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A common thread: a look at the state's top executives proves many paths converge.

IT'S DIFFICULT TO COMPREhend how small Arkansas is until you discover how much our business leaders have in common.

Interesting patterns emerged as Arkansas Business prepared to profile 15 of the state's top company presidents, chief executive officers and other executives.

Although this year's leaders are scattered across the state throughout many different industries, their paths have crossed repeatedly.

What were the odds, for example, that two of our CEOs would be active board members in the Boy Scouts of America's Quapaw Area Council? Yet, Little Rock executives Betty Baird and Lunsford Bridges both count scouting among their strongest community interests.

Fred Smith of Magnolia and Julia Peck Mobley of Texarkana both were born in Hope, which has become one of the most fashionable hometowns in the country. In fact, Fred and his siblings even took care of Mobley's yard for her parents. Mobley says the Smith brothers were the hardest-working people she's ever met.

As it turns out, seven of our featured executives either run banks, own banks or have served on a bank's board of directors. They include Bridges (president), Baird (board member), Mobley (owner, president, CEO), Bill Fisher (former banker), Don Walker (president and CEO), Larry Grisham (owner) and George Makris Jr. (board chairman).

There is also a strong Stephens Group Inc.-Donrey Inc. connection in the business dealings of these professionals. Baird sold her outdoor advertising business to Donrey in the 1960s, whereas Phil Phillips Jr. purchased his Springdale printing operation from Donrey in 1970.

Donrey Media Group, of course, recently was purchased by Stephens Group. So it's all the more interesting that Stephens is co-owner of Haygood Truck and Trailer Parts, which is run by Dale Dawson of Little Rock, who, incidentally, is married to an institutional stockbroker for Stephens.

Got that?

Furthermore, Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. in Fort Smith, the home of President Emon A. Mahony Jr., also is owned by a Stephens Family Trust.

Speaking of juniors, three of our movers and shakers carry that title on the ends of their signatures.

Two representatives on the list from Pine Bluff -- Adam Robinson Jr. and George Makris Jr. -- have been instrumental in the development of the Southeast Arkansas Arts & Science Center.

No less than four of our executives have compelling "rags to riches" stories to tell. Phillips, a former high school football coach, crafted a successful printing business from only a handful of employees and a limited choice of equipment. Smith rose from the bottom to the top of the grocery business, starting out by sacking groceries at a Piggly Wiggly store.

Howard Spradlin of Fort Smith began in a sanding room at Riverside Furniture Corp., the company he now leads as president and CEO. And, through 23 years of hard work, Dwain Newman of Springdale turned a six-man window supply and installation business into the burgeoning National Home Centers Inc.

Forging on through our panorama of comparisons, would you believe that three of the executives are deacons or elders of their churches? Smith, Robinson and Bill Fisher of Paragould all are lay leaders in their respective places of worship.

And there's one more thing these men and women have in common. They are all good examples for the young business leaders of tomorrow to emulate.

JULIA PECK MOBLEY

Chairman and CEO Commercial National Bank, Texarkana

AS THE DAUGHter of a wealthy bank owner, Julia Peck Mobley might have been expected to land a plum job when she emerged from college in the 1960s.

But by the time Mobley took the reins of Commercial National Bank of Texarkana five years ago, she had earned it by demonstrating integrity, social responsibility and a keen awareness of banking issues.

Mobley took her first job in 1965 as a legal secretary for the Rose Law Firm although she really didn't know how to type. The job soon petered out, but she made connections there that earned her a position as a voting fraud investigator for the state's Election Research Commission. She later became a research analyst for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and a fraud investigator for the Arkansas Securities Division.

In 1972, Mobley joined the bank's board of directors, serving for eight years before becoming marketing director, and then CEO.

Mobley's lifelong love of nature is manifested in her board membership with the Arkansas Nature Conservancy and her recent appointment to the state Pollution Control & Ecology Commission. She has also helped the disabled as president of Opportunities Inc.

