I was delighted to open the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette early Sunday morning and see George Makris Jr. of Pine Bluff gracing the front of the newspaper’s High Profile section.
My weekly newspaper column just four days earlier had been devoted to Pine Bluff. I had noted how Makris fell in line with his predecessors as CEO of Simmons First National Corp. – Arkansas business legends Louis Ramsay and Tommy May.
Many people in the financial sector had speculated in recent years that Simmons would move its senior management team to Little Rock once May retired. The selection of Makris by the Simmons board — he’s a Pine Bluff native with deep roots in the community — as May’s successor sent a signal that Simmons will remain headquartered in Jefferson County.
Yes, the Simmons name will be on the state’s tallest building — the 40-story Metropolitan Tower in downtown Little Rock — by late March. Simmons, which has operations in Missouri and Kansas in addition to its Arkansas operations, bought Metropolitan National Bank out of bankruptcy in November. The two banking systems are to be integrated by March 21. But despite the fact that the big “S” will shine down on the capital city, Simmons will still be a Pine Bluff-based business.
Imagine what downtown Pine Bluff — already desolate along several blocks of Main Street — would be without the Simmons headquarters there?
The continued presence of the Simmons executive suite also is important psychologically in a city that has seen its population decline from 57,140 in the 1990 census to 55,085 in the 2000 census to 49,083 in the 2010 census.
Simmons National Bank opened its doors at the corner of Main and Barraque streets on March 23, 1903, with four employees. Total deposits were $3,338.22.
The trust department opened in June 1922. Simmons’ historians will tell you with pride that it was among the first Arkansas banks to reopen without restrictions following the federally imposed bank holiday in 1933 as Franklin Roosevelt set out to fight the Great Depression. The word “First” was added to the bank’s name in 1960. The move into Missouri and Kansas occurred in 2010.
Pine Bluff long was known for its strong business leadership. Ramsay was Mr. Pine Bluff, if not Mr. Arkansas.
When I first joined the board of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame almost two decades ago as the youngest board member, there were giants such as Ramsay who were part of the organization. I would sit quietly at board meetings and listen to those wise men.
Louis Ramsay was the only person to serve as president of both the Arkansas Bar Association and the Arkansas Bankers Association. At the time of his death in 2004 at age 85, he had been associated with Simmons for 52 years — as a director and later as president, chief executive officer and chairman. His former law partner, Bill Bridgforth, said of Ramsay: “He had a way of making the right result happen. In everything that he did, he exemplified the way people should conduct their personal and professional lives with integrity.”
May, who had known Ramsay for almost three decades, said at the time of Ramsay’s death: “He loved his church, his family, Arkansas, Pine Bluff and his beloved Razorbacks. He certainly will be remembered for his leadership in the legal profession, banking industry and higher education. Likewise, to many, he will be remembered for his compassion for others. He never met a stranger, and he always would spend time listening to anyone about their challenges or accomplishments. Mr. Ramsay always found a way to help others come up with the right decision when their challenges were greatest, and he found a way to share the enthusiasm when others found success.”
Those quotes reminded me of the quotes in that High Profile story about Makris. Everyone talked about Makris’ love for Pine Bluff and his ability to make things happen.
I have to believe that if Louis Ramsay were around today, he would be pleased by the choice of George Makris Jr. at Simmons.
May said it was Ramsay who coined the Simmons motto: “We don’t do extraordinary things; we simply do ordinary things extraordinarily well.”
“Mr. Ramsay was an ordinary man who spent a lifetime doing ordinary things extraordinarily well, and we are the beneficiaries of his work,” May said. “If I could take one person and say this is who I would like my children to be like, it would be Mr. Ramsay.”
Ramsay was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2003.
Like Makris, Ramsay was a son of south Arkansas whose early career choice wasn’t banking. Ramsay grew up at Fordyce and often would go to the Dallas County Courthouse to watch criminal trials. Following his high school graduation in 1937, he headed east on an athletic scholarship to the University of Alabama. But he missed Arkansas and came back to the state to play football at the University of Arkansas. Ramsay served during World War II and he wound up as a major in the Army Air Corps. He returned to Fayetteville after the war and received a law degree in 1947.
A friend from Pine Bluff, Harvey McGeorge, suggested that Ramsay consider joining the Pine Bluff law firm that had been founded by William Franklin Coleman and Nicholas J. Gantt Jr. in 1911. Ramsay did indeed join the firm and stayed there. He was a board member at Simmons in 1970 when other board members asked him to take over the bank.
“I told them that I wasn’t sure I was the right person,” Ramsay told Arkansas Business in 2003. “I always wanted to be a lawyer.”
A deal was made that allowed him to remain with the law firm while also running the bank “so I would have a job to come back to if the bank job didn’t work out.”
Things worked out in banking. Ramsay was the Simmons CEO by 1974 and the company’s chairman by 1978.
