Frank Fletcher: A Businessman With A Beehive Of Activity

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 3,890 views 

Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a four-part series on the four inductees in next week’s Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.  Frank Fletcher’s story was written by Talk Business Arkansas contributing writer Rex Nelson.  To access our latest magazine with all four inductee articles, click here.

Johnny Cash might be gone, but Arkansas still has a Man in Black.

It’s Frank Fletcher Jr., the colorful businessman who has an interest in everything from restaurants to automobile dealerships to thoroughbred horses.

“Pardon me for keeping this phone on,” Fletcher says as he places his cell phone on the desk of Tom Roy, his chief financial officer. “There’s a horse auction going on, and I’m trying to buy a couple of mares. I might be getting a call.”

As usual, the homespun businessman is a beehive of activity. And, also as usual, he’s dressed from head to toe in black. Is it a tribute to Cash, a Kingsland native?

“Nah,” Fletcher answers. “I started wearing black once I began gaining weight. Somebody said it makes you look slim.”

On Feb. 15, Fletcher will be inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. It has been two years since he sold Cheyenne/Silverwood Industries, which had become the largest lamp company in the country. But he stays busy with 13 automobile dealerships – Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep dealerships in four cities, Kia dealerships in two cities, Honda dealerships in two cities and a Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Ford, Nissan and Toyota dealership. He just added a dealership in Panama City, Fla., ranking him among the top 100 dealers in the country.

That’s not to mention his ownership of the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock, several restaurants, a realty company, a fur store and about a dozen thoroughbreds assigned to three trainers. His simple explanation is that his business mentor – Sam Walton – taught him the importance of diversification.

“I don’t hunt, golf or fish,” Fletcher says.

He works and seems to have fun along the way. It’s a long way from Tamo, the tiny farming community in the southeastern corner of Jefferson County where Fletcher was raised. Born in Little Rock in June 1942, Fletcher was adopted as a baby by Frank and Aline Fletcher. He had no brothers or sisters. Fletcher learned his strong work ethic at an early age, toiling after school and on weekends in a cotton gin. For a time, John Daniel Rust, who had invented the first practical spindle cotton picker in the late 1930s, lived with the Fletcher family. Rust had moved to Jefferson County in 1949 to work for the Ben Pearson Co. of Pine Bluff. Ben Pearson was best known for archery equipment but also began to produce mechanical cotton pickers, using Rust patents.

At age 14, thinking he might want to fly crop dusters, Fletcher took private flying lessons in Pine Bluff.

“One of the pilots my dad used let me fly a Cessna 172,” he says. “I’ll never forget it. Dad fired that guy for letting me fly without his permission.”

Already, though, Fletcher’s propensity to take risks was evident. It’s a trait that has served him well in business, according to Tom Roy.

Roy, who performed corporate audits for Fletcher when he was at an outside auditing firm, went to work for Fletcher in 1983.

“His CFO was leaving, and he needed somebody who already knew the company,” Roy says. “The thing I’ve learned about Frank through the years is that he isn’t afraid to make a decision. A lot of people in business are scared of making tough decisions. The successful entrepreneurs are the people willing to take risks. In the early years, he was signing notes personally to expand the company. When you ask him something, it doesn’t have to go to a committee for a study. He will give you an answer.”

Fletcher had grown to a height of 6-4 by the time he was 14 while becoming a junior high basketball star at Grady.

“The basketball coach at Pine Bluff High School came down and told my dad that he wanted me to play there,” Fletcher says. “I got a 1957 Ford convertible out of the deal from my dad so I could drive into Pine Bluff. We picked it up at the factory in Memphis.”

A member of the basketball team at Pine Bluff was Robert Johnston, who would go on to star in football at Rice University and later become an Arkansas legislator and chairman of the state Public Service Commission.

“Robert Johnston knocked out three of my teeth during the first practice in the 10th grade,” Fletcher says. “I knew I wasn’t playing in Grady anymore.”

Although he no longer starred in basketball, Fletcher did impress the girls with his Ford convertible. The captain of the cheerleading squad, Judy Hamm, asked to borrow the car so the cheerleaders could ride in it during a downtown Pine Bluff parade. In 1963, Fletcher and Hamm were married. They have two children, Chris and Jerilynn.

“My dad, who didn’t have a college education, was willing to send me to the University of Arkansas but said that if I didn’t make all As and Bs, I would be back on the farm,” Fletcher says. “I didn’t want to be back on the farm, so I studied hard and kept my grades up.

That’s not to suggest he didn’t have a good time. Fletcher joined the Kappa Sigma fraternity, which traditionally had a number of Razorback football stars among its members – people like Billy Moore and Jerry Jones.

“My mother had gone to the Pfeifer Brothers Department Store in Little Rock and bought me a suit, a bolo tie and two-tone shoes,” Fletcher says. “They made fun of them in the frat house and burned them.”

Fletcher says his parents gave him an allowance, but he determined he needed more money. He began developing his entrepreneurial skills. First, he convinced a Fayetteville dry cleaning firm to give him a 15 percent commission on business he could steer its way. Then, he forced Kappa Sig pledges to use that dry cleaner.

“I asked the folks at the cleaners what was the most expensive thing they did,” Fletcher says. “They said it was dyeing clothes. So I took the pledges’ clothes and had the colors changed. I later made additional money by operating a Coke machine in the fraternity house and by selling pins on behalf of Underwood’s Jewelers.”

Judy was attending college several hours away at Henderson State in Arkadelphia. They got married after graduation, and Fletcher joined the Army Reserves. He was at Fort Polk in Louisiana when he learned his mother had died of a heart attack at age 47. Determined to put his degree in business administration to work, he moved to Little Rock and began the interview process.

