JA Business Hall of Fame: Duane & Beth Fager
Photos by RACHEL LOCK PHOTOGRAPHY
The two must complement each other’s strengths and minimize each other’s weaknesses. Duane and Beth Fager hold very different roles in both business and marriage, but those differences are what make their “partnership” flourish.
As the Chairman of CoreFirst Bank & Trust, Duane has continued the tradition of innovation and customer service instituted by his father, Emery Fager, growing the bank from $19 million in assets to more than $1 billion. Beth has served as a community liaison for the bank and has spearheaded fundraising efforts for numerous community projects, including Great Overland Station, Topeka Performing Arts Center, Ronald McDonald House and Brewster Place Retirement Center. Together, Duane and Beth have been the drivers of change, not only within the banking industry, but also within the community.
‘The bank has always had a philosophy of giving back,” Duane says. “The more you give, the more you get back in return.”
CONVERGENCEDuane grew up in Overbrook and moved to Topeka during his eighth grade year after his father became president of Commerce State Bank in 1959. He graduated from Topeka West High School and then received a political science degree from the University of Kansas.
“I wasn’t thinking much about banking at the time,” Duane jokes.
Duane actually worked at the bank during high school as a teller but wanted to spread his wings. He joined the ROTC in college and went into the army as a second lieutenant after graduation, ending up in Italy for two years.
Beth moved to Topeka after her sophomore year of high school when her father was appointed to the Kansas Supreme Court. She found herself living just around the block from the Fager family. Having become friends with Jane Fager through church activities, Beth was invited into the Fager home to meet Jane’s brother.
“There Duane was, sitting behind a drum set, looking so cool,” Beth says.
Thus began the partnership that has lasted for the past 47 years.
INNOVATION When Duane joined the bank at the age of 25, it was still relatively small. He helped establish a marketing department and instituted a “new fangled” idea: market research. Gaining a better understanding of consumer attitudes, the bank jumped head first into new technology.
“It was a great strategy with beautiful results,” Duane says.
The bank experienced significant growth in the 1970s. Banks in other parts of the country begin putting branches inside of grocery stores. There was nothing like that in Kansas at the time, so when Duane made deals with Dillon’s, Wal-Mart and JM Bauersfelds, it was a bit revolutionary.
“We had to get creative with Kansas branching laws,” Duane says, “because branch banking wasn’t allowed in Kansas.”
“You had to go change that,” Beth interjects.
The bank also raised eyebrows by staying open past 6 p.m. on weekdays and offering Saturday hours.
“No one else did that either,” Duane says. “We were doing more business through the drive-up window than we were doing inside the lobby.”
Then came the ATMs. Research showed that 35 percent of customers would be inclined to use ATMs once they understood what they were and how they worked.
“That was enough for me,” Duane says. “We had the first ATM in Topeka.”
“No, we had the first ATM in Kansas,” Beth adds.
The bank opened two ATMs on July 4, 1976, and introduced “Telly, the anytime teller” to Topeka. It took almost a year for other local banks to follow suit.
GENEROSITY Over the years, as Core First Bank and Trust has grown and evolved, it has been able to support many community activities and projects. The first signature of that generosity was exhibited at the Topeka Performing Arts Center (TPAC).
“We got Beth involved in TPAC, and then I assigned my dad and all of his networking capacity to help her,” Duane laughs.
“This is absolutely true,” Beth agrees.
At the time, the arts community was really concerned about the loss of the municipal auditorium venue with the arrival of the new Expo Center. Sitting in a meeting with other like-minded community leaders, Beth listened as John Hunter, a professor at Washburn University, created a vision of what the municipal auditorium could become if it was redesigned into a performing arts center.
“A light bulb just went off in my head,” Beth says. “I came home and told Duane. He sent me to talk to the mayor to see how we could make it happen.”
The mayor thought it was an excellent idea, but noted that it would require a significant public/private partnership to acquire the funding to see it accomplished.
The group set up a community board and established a community fundraising team. Emery Fager, who had been “assigned” to help Beth, played a crucial role in securing private donations.
“Dad could work a room like no one I’ve ever seen,” Duane recalls. “Except maybe Beth. When people ask me to get involved in fundraising campaigns, I tell them I am happy to do it, but if they want it to be great, they need to talk to Beth.”
Duane understands that as part of their successful partnership, if Beth’s role is to raise money for community projects and improvements, his role is to come up with the donations to support those efforts.
“Few fundraisers have the advantage that I have had,” Beth says. “Commerce [CoreFirst Bank and Trust] always supported whatever I was fundraising for.”
“It’s part of the fabric,” Duane says. “It’s just what makes this work.”
Beth always had the assurance of a donor in her back pocket. But more than that, she had access into a bigger pool of donors.
“My pitch was always easy. I would say, ‘If little ol’ Commerce Bank can do this, then your much larger company can surely do just as much.’”
ONWARDAfter almost 50 years with the bank, Duane is still working to keep CoreFirst Bank and Trust innovative and customer service oriented. Even though a new president handles the day-to-day operation, Duane is chairman and runs the holding company that owns the bank.
“I want to see the bank do well, obviously. We have two sons, a daughter, a son-in- law and a nephew who are all actively engaged in the bank.”
Five years from now Duane and Beth both say they hope they are still doing the things they are doing right now.
“If everyone is having a good time, the bank is doing well, the community is growing and improving, I’d be really happy to look back and think I had something to do with that,” Duane says.
As for Beth’s community projects? Riverfront development and the Great Overland Station top her list. Duane helps out on these projects as well but is still happy to take a back seat.
“I help, but I don’t have to work that hard when Beth is in the room,” Duane says.
ROLES Married for more than 47 years, helping each other grow a thriving business and supporting the community they love, Duane and Beth Fager exemplify the true definition of partners. What makes their joint venture so successful?
“You have to like each other first of all,” Duane says. “Then you have to learn to compromise.”
“You have to respect the other person’s unique abilities and talents, and accommodate the quirks,” Beth adds.
For the Fagers, it is about understanding the role each person plays in the partnership and supporting each other. They enjoy working on different projects, giving each other space to develop their own ideas and then coming together to put on the finishing touches.
“Neither one of us ever tried to control the other,” Beth says.
“It wouldn’t work,” Duane laughs.