DON WALKER

President and CEO Bank of Bentonville Bentonville

MANY PEOPLE wonder how a financial institution in Bentonville -- a city of only 11,000 residents -- could become the eighth largest bank in the state.

Naturally, they often assume the Bank of Bentonville has captured the business of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., headquartered right across town. But that's not the case.

President Don Walker says the reason is that the bank has cornered the market on Wal-Mart employees, along with a large share of the ever-expanding population of the Bella Vista retirement community. As a result, the bank has an impressive $365 million in assets.

Real estate mortgage lending is the largest sector of the bank's loan portfolio, and the bank also has a full-service investment arm that is popular with retirees.

"When people talk about quality service, some people take it lightly," Walker says. "If we make a mistake with a customer, I write them a personal letter. We send them $5. We mean it."

Walker, 42, also means business when it comes to community service. That's why he served as last year's chairman for the Challenge of Champions, a celebrity tennis fund-raiser to benefit the Crisis Intervention Center, a hotline for troubled teens.

EMON A. MAHONY JR.

President Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. Fort Smith

HERE'S A TRIVia question: What Arkansas natural gas company has residential rates that consistently rank among the five lowest in the country?

Well, it's not Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. It's Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp., based in Fort Smith.

Since 1977, company president Emon A. Mahony Jr. has helped keep costs down in two ways: by reducing leakage by 5 to 6 percent of total volume and by steadily expanding the utility's customer base by 1,000 to 2,000 customers per year.

Mahony recently oversaw the acquisition of Mansfield Gas Co., a small firm that services the area near the Scott-Sebastian county line.

The company distributes gas within a 50-mile radius of Fort Smith, and its largest area of growth is the area north of Van Buren and the cities of Alma and Greenwood, where many residents have been heating their homes with liquid propane and electricity.

One of the most interesting changes made by Mahony is the company's policy of paying for employees to pursue higher education. If a course has some bearing on the company and the employee makes an "A" or "B," the company pays the cost of tuition and books. For a grade of "C," the company will pay half the costs.

LARRY GRISHAM

Entrepreneur Arkansas Aircraft Co., Grisham's, Leachville State Bank Jonesboro

IT'S DIFFICULT to get a hold on Jonesboro businessman Larry Grisham because he's actually four businessmen.

There's the Larry Grisham most people know: purveyor of fine clothing and gifts through two Grisham's stores in Jonesboro and Paragould that gross $1.8 million in annual revenues.

Then, there's Grisham the banker -- chief executive officer and part-owner of Leachville State Bank in Mississippi County, with $28 million in assets and, he confides, one of the best reputations in the state with bank examiners.

There's more. Let's not forget the publisher of the Arkansas Duck Stamp -- that's Grisham, too. Since 1982, he has selected the wildlife artist for the stamp and sold an average of 2,500 autographed, enlarged prints at $142 a pop, paying royalties to support the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

"It's the most fun part of my business," he says.

But it's not the largest. That distinction is reserved for Arkansas Aircraft Co., which operates a fixed-base aircraft service at Jonesboro Municipal Airport and sells more used aircraft, Grisham claims, than any company in the state. The company also is an authorized dealer in new Robinson helicopters. He is a partner in the venture.

PHIL PHILLIPS JR.

President Phillips Lithography Springdale

IT WAS 1985, AND Phil Phillips Jr. was in a bind.

In a move to capture printing contracts for a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. catalog and various newspaper inserts, the president of Phillips Lithography in Springdale had purchased a new press. But sky-high paper costs forced advertisers to use smaller newspaper inserts, and that meant big problems for Phillips, whose new press could not cut inserts small enough.

"I didn't know what I was doing," Phillips says. As it turned out, however, the press was perfect for "book-sized" printing, and Phillips aggressively pursued contracts with publishers of telephone directories. Phillips Lithography now earns 50 percent of its $8 million in annual revenues by printing telephone directories for major publishing companies in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

New color printing equipment has also enabled Phillips to print product sheets and brochures for Tyson Foods Inc. and Allen Canning Co., as well as game programs for the University of Arkansas. A "flexo" printer landed food-labeling contracts with Hiland Dairy of Missouri and Delta Catfish of Mississippi.

