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Celebrating a Century: Columbia Business Stands the Test of Time

By Inside Columbia
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How many businesses make it to 100 years old? According to a 2021 online article published by Family Capital, approximately 1,000 businesses, or less than one-half of 1% of all businesses in the United States have survived more than 100 years.

In Columbia, Booches comes to mind. And up on Broadway, a 150th birthday bash for Boone County National Bank (now Central Bank of Boone County) still reverberates through the community as the Roots N Blues festival (now renamed as the Treeline Music Fest), even though it took a temporary hiatus this year.

100 YEARS AGO

At the outset of the Roaring ‘20s, Columbia was growing. Business was booming. The University of Missouri was building Memorial Stadium and Memorial Union.

Yet it wasn’t until 1923 that local Columbia telephone directories showed an accounting firm. Columbia Accounting Company was operated by A. G. Thompson, who also served as the city comptroller. His constituents called him Grady.

By 1923, a young Mizzou student named Paul Williams had begun working for Grady Thompson in the city comptroller’s office. At the same time, Williams began working at Thompson’s Columbia Accounting Company.

As Paul learned the accounting profession, he would pass Booches Billiard Hall — whose owner got his Booche nickname from Eugene Field — on his way to shop at Neate’s Dry Goods and Nowell’s Grocery downtown. Back on campus, a popular place for students to engage in a practice called jellying — soda dates between classes — was the Davis Tea Room, later to become The Shack.

Paul quickly became a junior accountant. In those days, visitors to the Columbia Accounting Company looked out over the growing city from the top floor of Columbia’s venerable Guitar Building, which had opened its five stories in 1911. Fresh out of college in 1924, Paul looked out those same Guitar Building windows and saw the promise — and the business potential — of a community whose population had reached 13,000, plus 7,000 students.

He knew the city was poised to become a crossroads in Missouri. A 1920 campaign to “Lift Missouri Out of the Mud” led
to voter passage of the Centennial Road Law, a constitutional amendment providing for $60 million in bonds to be secured by a gasoline tax and automobile license fees.

Already in Columbia, Missouri Route 7 twisted through town from the north, winding 30 miles south to the 1896 Missouri River Bridge — a bridge that swiveled to allow steamboats to pass. From the bridge, visitors could see Missouri’s brand-new state capitol, completed at a cost of $3.5 million.

As part of the fledgling national highways plan set forth by Gen. John Pershing, U.S. Highway 40 opened in 1925, connecting Kansas City to St. Louis through Columbia, intersecting with Route 7, soon to be renamed U.S. Highway 63. Columbia’s crossroads were complete, and the city was positioned to grow even faster.

Ever the entrepreneur, and realizing the impact of a burgeoning automobile market, Paul courted mid-Missouri automobile dealerships to do their accounting. Such savvy business sense and a reputation for honesty propelled Paul’s accounting firm forward.

At the end of World War II, Columbia grew rapidly. So did the accounting firm, and Paul hired a platoon of World War II veterans who had come to Mizzou on the GI bill. These members of “the greatest generation” — George Keepers, Ed Oliver, Tom Payne and Lou Rackers — would help build the business.

In 2023, at 100 years old, Williams- Keepers employs approximately 60 certified public accountants with 125 total staff serving eight primary industries. The firm recruits the best CPA graduates from across the region and prepares them for leadership roles to help their clients, their communities, their coworkers and their families.

John Drake Robinson is a former director of the Missouri Division of Tourism. Read more of John’s rants at johndrakerobinson.com/blog.

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