ST. LOUIS - Jeannie Keyes will stop at nothing for her trust clients: She'll visit with them late into the evening, help them shop for clothes, or go as a date to a senior citizen soiree.
As Mercantile Bancorp.'s only trained social worker, Ms. Keyes, 43, is not your typical bank trust employee. Many of the 60 elderly clients she visits every month regard her as a friend.
Ms. Keyes' focus on the human dimension of trust banking is a hallmark of her St. Louis-based employer. Since 1973, Mercantile's trust department has provided an assortment of personal services that most trust officers either aren't equipped to deal with or don't make the time for. The services range from helping clients make heads or tails of their bank statements to furnishing their homes.
Mercantile is the only bank company known to have a full-time, professional social worker in its trust department.
"It's a great idea," says Michael P. Sullivan, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consultant on issues involving the elderly. "It takes a bank with foresight to do something like that."
On a daily basis, Ms. Keyes works with investment officers and trust administrators, looking into each client's financial and personal profile in order to understand how much he or she can afford to spend.
She typically spends part of the morning at the bank's downtown office, followed by afternoon visits to clients, primarily elderly or impaired people - many of whom have outlived their families.
Then there are the extras, such as taking clients' phone calls on weekends, taking them to the doctor, and being there for them in difficult times. She has often had to arrange their funerals.
All of this for the $75 a quarter the $13.1 billion-asset banking charges each client who chooses the optional service. That may seem like a bargain compared to the fees of upwards of $150 an hour that outside geriatric-care specialists charge for similar services.
When Mercantile began offering these services in the early 1970s, it didn't even charge its customers. As word spread, however, Jane D. Brown, Mercantile's first social worker, found herself in high demand and the bank had to charge clients just to keep up with the costs.
"Our social workers have gone in and done things you'd never think that trust companies do," says Thomas J. Doherty, a senior vice president in Mercantile's personal trust division. "Even banks who don't have social workers are doing it, but they're doing it by the seat of their pants."
Ms. Brown, now retired, says that working with the elderly can be challenging, since they "don't want to make arrangements in advance, because that means they're going to die."
Nevertheless, both Ms. Brown and Ms. Keyes, who came to Mercantile six years ago, have found their duties rewarding.
Ms. Keyes recounts with satisfaction the story of an elderly client she found through a trust administrator. The woman apparently was living alone in a messy apartment, without any food or clothing, in a neighborhood that was rapidly deteriorating.
Ms. Keyes took the woman to the doctor, spent $1,000 buying her a whole new wardrobe, and placed her in a retirement community, where she has become a popular figure.
"She still thinks I'm one of the family," Ms. Keyes says.
The woman, who Ms. Keyes said has "a nice-size trust" apparently didn't have a clue about how to manage her wealth, a problem not unique to that client.
"Just because someone has money doesn't mean they know how to navigate the system or how to meet their needs," Ms. Keyes says.
Given those concerns, along with the fact that the over-85 segment is the fastest-growing age group in the United States, one would expect that many banks would offer similar services.
But few bank trust departments have employed staffers that provide similar social services. Mellon Bank Corp. has a social service consultant who divides her time between the bank and her private practice, and Overton Bank and Trust in Forth Worth, has a trained psychologist on its trust staff.
Banks by and large do not see the service as profitable, and as a result would rather contract out for these services on an individual basis. Mercantile's Doherty admits that pricing the service is "difficult," because not everyone uses it - only between 5% and 10% of Mercantile's customers make use of the trust social worker.
"Will it ever be a money-maker? Probably not," Mr. Sullivan says.
As an alternative to a full-time social worker on staff, some banks have opted to contract out for geriatric care managers, a new breed of practitioners specializing in the elderly.
Overall, there are 700 such professionals affiliated with the National Association of Private Geriatric Care Managers, up from last year's 500. Although the trade group does not keep track of its members' other affiliations, it is a known fact that many of the care managers work under contractual arrangements for banks.
Susan A. Goldsmith is one such example. A former trust officer at U.S. National Bank of Oregon with a master's degree in clinical social work, Ms. Goldsmith left the U.S. Bancorp subsidiary 10 years ago to start her own practice.
Now president of Health Access Inc., a Portland-based geriatric care management firm, Ms. Goldsmith works with trust departments at U.S. Bancorp, First Interstate, and on occasion, BankAmerica, charging from $65 to $200 an hour.
Ms. Goldsmith says that all banks should have access to professionally trained social workers - especially trust departments, which have a fiduciary responsibility to care for their clients.
"Regular officers can't do it by themselves," Ms. Goldsmith says. "They may know what is good for mom and dad, but that's not professional care."
Mercantile's Ms. Keyes, however, says she prefers working for the bank and nurturing long-term relationships with the bank's clients.
"I don't feel like I work for a bureaucracy," Ms. Keyes says. "And clients know I'm not here to satisfy some kind of state requirement, that I do not represent any one facility or program that I'm trying to sell to them. It's really good social work."
And even though her clients are well off enough financially to qualify as trust clients, they can still be emotionally vulnerable.
"They've had the means to buy privacy," she said. "But later on that privacy can turn to isolation."
And Ms. Keyes, a lithe woman with endless energy and a master's degree in social work from Saint Louis University, is only happy to help.
On a recent afternoon, she started off her daily rounds with a drive to a south St. Louis retirement home to visit with a client who suffers from a degenerative brain disease.
In between checking up on the frail woman's toothpaste supplies and examining a large bruise on her arm, Ms. Keyes sat down for a chat.
"I wish you would make me well," said the client, positioned in a special chair that supports her back and surrounded by pictures of her husband of 43 years, who died two years ago. "It isn't fun sitting here."
Leaving that patient with the promise that she'll be back soon with next month's trust statement, Ms. Keyes drove off to the next appointment, with an 89-year-old woman living in semi-independent quarters at another retirement community.
The client welcomed Ms. Keyes with open arms and proceeded to update her "good friend at Mercantile" on new developments in her life. Noting that she had had six dresses taken out at the waist that morning, she asked if the alterations could have been necessitated by the salsa she loves so much.
Ms. Keyes asked the woman about her friends and daily activities, chiding her for letting others use her phone too much.
Ms. Keyes then sat patiently as the woman, whose memory apparently had been affected by a recent stroke, tried to recite notes she had written on index cards.
The trust worker's last appointment of the day was a two-hour visit over soda and cookies with one of Mercantile's best-known trust clients: a 104- year-old resident of Clayton, an upscale suburb.
The woman, who has been living with her daughter, now 71, in the same house for more than 34 years, could not get enough of Ms. Keyes. In recent months, Ms. Keyes had helped the women make funeral arrangements for a relative and order a mattress.
"Isn't she wonderful?" asked the mother admiringly as Ms. Keyes pulled out a map showing the women's family burial plots.
"I don't know what the banks that don't have people like Jeannie do, do you?"