Since this former high school football coach bought the company in 1973 from Donrey Inc., Phillips Lithography has grown from 5 to 90 employees.

BETTY BAIRD

President Baird Inc. Little Rock

IN 1969, THE LAST THING Betty Baird expected as a happily married homemaker was to add business management to an already long list of duties.

Her days were already full with domestic chores and the care of three teen-agers, but her longtime routine ended that year with the abrupt death of John Baird, her husband of 18 years. Suddenly, she was left with sole ownership of both her husband's businesses: Little Rock Advertising and Arkansas Sign and Neon Co.

Though she had not worked for 19 years, Baird conquered her trepidations and set about managing both companies.

In 1976 she sold all of her outdoor signs to Donrey Inc. but kept the property, using it as the cornerstone of a real estate development company called Baird Inc.

The company now holds -- in addition to the outdoor sign properties -- the property of the Steak and Ale on Cantrell Road, Thompson Book and Supply on North University Avenue and several branch banks. She is also part owner of the Kmart Shopping Center on Rodney Parham Road.

Baird is president of the company and also serves on the board of First Commercial Bank. She is perhaps most famous, however, for becoming in 1979 the first woman in the United States to be president of a Boy Scouts of America council. She still serves on the board and the foundation of the local Quapaw Area Council.

"Once the Boy Scouts get you, they never let you go," she says.

FRED SMITH

President Smitty's Food Stores Magnolia

THE STORY OF FRED SMITH and his south Arkansas grocery empire is a classic American tale.

Smith, the president and owner of Smitty's Food Stores, was born in Hope in 1936, the sixth of a dozen children.

While he attended Texarkana Junior College in 1956, Smith took his first grocery job at Piggly Wiggly, earning 50 cents per hour plus tips to work on "double-stamp" Wednesdays and Saturdays.

After a series of grocery chain acquisitions, he later became the youngest manager in the Kroger Co. In 1971, Smith and his brother bought stores in Magnolia and Camden and formed Smitty's Food Stores. Since then, stores have been added in Stephens, El Dorado, Prescott, Fordyce, Hope, Lewisville and Stamps, and a second store has been added in Magnolia.

"We like service, and we like smiles," says Smith, summing up his corporate philosophy. It seems to work. The "home-owned and home-operated" grocery chain's revenues have been estimated as high as $50 million a year.

The company is supportive of the communities it serves, contributing to Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, the Hope Watermelon Festival and Prescott's Chicken and Egg Festival.

Smith, a husband and the father of four children, teaches a Sunday school class and is a director for Central Baptist College in Conway.

"We try to live by the golden rule," he says. "We want to treat every one as we would be treated."

J. DALE DAWSON

Chairman and CEO Haygood Truck & Trailer Parts Little Rock

J. DALE DAWSON HAS REMANUfactured Haygood Truck & Trailer Parts in much the same way the company rebuilds parts for heavy-duty trucks.

Since 1991, when Dawson joined with Stephens Inc. to purchase Haygood, he has given the company a new core by moving its headquarters from Memphis to Little Rock and completely retooled Haygood's operations at its 24 stores in 11 Southern states.

Many of Dawson's reforms revolve around employee satisfaction. "We try to have a good time," says the affable Dawson.

Every employee at Haygood's 24 stores can send anonymous electronic mail suggestions to anyone else, including Dawson.

Each store manager has the flexibility to adjust prices and can consult with individual employees to decide whose job performance would benefit most from an incentive-oriented pay system.

Dawson, 41, also has created a system of performance measurements that allows virtually every employee of the company to monitor his or her effect on the company's growth.

Right now, Haygood is taking in about $95 million in annual sales, accounting for 1 percent of the nation's heavy-duty truck parts market. Haygood is shooting for a sales goal of $1 billion. With Dawson's plans for steady, radial expansion, they just might make it.

