Taking a leap of faith paid off for this Commerce leader.
In 2018, after three successful years working in Commerce Bank’s commercial real estate lending group in St. Louis, John Creamer had a big decision to make. He’d been offered the role of Tennessee market president in Nashville, but accepting this significant opportunity meant moving out of the city where he and his wife were born and raised, and moving to a market where he knew almost nobody.
It was a lot to think about. “I was in a business development role before relocating but had no exposure to the (commercial and industrial) space at Commerce, and that would be required of me in Nashville,” says Creamer today. “While I had comfort in my ability and experience from prior roles outside of Commerce, I didn’t know much about the market or the existing portfolio.”
In the end, he decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. “It’s human nature to be nervous about such a big leap of faith,” he says, “but I knew the experience would be invaluable. I had the full support of our executive team, and that gave me confidence.”
It helped that he had consulted with people at Commerce he knew well, such as his supervisor, Jason Penfield, the executive vice president of the bank’s east region. “Jason had relocated for his career, so he understood what was involved and the inner debate I was having,” Creamer says. “His guidance was helpful, and I’ve always been appreciative to have him as a mentor.”
Penfield says he knew the role would be ideal for Creamer. “John’s a competitor,” he says. “He has great leadership skills and a real drive to succeed. He’s one of the brightest people I know. Those are some of the qualities we look for when we’re identifying leaders to head up our operations in markets that are newer for us. It was a great opportunity for John to grow, and it would be beneficial for our customers, too. I told him to do it. I believed he could really plant a flag for us in Nashville.”
Even though he encouraged Creamer to take the role, Penfield had at least one reservation about it. “It’s hard to send one of my best friends—and certainly my best friend in the banking industry—away to a different city,” he says with a laugh. “We had worked with each other for years, and we’re close. I’ve told him it was almost as tough on me as it was on him.”
Today, Creamer is very glad he made the move. “There were a lot of nerves initially, but it’s all gone well and has been a great experience,” he says.
As the head of Commerce’s presence in Nashville, Creamer leads a group that’s focused on providing banking services to longstanding, multi-generational businesses throughout the region. This includes organizations operating in the market’s vibrant healthcare and commercial real estate (CRE) development industries. Since relocating, Creamer put a particular emphasis on building out a respectable CRE business, which has been instrumental to the balanced growth of the portfolio.
“We’re a bank that can say ‘yes’ to business now, and we’re starting to compete with some high-profile institutions in the market,” Creamer says. “We really have something to be proud of here, backed by the engine of Commerce Bank and everything it brings to the table. We’re able to bring all the products and solutions offered in our core footprint to commercial clients here in Nashville. We’re the best of both worlds to offer the market—all the commercial capabilities of a large bank, combined with the personalized customer service and consultative approach you’d expect from a community bank. It’s a combination that our clients appreciate, and it’s producing results.”
Creamer’s depth of experience has helped tremendously during his time in Nashville. “My entire career has been in banking, and the diversity of roles I’ve held has helped prepare me for what I’m doing today,” he says. “I not only have a background in credit, but also in private banking, commercial and industrial banking, and commercial real estate banking. Those are the three segments of banking that are relevant to what we do here. Combined with my experience in business development, that gives me the balance needed to be successful in a newer market for Commerce.”
Creamer has been in Nashville for more than four years now, and during that span, Commerce’s operations in the market have undergone significant change. “We relocated the office from a suburban retail setting to a multi-tenant high rise in the Gulch, which is the preeminent office market in Nashville,” he notes. “That alone has helped raise our profile. Also, when I came here, the entire team was just me. We’ve since added three relationship managers, a treasury management officer, and an equipment finance specialist dedicated to our market. We have ‘A’ level players at every position, which sets us apart and allows us to compete in what’s become a fiercely competitive market.”
As a team leader, Creamer sees his role as being similar to that of a head coach in sports. “I’m not on the field of play, per se, but I’m working with the team here to develop our strategy and help them achieve their goals,” he says. “Those individual goals lead to our team accomplishing the overall goals we have for our market. The job of the market leader is to help us win in the markets that we serve.”
One of his team members, commercial banking relationship manager Bailie Klages, appreciates Creamer’s leadership style. “He’s very tuned in to everything that’s going on, but he’s also hands-off enough to allow you to develop your own style,” she says. “We have a lot of open conversations on a regular basis, and that’s helpful for us both.”
Klages—who made the move from St. Louis to Nashville herself, a few months after Creamer—says it’s helpful that Creamer has been in the exact role she is in now. “He has a lot of empathy for what goes into my role,” she notes. “He knows the ins and outs of working with prospects and clients, and he shares lessons from his own experiences. He helps me to find my own way in my role and to build my own approach. He’s a great mentor.”
The support for Klages and her teammates is no accident; Creamer says that he stays squarely focused on the members of his Nashville team. “If I can help everyone get to the next level in their own careers, that’s the brass ring for me,” he explains. “I want to make sure the team members who work with me here are happy and have a good quality of life. If you take care of people and keep growing, the rest will fall into place.”
Creamer’s philosophy has proven successful so far, according to Penfield. “I couldn’t be more pleased with how John has handled the transition,” he says. “It was a challenge to go to a new city. But he hit the ground running, put us on the map, and added some top-tier customers. He’s accomplished so much. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you he still has a lot more to do.”