Bill Cravens: The Bridge Builder

by Roby Brock ( 40 views 

Editor’s Note: This is Part Three of a four-part series on the four inductees in next week’s Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. To access our latest magazine with all four inductee articles, click here.

It’s not often that getting three teeth knocked out determines your fate in life, but to a degree, it did for William L. “Bill” Cravens.

He has one of the most diversified backgrounds of any inductee into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. Cravens worked as an engineer, an accountant, a banker and an information technology executive — and was successful at all levels in all of those fields.

Growing up near the coal mines of Paris, Arkansas during the days of World War II, Cravens was deeply influenced by the blue collar families of western Arkansas and the military commitment of his family and friends.

As a 7-year old, he remembers his mother crying on Pearl Harbor Day knowing the sacrifices the day of infamy would create for her siblings and those close to her.

On Sunday afternoons during the war, families and soldiers from Fort Smith would drift down to Cravens’ neck of the woods for post-church picnics on Mount Magazine. Being around those soldiers encouraged Cravens’ interest in attending West Point and pursuing a career in the military.

His mother’s boss, a coal mine operator named Chism Reed, knew Sen. J. William Fulbright and he helped secure an appointment to West Point for the aspiring young man who was a heck of a student and a pretty decent athlete. But a football hit led to Cravens losing three teeth, and he failed the dental requirement necessary to go, which caused him to re-evaluate his career path.

“I decided I wanted to build bridges instead,” Cravens recalls.

He’s built a bunch of them in the business world and crossed quite a few, too.

His early studies at the University of Arkansas, led the diligent student to major in industrial engineering, which translated into his post-graduate hiring by General Electric (GE). That early career move led to stops in Louisville, Chicago, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and eventually to Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Married to his college sweetheart, Mary Lou, Arkansas was an attractive place to raise their three young daughters, and Cravens settled back into the state he’d call home for the rest of his life.

While working for GE, Cravens noticed that many career climbers were advancing quickly due to strong financial backgrounds. He had opted for engineering over accounting at the UofA, so he decided to take correspondence classes to strengthen his financial experience. Eventually, he passed the CPA exam without majoring in the subject.

“My group was the last to take the CPA exam without having an accounting degree,” said Cravens, who by this time in his career had moved to Little Rock to work for his father-in-law’s accounting firm, Russell Brown and Co.

He rose through the accounting ranks to partner, and now laughs at the revelation shared with him by his boss at the time, Harry Irwin, when he reached that milestone.

“You would have made partner about three years ago, but your father-in-law wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing,” Irwin told Cravens upon his promotion.

His accounting experience introduced him to a number of the state’s business elite: Charles Cella, owner of Oaklawn, and Joe Ford, CEO of Alltel Corp., were two of the more prominent businessmen that Cravens helped through project work and complicated financial transactions.

After more than a decade in public accounting, Cravens joined First National Bank in Little Rock in 1976 becoming its president and CEO.

“Eddie Kane at First National liked the work I had done and started hustling me,” Cravens said. He had helped put big deals together on the accounting side and the banking business was on the verge of undergoing a major transformation of mergers and acquisitions.

While at First National, Cravens was instrumental in the merger of First National Bank and Commercial National Bank, forming First Commercial Bank, one of the first big bank mergers in the region. It was a move brought about, in part, because several big business deals were leaving the state as few Arkansas banks had the scale and scope to undertake sizeable loans.

In 1984, Cravens joined Little Rock-based Worthen Banking Corp. becoming its chairman and CEO. Part of his duties were to bring several smaller banks recently bought under a “uniform system” of policies, financial statements, and operating procedures. It was a massive management challenge, but Cravens brought his engineering and accounting calmness to the table.

“The main thing is I always tried to hire people smarter than me,” he said. “But the second thing was I made them work things out. I’d give guidelines and parameters, but I wanted them to knock it out… that’s the way I operated.”

Less than a year into his Worthen tenure, “the calamity” came. A substantial trading loss threatened the bank’s viability and the situation led to federal regulators from Dallas to Washington, D.C. entering the scene and the consideration of complicated private equity bailout options from Stephens Inc. and an Indonesian banking family, the Riadys.

