Alumna crunches numbers in the banking industry

Jan Kepple '71

March 5, 2013

Jan Kepple ’71

When Jan Kepple '71 graduated summa cum laude from Bradley University, she was certain that she would be a math teacher. In addition to earning a mathematics degree and a Spanish minor, she also had completed all of the education courses required for certification to teach in the state of Illinois.

With her college diploma and a plan in hand, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee after graduation. To her surprise, the state of Tennessee did not have a teaching reciprocity agreement with the state of Illinois and Jan, undeterred, began the process of being certified to teach in Tennessee.

While crossing this transitory hurdle, she took an entry-level job with First Tennessee Bank in Memphis, serving as custodian for safety deposit boxes and working odd jobs around the office. She assured her colleagues at the bank that she was not going to be in the banking business for long.

Though she did not stay long in Tennessee, a new plan had already begun to take shape. The entry-level position in Tennessee was the start of a distinguished career in banking that has knocked down gender barriers and garnered recognition.

Adventures in the banking industry have moved most memories of Bradley University to the back of her mind, but Jan remembers vividly certain aspects of her time on the Hilltop. The agony of climbing the stairs to the fourth floor of Bradley Hall persists in her memory, of course. This is a pain that most math graduates cannot forget. Akin to the pain of the stairs, Jan recalls the great effort that she put into her non-Euclidean geometry course with Dr. J. Ross Brown.

Making sense of nonsensical geometric ideas takes lots of hard work. Jan recalls poring over the course material for Brown’s course to try to make sense of it, which she eventually did. Jan credits the math program with teaching her to think critically and, perhaps more importantly, to work hard. These days, as she reviews applications for jobs in the banking industry, she looks for applicants who are smart and who work hard, with an emphasis on the latter.

During her senior year in the mathematics program, Jan worked on a capstone project in matrix theory with Prof. John Haverhals. She recalls the interest that she took in the project and the appreciation for mathematics that she gained from it.

When Jan returned to Peoria after her short stay in Memphis, she put her mathematics background to use. At the request of Prof. Brown, who was chairperson of the mathematics department at the time, Jan taught several evening courses for the department. This teaching job, however, was solely a side enterprise. By this time Jan was actively pursuing opportunities in the banking industry.

Even before returning to Peoria, Jan had decided to enroll in a management training program in banking. Her supervisor at First Tennessee Bank had graduated from such a program and she was eager to follow in his footsteps.

At the time, the leading management training program in Peoria was offered by Commercial National Bank, a hub for Peoria banking in the 1970s. Many current leaders in Peoria banking were connected to Commercial National Bank at this time. When asked by the program director how many words per minute she could type, Jan reminded him that she aimed to be a manager, not an administrative assistant. Jan ultimately became the first female trainee admitted to the management program. She credits her good grades at Bradley University— and a little persistence— for opening this door in her career.

Jan admits she was naive and blindly positive in those days. “If there was an obstacle,” she says, “I just moved through it.” Being the first ever woman enrolled in the management training program certainly invited obstacles. Undaunted, Jan completed the program.

She continued to build her reputation as a smart, hard worker as she took on greater roles with Commercial National Bank and its several reincarnations. Jan especially enjoyed opportunities to develop new programs. For example, in the late 1970s she developed a program to establish checking accounts for Bradley University students.

In the 1980s Jan was back in school, this time taking graduate courses at the Graduate School of Banking-Wisconsin. This was a three-year program with intensive on-site classes for two weeks each year and ongoing required projects throughout the remaining nine months. With a proud grin, Jan remarks that she ranked second out of approximately 300 students in her cohort. She impressed her instructors so much that she was asked to come back to teach bank simulation courses, which she did during subsequent summers.

Jan has remained on the leading edge of the Peoria banking industry throughout her career. For the past six years she has been Peoria Market President for F&M Bank, which is part of a 4-bank holding company with branches in Illinois and Iowa. Jan is tasked with helping F&M Bank grow in the Peoria market. This is no easy task as a sluggish economy has challenged potential borrowers and federal regulations have especially impacted smaller banks.

Nonetheless, Jan remains optimistic about the Peoria market, citing a strong foundation with Caterpillar Inc. and the hospital community, as well as Bradley University. The decision by Caterpillar to keep its headquarters in Peoria is a significant win for the area, Jan notes.

Jan’s commitment to the Peoria area is not only professional; it is also personal. She has been a volunteer for the Heart of Illinois United Way for nearly 40 years. The list of roles that she has taken in the United Way is impressive. She has been an active fund-raiser and recruiter for the United Way since the 1970s and has served on several allocation panels within the organization. She is past-chair of the marketing committee and past-member of the board of directors.

Currently, she serves as vice-chair of the United Way’s self-reliance issue area, an area committed to providing others with the tools to find jobs, to remain independent and to transition into permanent housing. Jan is proud of the difference that these self-reliance programs have made in the Peoria community. She notes that Peoria is extraordinary in its contribution to the United Way.

When it comes to philanthropic giving, “Peoria is amazing,” she says, “at the top of the charts.” In recognition of her invaluable contributions to the United Way, Jan was awarded the 2012 Hoot Gibson Award for distinguished service. The award is presented in memory of Horace J. “Hoot” Gibson, who was the manager of the Peoria IBM office for many years and was well known in the community for his work with the United Way.