DR. JONATHAN BATES

CEO Arkansas Children's Hospital Little Rock

FOR ARKANSANS, IT'S A good thing that Dr. Jonathan Bates has always been open to change.

The Ann Arbor, Mich., native began as an aspiring chemist, but an interest in first aid eventually inspired Bates to trade in his test tubes for a pediatrician's stethoscope.

Bates recently became the only doctor in the state to run a hospital when he was hired as chief executive officer of Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock.

His transition from pediatrics to administration is inspiring. Bates was working in the emergency room at a large children's hospital when he became very interested in a throat infection called epiglottitis, which can kill a child in a matter of hours.

After treating several cases, he wrote up a protocol on how the infection should be handled and began giving lectures on the subject.

Early one morning, he received a call from the hospital and rushed to the emergency room. A pediatrician came crashing through the door with a child in his arms, knocking people away with one arm. The man insisted his patient be treated in a very specific way, and he handed Bates a copy of his instructions.

It was Bates' own protocol.

LUNSFORD BRIDGES

President Metropolitan National Bank Little Rock

WHILE TWO OF THE state's largest banks merge in Little Rock to form a gigantic institution, Lunsford Bridges reminds Arkansas of the virtues of smallness.

As president of Metropolitan National Bank -- the state's 24th largest bank in total assets -- Bridges hopes to woo customers who just want to keep it simple. "It goes back to our slogan: We're nearby and neighborly," Bridges says. "It's a more personal-type relationship."

Before he came to Metropolitan in 1985, Bridges worked at the National Bank of Commerce in Pine Bluff for 18 years, leaving as vice president and manager of the marketing division.

Lately, Bridges has used his marketing savvy to become the bank's personal spokesman in television commercials.

Away from the office, he serves on the boards of several medical institutions and is heavily involved with the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. He relaxes with a little woodworking, hoping to graduate soon from birdhouses to furniture.

"When I came here in 1985, the bank had three locations," Bridges says. "We now have 12 locations." Metropolitan has eschewed statewide expansion, preferring to focus on the Little Rock-North Little Rock area. Since Bridges came aboard, assets have grown from about $80 million a year to $210 million.

"There's nothing real glamorous or exciting that we do," Bridges says. "We just do ordinary things extraordinarily well."

ADAM ROBINSON JR.

Vice President and Operating Officer Ralph Robinson & Son Inc. Pine Bluff

ADAM ROBINSON JR. didn't plan to follow three generations of elders into the funeral home business, but fate is funny that way.

After leaving Davidson College in North Carolina, Robinson was set to attend medical school when his father had a heart attack. He returned for the summer to work at Ralph Robinson & Son Inc. funeral home in Pine Bluff and discovered his spiritual home.

"I loved working with my family," he says. "I decided to make it my life's work."

But Robinson, 43, has found time for other work, dedicating years to upgrading Pine Bluff's cultural facilities. He has helped raise more than $4.5 million for new facilities to house the Southeast Arkansas Arts & Science Center.

The center was located for many years under the city's library at the Civic Center, until a few floods and a fire forced it into a succession of three different temporary homes. Construction has begun on the new 22,000-SF facility.

Robinson's caring nature seems well-suited to the funeral home business.

"What sets funeral homes apart is the level of service people receive when they call you," he says. "My contribution to that has probably been to try to attract good people who share our philosophy about giving people quality service."

BILL FISHER

President and CEO Redbook Florist Services Paragould

IT'S A WELL-KEPT SECRET, BUT 10 percent of the country's flowers-by-wire business is handled by a growing Paragould company called Redbook Florist Services.

Behind the roses and carnations is chief executive officer Bill Fisher, a veteran of the banking and insurance industries.

Redbook, a clearinghouse for 14,000 florists, enables customers to send flowers practically anywhere in the country from their local floral shop.

Last year, Fisher guided Redbook through a 25 percent increase in annual revenues to $100 million. That figure ranks Redbook third among the nation's floral wire services, and the company is steadily gaining share in the $1 billion national market.

