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Commerce CEO hands over reins to successor

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by Paul Flemming

SBJ Staff

Ken Carter didn't pick his successor, just the time for him to be chosen. He even interviewed the candidate a decade ago.

The Jan. 16 announcement marks not only a personnel change, but offers the possibility of new corporate directions, as well.

Robert A. Hammerschmidt Jr. starts Jan. 26 as president and chief executive officer of Commerce Bank in Springfield, moving from the same job with Commerce's Midstate Region banks, based in Columbia. He'll get on-the-job training from his predecessor.

Carter is now chairman.

The mid-Missouri banks have about $400 million in assets, Hammerschmidt said. Commerce Banks in the Springfield area have nearly $730 million in assets, Carter said.

"Ken Carter is a real visionary to start a management succession plan this early," Hammerschmidt said.

Carter, 55, said the shakeup in senior management at the bank began as he and Al Meeker discussed the future. Carter said Meeker, now 60 and vice chairman of the board, plans to work to the standard retirement age, now with the title of chief credit officer.

Such a timetable is not in the cards for Carter, who said he'd like to exit before he hits the traditional gold-watch age.

When Carter told Commerce Bancshares' top bosses of these discussions, it led to the appointment of Hammerschmidt.

"I don't want to retire at 65 and die at 66," Carter said, noting he has his sights set on more time for enjoyment, probably in about five years, around the same time Meeker could retire.

"Planning for succession is one of management's most serious duties," Carter added. "It's hard for one CEO to walk out on Friday and another to walk in on Monday. We'll have the luxury of years to do that."

Carter became president of Commerce in Springfield in 1981 and added the CEO title in 1983.

Carter's 34-year career with Commerce will now focus on business development, community and civic involvement, and seeking opportunities to acquire other banks, possibly in Arkansas, where the Kansas City-based bank does not currently operate, Carter said.

That possibility suits Hammerschmidt, 45, who is moving back closer to his roots. The Harrison, Ark., native served as chairman and CEO of Citizens Bank in the Van Buren, Ark., area until 1987.

He said he made three offers to purchase that bank, but was rebuffed. He began to look at his options outside the area and with larger banks. When Commerce officials considered Hammerschmidt, Carter was one of the people who interviewed him.

Carter said that after the interview, he talked to his superior in the holding company about his impressions.

"I said, 'I think I've just interviewed my successor,'" Carter said, relaying his opinion that Hammerschmidt's experience and talents suited him for Carter's position. "I guess I was right, just 10 years early."

Hammerschmidt was hired for the Columbia post. Once there, Hammerschmidt said, he became familiar with Carter and the Springfield banks as an internal competitor.

"It's always been my objective here in Columbia to catch Carter and the folks down in Springfield," he said. "They in many ways set the curve in our company."

Now Hammerschmidt says he is making what he hopes is his last move with Commerce. "I plan for this to be the last move in my career. It's really the only job I would have taken."

In addition to helping Hammerschmidt learn the southwest Missouri ropes and working on the transition Jan. 20 Carter was going through files to vacate his office and move next door in Commerce's executive suite at its East Battlefield location Carter said he is looking forward to the opportunities his new job will afford.

"I've had my time in the CEO chair," Carter said. "My schedule will now change dramatically. I'll have more time for more fun things, and spend less time on some of the more mundane things."

Commerce in the last two years has consolidated all its Missouri banks into one state charter. The company has retained the boards of directors that existed under the previous charters, though they now fulfill an advisory, rather than statutory, role.

"We spend a lot less time voting on boilerplate things that we're required to vote on," Carter said.

"We have much more streamlined meetings now and talk a lot more about our growth progress and new products," he added.

That growth comes in a competitive market, a fact Hammerschmidt acknowledges.

"In general, there is an overcapacity in the financial services industry nationwide," Hammerschmidt said. And Springfield is "incredibly overbanked. But I know there are a lot of apples falling from the trees."

He said those apples of business will be picked up with strong customer service and a community-banking orientation.

"Springfield is a wonderful community, and one of the strongest growth areas for our company," said David W. Kemper, president and CEO of Commerce Bancshares, in a release.

"Adding Bob Hammerschmidt to our strong senior management team will ensure we accelerate our leadership position in the market."

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