“I was uniquely qualified for that situation because at that time I think I was as good on bank numbers and relationships as anybody,” Cravens remembers.

The situation was about as stressful as any business situation could be. He was hopping on airplanes between Texas and the nation’s capital, juggling deals between investors and regulators, and having to navigate pretty quickly how any adjustment to one deal might alter another scenario.

“I knew what levels we had, what could be transferred, and how it could all be shuffled,” Cravens said. “Those were some of the most stressful days I ever had.”

At the end of it all, Cravens had helped saved the bank from a total collapse.

But it took a toll on his health. Within a year of the deal, Cravens suffered a heart attack and he decided he wasn’t in good enough shape to continue at the pace he’d been keeping.

After he recovered, he decided to open a consulting business with eight clients. He put his banking and accounting backgrounds to work for some larger and smaller firms. For nearly eight years, he helped right the financial ship of a few family-owned businesses and liquidate or find buyers for others. It was a much different pace.

Re-enter Joe Ford.

By 1995, Alltel Corp. was in a mode of exponential growth. The mobile phone industry was exploding and Little Rock-based Alltel had made a strategic investment in an information technology firm in west Little Rock called Systematics.

Systematics, later renamed Alltel Information Services (AIS), provided IT services primarily to banks, although the prospects for broadening that business were enormous.

Ford, who had worked with Cravens for decades as an accountant and banker, felt Cravens was the perfect fit to lead AIS as it entered a new frontier.

“He had all the skills I thought we needed,” Ford said in an interview for this article. “He had the leadership skills to be an asset to any organization, excellent people skills, and he knew what bankers wanted and the services we provided… He was a perfect fit.”

Cravens said Ford worked on him long and hard. He knew he’d be walking into a situation that would require downsizing the company workforce in an effort to contain costs and re-shape the firm’s strategy.

“It’s not easy to reduce organizations, it’s not easy to have to scale people,” said Cravens. “Jim Goss [an executive at GE] taught me this: if you’re not happy, then that person working for you is not happy. You need to address that. They will be happier someplace else and you will be happier when you get somebody that’s happy with you.”

“The other thing is if you’ve got a tough situation and you’ve got to lay off 100 people out of 400, remember this. You’re preserving, if you do it right, the other 300 people’s jobs. That’s the only way you can rationalize it,” he added.

AIS did move to higher ground. The company repositioned itself in the banking arena, and with Cravens’ leadership, it expanded into other industry categories with its services, such as the automotive loan and mortgage loan processing business.

Cravens knew that he wasn’t angling to be a long-termer at AIS and he said he worked diligently to persuade Joe Ford to bring on a successor as the company grew. A young management consultant from Stephens, Jeff Fox, caught the attention of Cravens.

Fox was providing management consulting to AIS and Cravens liked the input he was receiving. He lobbied Ford to let him hire Fox despite his youth.

“I had been around a lot of operations people in my career,” Fox said. “Bill’s business acumen was very obvious to me and his reputation was also great. He had a way of letting people own their decisions… I knew I was getting in a situation where I would learn a lot no matter what happened.”

In 1996, Fox joined AIS and Cravens began a five-year exit from the helm. He would have left earlier, but Ford was persuasive.

Cravens recalled one of many conversations about retirement,“I tried to leave earlier, but Joe just said, ‘He sure is awfully young. Why don’t you just hang around for awhile?’”

Eventually, Cravens did leave in 2001. He dabbled in banking a second time and, due to his long-running friendship with the Cella family, he continues to serve on the board of Oaklawn as the jockey club’s chief financial officer to this day.

Fox said Cravens is a very gifted leader, but he was never a glory-seeker.

“Bill believes in teamwork. He believes that people realize when they do good things, they are appreciated,” said Fox. “That sense of willingness to take a risk on people and making sure they’re being coached and helped, that’s an attribute of a real leader and a winner and someone who ought to be in the hall of fame.”