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Nicklaus: Financial jobs are a surprising strength for St. Louis

Nicklaus: Financial jobs are a surprising strength for St. Louis

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We can’t say this often here in flyover country, but St. Louis has something important that’s lacking in financial hubs such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, N.C., and San Francisco.

We have a growing financial services industry. Nationwide, financial sector employment has fallen 4 percent since the recession began in December 2007, and most big money centers have felt the job loss.

The St. Louis area has added 10,200 financial jobs, for growth of 13 percent. It’s a rare bright spot for a region where overall job growth remains sluggish.

The industry’s strength has helped St. Louisans who lost jobs in other industries, and it’s been a beacon to people such as Anne Larson, who moved here to become director of client acquisition for Wells Fargo Advisors.

Larson didn’t know much about St. Louis when she accepted a transfer from Wells Fargo’s banking division in San Francisco. A year later, she’s convinced it was a good move personally and professionally.

“There are all of the amenities of a big city in a smaller setting,” says Larson, who lives in Town and Country. “And I was surprised to learn how much headquarters presence there is here for other financial services companies.”

That’s music to the ears of Steve Johnson, executive vice president at the St. Louis Regional Chamber. In a strategic planning exercise four years ago, the chamber identified financial services as a strength the region should build on.

Surprisingly, it’s done so without adding any major new employers. The chamber has had a couple of near-misses in attempts to woo back-office operations of major Wall Street firms, Johnson said.

Civic leaders didn’t place all their bets on big companies. The region also has a grow-our-own strategy that includes SixThirty, an accelerator fund for financial technology companies. It has backed 12 early-stage companies in the past two years, including at least two out-of-town firms that have established permanent offices here.

Those 12 firms employ 55 people, a tiny fraction of the region’s 90,000-person financial workforce. The hope is that some of them eventually will grow much larger.

Meanwhile, most job gains have come from operations with deep roots here, such as Reinsurance Group of America in Chesterfield, MasterCard’s technology center in O’Fallon, Mo., and four brokerage headquarters — Wells Fargo Advisors, Edward Jones, Stifel Financial and Scottrade.

Edward Jones, for example, has added 689 people since 2007 and employs 5,054 people in the St. Louis area. Stifel has doubled in size to 1,013 employees. Wells Fargo Advisors employs 5,300 St. Louisans, up from about 4,900 at the old A.G. Edwards & Sons in 2007.

Karl Kuykendall, a regional economist with IHS Global Insight, says St. Louis’ financial sector was touched only lightly by the subprime crisis, which destroyed thousands of jobs in other major financial centers.

The brokerage firms in St. Louis are all dedicated to serving individual investors, not packaging exotic securities, and that’s been a good business. “The post-recession stock market recovery has had a major positive influence on the financial sector in St. Louis,” Kuykendall said.

Among major U.S. metropolitan areas, St. Louis’ financial industry ranks second in percentage job gain since 2007. Only San Antonio did better, and it benefited from rapid population growth and Texas’ oil-fueled economic boom.

St. Louis has neither of those advantages. All we have are several firms in the financial sector’s sweet spot, along with leaders who are trying to figure out where the industry is headed. For the moment, at least, that’s a winning combination.

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