The Non-Conventional Banker: Simmons First CEO-elect George Makris

by Roby Brock ( 195 views 

In August 2012, Simmons First National Corp. made a major announcement that caught the financial world and Arkansas’ business leadership by surprise.

The Pine Bluff-based banking group said its long-time leader, Chairman and CEO J. Thomas May, would be stepping down at the end of 2013. Unbeknownst to most, Simmons First’s board of directors had been planning for May’s succession for two years and it was important that the new leader have deep ties to the Pine Bluff community.

George Makris (pronounced MACK’-riss), 56, a 15-year board member, was chosen to lead the banking enterprise. As CEO-elect, he’ll be working with May and a team of banking veterans to transition to the new regime.

“Tommy May is as good a banker as there is and his philosophy has driven this company,” said Makris, who for 32 years has grown his family’s regional Anheuser-Busch wholesale beer and beverage distributorship, M.K. Distributors, Inc.

Under May’s quarter century of leadership, the bank has grown from $400 million in assets to $3.5 billion, and May’s long and distinguished career as a banking and community leader has landed in the state’s business hall of fame and earned him many other accolades and awards. In 2005, May was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Makris said the bank knew it would take an executive team to replace the business legend.

“I can promise you one person is not going to fill those shoes,” Makris jokes. “It really is a village filling in for everything that Tommy has done since he arrived on the scene some 25 years ago.”

May wore so many different hats that Makris explains Simmons First has devised a team concept moving forward. Four executives will take parts of May’s duties in their new roles.

In addition to Makris at the helm, David Bartlett, Chief Banking Officer, will oversee all eight banks under the Simmons First umbrella. He’s been guiding seven banks that comprise about $1.5 billion in the financial institution’s assets. Bartlett will add $2 billion more to his oversight with the original Pine Bluff bank in his management portfolio.

Marty Casteel, a long-time Executive Vice President was promoted to Chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Bank of Pine Bluff, while the group’s Chief Financial Officer, Bob Fehlman, assumed the duties of Corporate Treasurer, which now includes overseeing the bank’s investment portfolio.

Bartlett, Casteel and Fehlman all joined the bank’s board of directors.

“It’s non-traditional with regard to the way that banks have operated in the past,” Makris said.

May agreed. He says Makris “understands banking better than many bankers.”

“George is the right person at the right time. He knows our leadership team, and they know and trust him. He brings a track record of successful growth, new product initiatives, and he is a visionary,” May said. “Personally, I think the succession planning process that our board of directors has executed is a great example of corporate governance at its best. It was more about a team succession versus an individual succession, and while it was somewhat outside the norm, it was strategic with a focus on the long term.”

Publicly-traded Simmons First National Corp. is an eight bank financial holding company with community banks in Pine Bluff, Lake Village, Jonesboro, Rogers, Searcy, Russellville, El Dorado and Hot Springs.

It has recently branched out into Missouri and Kansas to take over struggling banks through FDIC-assisted deals. Makris said his goal is to steer those banks from “survival mode” to a position where “they can thrive.”

All told, Simmons First has 96 offices in 55 communities and employees approximately 1,140 people. Makris has spent his first month on the road meeting many of those co-workers.

“We’re not in the business to survive and downsize, we’re in business to grow,” he said.

Makris said he’ll use lessons from the wholesale distribution business he guided for more than three decades in re-thinking the bank’s approach to customer service and business accounts.

“My career has been built on market penetration and account penetration. That’s the nature of our distribution business. I don’t see it much different in the banking business. We’re interested in growing our market share,” he says.

As a business owner, Makris said he learned of financial services that would have been beneficial for him to know earlier. But in the old world of banking silos, there may have been too much rigidity in approaches to customer relationships. He wants Simmons customers to know everything the bank can do for them.

“I understand that I am not a professional banker,” he confesses. “What I bring to the table, my focus is going to be on growth. How do we set Simmons in our new markets and in potentially other new markets to roll out all our successful products, to expand our product lines? It’s non-traditional with regard to the way that banks have operated in the past.”

Makris is Pine Bluff born and raised. A product of the city’s public schools, he was a good enough football and baseball player to be recruited to play at prestigious Washington & Lee, which was an all-men’s college at the time.

When he figured out the nearest girls’ school was 50 miles away and his fall and spring weekends would be consumed with sports, he decided to transfer to Southwestern (now Rhodes College) in Memphis.

A shoulder injury cut his college football career short, but it didn’t impede his baseball journey. He played first base and was a lead-off batter. More importantly, he finished his B.A. degree and then completed a M.B.A. from the University of Arkansas.

When it came time to decide between law school and returning to his family’s Anheuser-Busch distribution business, Makris said his father told him, “You’ve been in school long enough.” He laughs, “I knew it was time to come home.”

In 1980, Makris married Debbie Kirkpatrick, daughter of former Quality Foods founder, the late Don Kirkpatrick. George and Debbie have three sons.

Their oldest, George III, is an attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. His middle son, Nick, is in his late ’20’s and has joined the family distribution business. His youngest son, John, is completing his studies at the University of Arkansas and is expected to join brother Nick in Pine Bluff after graduation.

Ask Makris which Budweiser product is his favorite – Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob, or something else – and he’ll tell you he’s a “Big Red” man. “Oh, it’s Budweiser. I like the real deal,” he says.

During his time guiding the distribution company, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014, the industry underwent significant changes as channel realignments, new product offerings, marketing sophistication, and transitions between suppliers and wholesalers reshaped the business landscape.

The training laid a good foundation for Makris’ new role as a bank CEO in that it sharpened his instincts for recognizing opportunities for market penetration and consumer behavior.

“I don’t see that as being too different than what we need to do in the banking business,” he says. “We have some services that small businesses and consumers don’t even know that they need. It will be up to us to educate them, first of all, and then provide a product that is competitive and one they feel will add value to their lifestyle.”

Makris’ Pine Bluff connections were essential to his selection to lead the bank as Tommy May transitions out. He knows that the bank and the community are intertwined.

Between Simmons First and its in-town competitor Pine Bluff National Bank, Makris says the two banks account for 89% of all deposits in Jefferson County.

“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,” Makris confides.

He acknowledges that the southeast Arkansas town has been hit hard by a decline in population and a loss of business leadership. In the last 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 ’80’s led to the exit of others.

“That’s a lot of lost leadership,” Makris says. But he also highlights a lot of positive changes in the works with new leadership, including himself.

There is a new Jefferson County judge, a new Pine Bluff mayor, a new Pine Bluff school board, and the search for a new University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff chancellor is near completion. Makris also points out that the President of Southeast Arkansas College is less than three years on the job as is the new White Hall mayor.

One weapon in the new arsenal is a recently-passed half-cent economic development sales tax. It’s generating $3.5 million a year and has been used for incentives to grow 500 jobs in the region.

“New is good when you need a change,” says the man who has held nearly every civic leadership post in Pine Bluff. “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.”

Pine Bluff may be lucky that this beverage distributor and businessman turned banker decided to take his latest gig.

“I’m from Pine Bluff and I’ve chosen to stay in Pine Bluff,” Makris says. He also shares advice from a close friend upon learning of his new CEO role.

“A friend told me, Simmons has done pretty good for 110 years. Don’t screw it up.”