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The greatest challenge of all.

The Greatest Challenge Of All

When He Controls Stephens' $1.7-Billion Empire, Warren Stephens Will Wield The Greatest Economic Clout In Central Arkansas

As I was working furiously last week preparing the new leaders' list for Arkansas Business Nov. 26 issue, I had little time to reflect about each person beyond deciding whether they should make the final cut.

Struggling against fatigue and futility while writing capsule biographies early Wednesday morning (Is this list really worth the trouble?), I asked myself what, if anything, was I learning from bringing this project to life?

To my surprise, immediately one name -- with a new awareness attached to it -- leapt out: Warren Stephens.

Warren Stephens is poised to control the richest fortune in central Arkansas, I suddenly realized. It came as a mild shock.

Because his father, Jack, 66, and uncle, Witt, 82, are still at the firm, I hadn't really thought much about Warren's future. But, with his father's weak health and Witt's serious health problems, within the next decade Warren could effectively take control of the Stephens' financial empire, valued by Forbes this year at $1.7 billion.

No one in central Arkansas has ever inherited control over anything resembling that amount of wealth and power.

Forget Win Paul Rockefeller. Forget the Dillards family. Only the Walton clan with their fabulous retail money machine can equal it.

But the Waltons don't have Stephens Inc.'s well-known political pull. If he chooses, Warren can become a political kingmaker in the state, having financial resources to support right-thinking politicians his uncle Witt could have only imagined.

The youngest person on our top 30 list, Warren Stephens is just 33 years old.

Southern Sophistication and Class

Visiting the Stephens Inc. building on Capital Avenue, I have always been impressed with the sophistication and air of old money written in every well-upholstered sofa, oriental-rugged hallway and efficient secretary's smile. The place reeks of success.

In our first meetings there, Warren was as cordial as his southern office surroundings, but guarded. You are a reporter, his manner suggested, You can only be trusted so far. Or perhaps his reticence ran deeper than that, perhaps it said: You are an outsider.

The Stephens' business world is tightly knit, bonded by loyalty and brotherhood. Some would even call it paranoid and maybe with good reason.

It's a corporate universe where the "five-year rule," as one Stephens' insider told me, makes good sense. "You can't really trust anyone until you've worked with them for five years."

Perhaps that is the filtering glass Warren uses to view an outside world either frightened of the Stephens' power, battling them for part of it, or trying to buddy up close and get a piece of the action.

Sycophantic Flatterers

"Hell, yes," Warren told Fortune magazine this fall in a profile on children of billionaires when asked if people try to befriend him for his money. Surely that process will get even tougher the more powerful he gets.

What will Warren Stephens do when he has control of all that money? How will he forge an identity for himself apart from his father and uncle?

Will he become Warren Stephens the great deal maker? Warren Stephens the great philanthropist? Warren Stephens the one who made all the wrong moves and lost the family fortune? Kept in intact? Made it even richer? Didn't give a damn?

His decisions will affect hundreds of workers at Stephens, the Little Rock business community and the state's political structure. It's a terrific opportunity and a terrific burden for someone so young.
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Title Annotation:Inside Business
Author:Wythe, Walker, Jr.
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 3, 1990
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