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David Miller, frugal and influential, plans February retirement


David Miller, who in February steps down as head of one of the nation’s most profitable banks, keeps track of profits for the same reason that he tallies his golf strokes: to know who’s winning.

“I want to make money not just to make money, but because I don’t want to be a loser,” said Miller, who announced earlier this month that he would retire as chairman, chief executive and president of West Bancorp.

In his more than 40 years at the top of   West Des Moines-based West Bancorp., the parent company of West Des Moines State Bank, Miller has rarely lost.

When he began at the bank at the age of 28, West Bank had $3.5 million in assets. Now, at 70 years old, he presides over a bank that has roughly $850 million in assets – Iowa’s sixth largest. How that happened is a story of teamwork, dedication and frugality.

On the wall in Miller’s office is a picture of a four-man scull. Miller doesn’t row, but he’s fond of using the picture as a metaphor. Years ago he bought a scull for the Drake University women’s crew team.

“The Drake women can beat a boat crewed by Olympic athletes on one condition: One person in the Olympic boat has to row backward,” he said. “To win, everybody has to row in the same direction.”

West Bank has 111 employees, giving it an average of $7.67 million of assets per employee. Most banks have less than half that, Miller said. Net income at West Bank has risen in 22 out of the past 24 years, according to Chicago-based Howe Barnes Investments Inc.

Since 1995, profits have climbed 49 percent from $10.6 million to $15.7 million last year. The bank’s average return on equity has exceeded 20 percent in each of the past seven years, a remarkable figure in the banking world.

A large part of the reason West Bank is so profitable is its efficiency. Workers earn a free day off if they work for six months without a sick day. They earn three days off it they go for a year without an absence. The policy appears to be working. Last year, 64 percent of West Bank’s employees didn’t miss a day.

To further improve loyalty, West Bank has a profit sharing program that gives its workers 7 percent of their salary at the end of each year. Each worker is also given 2 percent of his or her salary in cash as a bonus at the end of the year.

The other aspect of West Bank’s profitability is Miller, who sleeps an average of four hours a night and spends his money with care. He measures his profits from various investments, for instance, only after figuring in interest at 6 percent.

He has bought only one new car in his life – a Nash Rambler that he ordered so stripped down that it came without an armrest, a radio or a passenger-side visor. He later wired a portable transistor radio into the car himself. He now drives a used Lincoln Town Car.

“A car is a non-income-producing, rapidly depreciating asset,” he said.

He and his wife, Joan, didn’t buy their first dryer until after their fourth child was born. In the couple’s first home, instead of buying 2x4s at the local hardware store to build a needed wall, Miller saved money by using the cross pieces of telephone poles that had been cast aside by the local telephone company.

He is no different at West Bank. The company owns none of its eight Des Moines area branch locations, choosing instead to lease them.

His current office, which measures about 144 square feet, is the biggest he’s ever had to himself. Years ago, he was given a bigger office, but he had a wall built so that the office was cut in half. He shared the space with another executive.

His current desk is the only new one he’s ever had. All of the others have been scrounged at estate sales, which is where the tables in West Bank’s board room came from. The two lamps in the board room were purchased at a Target store.

“He is very focused on efficiency and the cost of operating the bank,” said Steve Chapman, a West Bancorp. board member and the chief executive of ITA Group. “Dave is an intense individual.”

In his spare time, Miller refurbishes houses, a hobby he picked up after he and his wife restored and sold their first home. The couple, who lived in the house for two years, made a profit of $8,000. It was a powerful lesson for Miller, who was earning $6,800 a year while working at his first post-college job at Figge Bank in Davenport.

Since the first home experience, he has fixed up eight homes on Florida’s Sannibel Island and three in Minnesota. His lowest profit on those projects was $4,500, he said.  Miller, who once was asked to walk onto the University of Iowa football team, was hired away from Figge by Iowa Superintendent of Banking Holmes Foster to work for the state banking division.

There, Miller spent days on the road as a bank examiner. His boss and mentor, Tom Roche, “pounded credit into me,” Miller said. The job paid a third of what he had been earning in Davenport, roughly $300 a month.

Though money was tight for his growing family – he and his wife had three children at that point – he stayed for three years to learn as much as he could about banks.

“David is an unusual person,” Foster said. “In spite of his seeming conservatism, he’s a risk taker. He’s been somebody a lot of bankers have aspired to be.”

In 1961, Miller moved to West Bank, which was then owned by the Chase family and was one of the state’s most troubled banks. His title was credit manager, though Miller said he was told by the bank’s owner that he was president in everything but name. He was formally named president in 1968.

Miller quickly worked to get to know Des Moines’ rich and influential citizens. He befriended John Stamatelos, owner of the former Johnny’s Vets Club, a popular dinner club. That relationship yielded dozens of new clients, he said.

The depth and financial strength of Miller’s friends was tested in 1984, when the desire of a member of the Chase family to sell her stake in the bank triggered a bidding war for the company. Valley Bank and Hawkeye Bank were both hungry to buy West Bank, Miller said.

After being tipped to the sale by a reporter from The Des Moines Register, Miller was able to secure $7 million in loans and raise another $7 million in cash from private investors in five days.

Those investors included William Knapp and John Grubb. There were five bids for the bank. Miller’s wasn’t the highest, but he had the bank’s management on his side. He won.

“I knew the right people,” Miller said.

Those original investors paid a split-adjusted 89 cents per share for West Bancorp. stock. Last week, the shares were trading at roughly $14.70 a share. They’ve risen 25 percent in the past year.

The company currently has 16 million shares outstanding, spread among 450 investors, many of whom are West Bank employees. Miller and his family own about 8 percent, he said.

This summer, the bank’s stock became listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market; a move that Miller hopes will make it easier for the company to make acquisitions. The bank has missed out on prior targets because there wasn’t enough liquidity for its shares, Miller said.

West Bancorp. is still searching for other banks to buy, and Miller said he is keen to ensure that a homegrown Iowa bank survives the consolidation racking Iowa’s banking industry. Bankers Trust Co., a rival in the Des Moines market, is the only bank that was started in Iowa that is bigger than West Bancorp.

“We’re going to expand our footprint,” Miller said.

Miller’s formal retirement is likely to have little impact on West Bank. He will be paid $100,000 a year in return for a lifetime consulting contract. He will keep his office.

For the past 10 years, he has worked under a contract that required him to work only one week a month. He now splits his time between Des Moines and vacation homes in Minnesota and Florida. If he is in Des Moines – and he’s generally in town more than just one week a month – he comes into the office. He said he has no intention of changing that schedule.

“I’ve got no desire to go,” he said.   

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