“I remember that Frank Lyon Sr. offered me a job that would have had me filling in for people when they took their two-week vacations,” Fletcher says. “I didn’t want to do that, so I took a job in the trust department of Worthen Bank that paid $385 a month. To make ends meet, I worked nights at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Little Rock, where Billy Moore was the manager. He paid me the minimum wage. I was at the bank from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and at Shakey’s from 5:30 p.m. until midnight. I earned enough money to buy a used Volkswagen for $1,200 and rent a duplex in Levy for $79 a month. Judy was teaching school in North Little Rock.”

Eventually, DuPont Paint flew Fletcher to Atlanta for an interview and offered him a job paying $550 a month. In 1965, Fletcher was making a sales call on Wal-Mart Store No. 2 in Harrison when he met Sam Walton.

“I tried to sell him 300 gallons of paint, and he only wanted 50 gallons,” Fletcher says. “I ended up going to a meeting of the Harrison Lions Club with him, and he kept attempting to get me to come down on the price. I called Atlanta, and they agreed to give him 120 days to pay. Once that was done, he bought the 300 gallons for $1,500.”

It was the beginning of a business relationship with Mr. Sam.

“A couple of years later, he called me from Bentonville and encouraged me to become a manufacturer’s rep calling on Wal-Mart stores,” Fletcher says. “I took the train from Memphis to Chicago to go to Navy Pier and land accounts. I ended up selling everything from television antennas to paint brushes to Wal-Mart, TG&Y, Sterling and Gibson. I called on stores from Poteau, Okla., in the west to Sikeston, Mo., in the east. I brought extra skills to the table such as helping store managers lay out newspaper ads and design floor displays. Of course, I made sure my products were front and center in the ads and on the floor.”

What did Walton see in Fletcher that impressed him?

“If he had a store opening, I would get there at 5:30 a.m. and still be there at 9 p.m.,” Fletcher says. “I would help him set up rides and games in the parking lot to attract people. He loved to create a stir. He could see that I was an eager beaver.”

One day, Walton asked Fletcher to drive from North Little Rock to Bentonville for a meeting. Fletcher was informed that Wal-Mart would now deal directly with manufacturers rather than working through manufacturer’s representatives.

“I asked him if he wanted me to commit suicide in his office or in the lobby,” Fletcher says. “He told me he didn’t think that was funny. He then advised me to start manufacturing some type of product that Wal-Mart could buy.”

Fletcher went home, rented a garage from Gilbert Cornwell and began assembling lamps for Jimco Lamp of northeast Arkansas. At first, he was assembling what were known as rain lamps. Soon, traditional lamps were being made by Cheyenne/Silverwood, and a larger space was found in Little Rock behind the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office. Fletcher delights in telling stores of his negotiations with Walton through the years, one of which led to a $20 million order. He had come far with Mr. Sam since that first $1,500 paint order in Harrison.

Business diversification followed the manufacturing success.

“I had always wanted to be a car dealer,” Fletcher says. “I hooked up with a guy named J.D. Wilson who had been at Moore Ford in North Little Rock, and we started Car Plaza USA in 1989. It was a mobile home with an awning on it. Next, I bought the Chevrolet dealership in Lonoke and moved it out to Interstate 40. Things just took off from there.”

Fletcher also was part of a breakfast investment club in the early 1980s and was talked into taking a 5 percent stake in what was then the Riverfront Hilton in North Little Rock.

“My partners went broke in the savings and loan collapse, and I got a call from the RTC (Resolution Trust Corp.) saying I owed $11 million,” Fletcher says. “I explained to them that I only owned 5 percent of the hotel. I ended up getting it all for $7.5 million and later changed it to a Wyndham. I had always traveled a great deal and realized that hotels weren’t known for their food. But you had to have a restaurant to be a full-service hotel. We added a Benihana franchise to the hotel. After Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and I started to go to Dallas on a regular basis, I got to know a guy named Dale Wamstad of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. He showed me how to cook steaks. The regular restaurant at the hotel in North Little Rock consistently lost money, so I decided to turn it into a steakhouse.”

Both Benihana and the Riverfront Steakhouse proved to be successes in North Little Rock. Fletcher later bought well-known chef Donnie Ferneau’s restaurant in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock and changed the name of Ferneau to Rocket Twenty One in honor of one of his better thoroughbreds.

“I had success with two restaurants and figured I might as well take on a third one,” Fletcher says nonchalantly. “I copied the look of the bar from a bar Jerry has at his new football stadium in Texas.”

Fletcher has a goal of winning the Arkansas Derby with a horse from his Rocket Horse Racing Corp. He says Jerry Jones is responsible for getting him interested in racing.

“Jerry’s partner in the gas exploration business had a horse running back in the 1980s, and Jerry convinced me to bet on him,” Fletcher says. “I lost $2,000 when he finished fourth. But the next time he won, and I won money. I was hooked. Bob Holthus was my first trainer and bought me my first horse in 1989. Watch for Boss Man Rocket this spring. I have high hopes for him.”

As for music, Arkansas’ current Man in Black likes Johnny Cash but says his favorite performer is Percy Sledge. Fletcher met Sledge, who lives in Baton Rouge, one night in Tunica and the two men became friends. Sledge has played staff Christmas parties for Fletcher and even played at an automobile dealership opening in Joplin, Mo.

From Sam Walton to Percy Sledge, the man from Tamo has made countless interesting friends through the years. All the while, he has done it his way.

“None of this was ever really planned,” Fletcher says. “It just sort of happened.”