Redbook has subsidiaries that specialize in printing, gifts and accessories, education and financial services for the floral industry. Since becoming CEO, Fisher also has launched Redbook Technologies Inc., which provides computer software and hardware to the floral industry.

Fisher is deeply absorbed in community service, holding seats on 12 different boards and committees. Fisher's concern for education is reflected in his involvement with groups like the Arkansas Council on Economic Education and the Arkansas Business and Educational Alliance.

"I've always felt that a person should give back to the community what the community does for the individual," he says.

DWAIN NEWMAN

Chairman and President National Home Centers Inc. Springdale

NATIONAL HOME CENTERS INC. began modestly in 1970 as a side business for Dwain Newman, who was working full-time as regional manager for International Forest Products in Springdale.

The venture, originally called National Window Co., began with only six workers, but the small company had a date with destiny.

By 1972, sales had risen to $1 million, and the company had begun to offer a more general line of construction materials for builders. Ten years later, sales were at $14 million with a new store in Fort Smith and the crucial addition of retail home improvement products to hedge against slumping home construction.

By 1992, National Home Centers was operating seven stores in Arkansas and leading the state in both the retail and builder sides of the business. Revenues had jumped to $88 million, and the company went public in May 1993 with an offering of $19.8 million in common stock.

Today, Newman's company has plans to move into two Wal-Mart stores in undisclosed Arkansas cities.

"Our uniqueness is in the fact that we have very large retail stores and a very large builder business," says Newman, pointing out that an unprecedented 45 percent of the company's revenues come from the retail side.

Newman plans for the company to expand into contiguous states beginning in 1994.

HOWARD "BUD" SPRADLIN

President and CEO Riverside Furniture Corp. Fort Smith

HOWARD "BUD" SPRADLIN began his career in the home furnishings industry in 1964, taking a job as an hourly employee in one of Riverside Furniture Corp.'s Fort Smith sanding rooms.

Over time, Spradlin became a product sample builder, foreman and later the superintendent and plant manager for several of Riverside's manufacturing facilities. In 1981, he became senior vice president of manufacturing and took responsibility for all the company's wood and upholstered products divisions.

Ten years later, Spradlin was named president and chief executive officer of the company.

Riverside has produced furniture in Fort Smith since 1946 and now makes more than 700 different wood and upholstered items, selling many of its products to J.C. Penney Co.

The company is a leading maker of handcrafted occasional tables, collector's curio cabinets, home entertainment and home theater furniture. The company also makes bedroom furniture and upholstered groups, and it leads the nation in manufacturing residential desk and home office furnishings.

Riverside has eight integrated manufacturing plants enclosing more than 1 million SF of space. The company employs 1,500 workers and enjoys annual revenues of more than $75 million.

GEORGE MAKRIS JR.

President M.K. Distributors Inc. Pine Bluff

WHEN THEY SAY "BUDweiser" in Pine Bluff, they're talking about George Makris Jr.

Makris is president of M.K. Distributors Inc., which distributes Anheiser-Busch products in five South Arkansas counties, and chairman of the board at Worthen National Bank of Pine Bluff.

When Makris became the company's leader in 1987, M.K. owned another concern called Arkansas Institutional Foods. Makris sold Arkansas Institutional in 1990 to Quality Foods, paving the way for the purchase of Delta Distributing, a Busch distributor in McGehee.

The transaction gave a tremendous boost to the company's productivity, and changes at the company have led to annual sales growth of 8 to 10 percent.

"There was a lot less cross training," Makris says of the sale. "We had one supplier instead of 100. We completely did away with accounts receivable."

Makris and M.K. have always tried to contribute to the quality of life in Pine Bluff, primarily by bringing in major athletic events.

Most notably, Makris has worked with the renowned King Cotton Classic national high school basketball tournament since its inception in 1983. His company also sponsors the Budweiser Big Bass Classic, which attracts up to 1,800 fishermen and defrays some of the expenses of the basketball tournament.
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Title Annotation:Arkansas executives
Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 23, 1993
Words:3787
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