is being groomed to take over Morris Oil, now affiliated with ConocoPhillips.

As Morris reflects on his career, he pauses at length on his family – his wife of 55 years, Catherine, and daughters Pam, Debbie and Stephanie.

“If I had it to do over, I would have spent more time with my kids. I’d put that over the drive that I had.”

Big on Philanthropy

In Jim D. Morris’ later years, he’s been known for sharing his earnings. Among the organizations on the receiving end of Morris’ millions are:

• Missouri State University

• Gillioz Theatre

• Discovery Center of Springfield

• Boys & Girls Town of Missouri

• The Arc of the Ozarks

• Good Samaritan Boys Ranch

• Care to Learn Fund (with Doug Pitt and the Jolie-Pitt Foundation)

• Lost & Found

Jim D. Morris on …

• Family: “I would advise any young man raising a family, you can’t love them enough and you cannot gain that time lost with them – it’s gone forever. It hurts me today. I thought then, the best thing I could do was make money and give them things. You can do both.

• The oil industry: “Now, you’re a number. Back then, you were family.”

• Customer service: “I always stressed without the customer we have nothing. I made that customer feel exactly what he was – very valuable, an important person to me. ... I live by that code today.

• The most influential person: (pause) “My father. The old saying is that the older I get, the smarter he was. There was a time or two he gave me advice I should have listened to. He was a generous man – he gave everything he had away.” He tells the story of his dad, Homer, giving away the last dollar in his wallet – a day’s wages – to a friend whose son needed some medicine. “I looked up at him and says, ‘How come you gave him all your money?’ He says, ‘Because he needed it worse than we did.’ I’ve always remembered that.”

• What most people don’t know: “I had a speech impediment. It was bad … until I was about 12 or 14. … You could not understand me; my mother was the only who could. I spent a hard life, because we had no money and I was laughed at... That’s something I never talk about. I was determined that it was not going to be a handicap for me. I worked hard on it for a long time. That has made me a staunch supporter of those with disabilities.”[[In-content Ad]]

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