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Tom Harmon: Walking in his customer's shoes

How stints in the private sector changed Tom Harmon’s approach to banking.

Tom Harmon has been a commercial banker for 22 of the 28 years of his professional career. But what sets him apart among banking leaders may be tied less to the experience and expertise he collected during those 22 years, and more to the empathy and wisdom he gained from the other six.

Call it a “career twist” or “career fate,” but Tom knows what it’s like to walk in his customer’s shoes.

After graduating from Arizona State with a finance degree, the future Commerce Bank of St. Louis president went to work in his aunt and uncle’s fitness equipment business, a job that instilled grit, while raising his business IQ. “For a year and half, I drove all over Arizona with my ratchet set, installing equipment,” he recalls.

Changing market dynamics and the lack of a business plan to address them prevented that business from taking off – realities that became clearer to Tom after he accepted an assistantship at the Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he next moved to pursue an MBA.

“When I started, I didn’t know what an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan was or how to write a business plan,” Tom says. But he quickly learned. Soon he was applying his newfound knowledge and refined skills to help fledgling businesses refine their visions and obtain the financing they needed to grow. He can still proudly name some still operating today.

“As I worked with these business owners, I realized THIS was the kind of assistance my aunt and uncle had needed,” says Tom. “Had I known, I could have helped their business so much more.”

Now, Tom knew. And a powerful, but as yet unspoken, conviction grew in him that would bring purpose to his life.

After completing his MBA, he moved to St. Louis to fulfill that purpose, taking a position as a commercial banker. He was ambitious, but not in the way you might typically associate with a young lender.

Early in his career, for example, he spent three months taking a deep dive into the inner-workings of business valuation. “Companies may come to us for a loan, but I learned early on that there may be other things we can do to assist in the value creation process,” he explains. “Looking beyond the loan request and focusing on what makes a business successful and what the opportunities are is fundamental to how I see my role today.”

The holistic approach Tom took to commercial banking later led him to pursue certification as a Charted Financial Analyst (CFA) and, more recently, a Certified Treasury Professional (CTP). Both represent skills that are rare among bankers, but enormously beneficial in valuing companies and other assets.

Another job twist
In late 2010, Tom’s career took another defining turn when he left his senior banking position to become president of Legacy Pharmaceutical Packaging, a private company who his then-bank had helped to finance.

“Tom is forthright and trustworthy, and he understood our numbers really well,” says Dave Spence, the contract manufacturer’s CEO, who offered him the job. “I needed someone I could trust and who could help us grow the business.”

Over the next three years, grow it did. Under Tom’s leadership, sales tripled, as did its workforce. Managing the fast pace of growth wasn’t always easy.

“I learned so much about the daily challenges facing middle market entrepreneurs,” says Tom.

“There are no airs about Tom,” Dave adds. “This job taught him that growing a company is about more than charts and graphs. He has walked in a customer’s shoes, which gives him both empathy and credibility.” Tom brought everything he learned back with him when he returned to banking in 2014, including his move to Commerce two years later.

Today, Tom can articulate the conviction he first felt as a young man. “Our business is not just making loans, but helping businesses create value,” he says.

“That’s what makes working at Commerce so exciting,” he adds. “I’ve worked at banks much larger, but Commerce is the only one that can wrap its arms around a company with a full pallet of capabilities, from trust and payments services, to the family side of the business.”

Perhaps it’s not a twist of fate, but an understanding of the challenges business customers face that led him to his role at Commerce today.

“There is so much a banker can learn during discovery about how we can help owners achieve their goals,” he says. “We have to dig in, not just to understand the risks, but to find opportunities.”

“Together, we can conquer anything if we can approach our job each day with conviction and without hesitation.” He did it counseling startups as an MBA student. He did it as part of a management team that tripled the size of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company. And he continues to do it for Commerce customers today.

It’s fair to say Tom has made his aunt and uncle proud.

Tom Harmon is president of Commerce Bank – St. Louis and leads the commercial banking activities in the St. Louis region. In addition to over 20 years of commercial banking experience, he is a chartered financial analyst (CFA), a Certified Treasury Professional (CTP), and a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). He graduated from Arizona State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in finance and earned a masters’ degree in business administration from Southern Illinois University’s College of Business. Tom is the treasurer of Boys Hope Girls Hope and is a member of the St. Louis Society of Financial Analysts.

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