Then & Now: Family ties spurred career change for Mike Luttrell

by Paul Gatling (pgatling@nwabj.com) 571 views 

Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the April 29 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s  Forty Under 40 class.

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The Luttrell name has been synonymous with insurance in Northwest Arkansas for decades. But for Mike Luttrell, that wasn’t predetermined.

Luttrell began his professional career in the early 1990s as a commercial banker. His father, Adrian Luttrell, was the majority owner of locally owned Walker Brothers Insurance Co. (WBI). The Springdale business was started in 1932, and Adrian had worked there since 1967.

Mike Luttrell worked at the firm for a couple of summers during college, but the initial experience did not leave a favorable impression.

“I thought there was no way I was going to do the insurance deal,” he recalled. “I was young and ignorant, really. And honestly, my dad had me doing the basic blocking and tackling that you’ve got to do, and that wasn’t always exciting.”

Luttrell earned an accounting degree from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1991. He returned to Arkansas and immediately went to Little Rock to work for the state’s largest bank at the time — Worthen Bank Corp.

Less than a year later, Luttrell joined Worthen’s Northwest Arkansas operations team as a credit analyst. He worked his way up to vice president, then was recruited by El Dorado-based First Financial Bank to open the company’s first office in Springdale in the summer of 1995. By 1998, Luttrell’s star as a banker was on the rise, and he was named to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.

The following year, Adrian Luttrell wondered if his son had reconsidered his earlier inclination about the insurance business — specifically if he wanted to work for WBI as part of a succession plan for the company.

Mike Luttrell said he enjoyed the banking business and the mentors he’d had along the way, but family ties tipped the scales in favor of a career change.

“And honestly, it was maybe the only place I would have left First Financial Bank for and my boss Jerry Bullard, was to go to work for my dad,” Luttrell said. “Jerry was a tremendous boss. He and Don Gibson at Worthen Bank. Those two men really poured into me and invested heavily into my life both personally and professionally.”

Luttrell remembered an interesting twist that accompanied his departure from the bank in April 1999.

“I hadn’t been at Walker Brothers a full week when Jerry called me and said, ‘I need to tell you something,’” Luttrell said.

“Tomorrow in the press, it’ll be announced that Simmons Bank has bought the Northwest Arkansas locations of First Financial Bank,” Bullard told Luttrell. “I wanted to tell you while you were going through the transition to Walker Brothers, but I just couldn’t.”

Luttrell told his former boss he understood, adding a humorous reply.

“I said, ‘Did you sell it because you were so heartbroken I left or because my loan portfolio was so bad that you had to dump it?’” Luttrell recalled. “It probably ended up working out great for me, and Simmons got some good assets out of the deal, too.”

Luttrell, 51, marked 20 years with WBI in April this year. He is still working alongside his father and said the business has been fortunate in its success. WBI has 22 employees and more than 5,000 customers between its commercial business and personal accounts.

“As Northwest Arkansas has grown and prospered, we have been able to grow along with it,” he said. “Even during the [economic] downturn of 2008. Our customers were able to survive, which helped us survive. We took a dip like everybody else, but as we sit here today, we are well above where we were prior to the recession of 2008.”

The company’s success did not go unnoticed in the industry. On April 1, The Hilb Group, a middle market insurance agency headquartered in Richmond, Va., acquired WBI for an undisclosed sum. WBI was previously owned by Mike Luttrell (president) — who bought his first shares of company stock in 2003 — and other employees of the company through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).

Luttrell has signed a long-term employment agreement with Hilb to continue leading the Walker Brothers office, which didn’t lose any employees resulting from the acquisition.

Married with a daughter in college and boy/girl twins in high school, Luttrell is a civic leader in the region. He’s a board member for both the Springdale School District and Arvest Bank Springdale, and chairman of the NorthWest Arkansas Community College Foundation.

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