In that interview with Arkansas Business, Ramsay talked about his passion for advancing Arkansas: “I love this state. I believe it’s poised to overcome some of its past. I’m always disappointed when I see things that set us back. I remember back to Bob Burns and Lum and Abner. But it’s now poised — if we take advantage of the opportunities — to get a better reputation. I look at the growth in northwest Arkansas. I see the expansion at Wal-Mart and the trucking industry in the state, at businesses like Stephens and Dillard’s, and I see the state doing much better.”
Ramsay talked about the importance of unity in a state of fewer than 3 million people: “We need to unify in an all-out effort and support efforts to gain new business anywhere in the state. We need to stop the competition among ourselves. If Pine Bluff can help Marion get a Toyota assembly plant, do it. If we can help west Arkansas get Interstate 49, we should do it. Unity is important for the state. We can overcome a lot, but we need to work together.”
Ramsay was a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees from 1971-81 and also served as the board chairman of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and the University of Arkansas Foundation. When then-Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Ramsay to chair the state’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1986, he said that Ramsay “represented everything good about the state of Arkansas.”
Tommy May is also a son of south Arkansas. He was born at Prescott in December 1946 and raised at El Dorado.
May went to college at the University of Arkansas. His hard-nosed father, a lawyer named Buck May, pulled him out of school after two years because he was unhappy with his son’s grades. Tommy May worked on a pipeline project in the pine woods of south Arkansas before joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967. He served in Vietnam and then returned to Fayetteville after his discharge from military duty. A much more mature Tommy May had better grades this time around. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1971 and his master’s of business administration degree in 1972. The CEO of First National Bank of Commerce in New Orleans came to the Fayetteville campus for interviews and offered May a job in New Orleans.
May returned to El Dorado from the Crescent City in 1976 to work for Exchange Bank. He became the bank’s president and CEO in 1981. In 1987, Ramsay convinced May to make the move to Simmons. Like Ramsay before him, May spent a decade as a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. In 2007, he received the University of Arkansas Chancellor’s Medal and the Walton College of Business’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
May was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in February 2010.
During Simmons’ annual shareholders’ meeting last April, Makris announced that May would be the inaugural chairman of the Simmons First Foundation. The foundation is funded with an initial endowment of $1 million. Because of his weakened voice due to ALS, May addressed the crowd in a video and noted that Makris is “the right person at the right time to lead what I think is an exceptional management team.”
Makris, 57, has spent his career building his family’s Anheuser-Busch distributorship, M.K. Distributors Inc. He served 12 years as a director at Pine Bluff’s National Bank of Commerce and has been a Simmons director since 1997.
In a feature on Makris in Arkansas Business last May, Gwen Moritz wrote: “If there’s anything all that experience has taught George Makris, it’s that he is not a banker. … But he is a marketer — M.K. received regional and national awards from Anheuser-Busch in March — and marketing may be what Simmons First National Corp. needs now more than ever as it looks to untapped — if you’ll pardon the beer pun — markets in Missouri and Kansas for the growth that simply isn’t available back home.”
Makris’ father started the beer distributorship in 1964. The younger Makris attended the public schools in Pine Bluff, where he excelled in football and baseball. He began college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia — which has long had a connection to a number of notable Arkansas families — before transferring to what’s now Rhodes College (then Southwestern) at Memphis. He went on to earn an MBA at the University of Arkansas and was considering entering law school when his father told him: “You’ve been in school long enough.”
George Jr. returned home to Pine Bluff and joined the family business. He married Debbie Kirkpatrick, the daughter of Quality Foods founder Don Kirkpatrick, in 1980 and the couple had three sons.
Makris told Talk Business Arkansas last year: “What’s important to me is the relationship that Simmons has to Pine Bluff. It means so much to this community and, quite honestly, this community means quite a bit to Simmons.”
Roby Brock wrote in the story: “Makris acknowledges that the southeast Arkansas town has been hit hard by a decline in population and a loss of business leadership. In the past two decades, financial sector changes wiped out a swath of Pine Bluff banking executives. Some moved to central Arkansas endeavors, some passed away, others phased out as banks merged, and the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s led to the exiting of others.”
“That’s a lot of lost leadership,” Makris said.
There’s a bit of gallows humor among the business leadership in Pine Bluff when it’s said: “What’s the nicest neighborhood in Pine Bluff? Lake Hamilton.”
Indeed, in the formerly ritzy neighborhoods near the Pine Bluff Country Club, “for sale” signs are common, and homes are a bargain.
Makris, though, sees a number of positive developments – new political leadership, a dynamic new chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a half-cent economic development sales tax that’s generating about $3.5 million annually.
“New is good when you need a change,” Makris said. “When you get all of that leadership together, we ought to be able to design a strategy for Jefferson County that puts us on a path to growth. I’m from Pine Bluff, and I’ve chosen to stay in Pine Bluff.”
Simmons’ growth — with the purchase of Metropolitan and rumors of the impending purchase of another Arkansas bank — and its decision to place a Pine Bluff native at the top of the company can only help as the city tries to reverse the population decline of recent decades.