The new five-story west Little Rock headquarters of Bank OZK is a magnificent addition of modern architecture for Arkansas. However, it houses more than deposits and loans – it’s the repository for a number of world-renowned art pieces.
Bank OZK Chairman and CEO George Gleason provided Talk Business & Politics with a personal tour of the new campus and sat down for a Q&A on the state of banking as the nation heads into 2021 and a new presidential administration.
Gleason said the motivation to build a new headquarters – the third one he’s built in Little Rock – was to have a building that would attract young talent as well as provide a campus with the potential for future growth. It is also a destination for the public to treat as a park.
“The campus setting gives our employees and our customers and the community, for that matter, an opportunity to come outside and on a beautiful day work outside,” he said. “We think that fosters creativity and improves job satisfaction.”
Designed by Little Rock-based Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, the Bank OZK headquarters serves as a staging place for a number of major art pieces. Gleason and his wife, Linda, have been dedicated art collectors for decades. The building is filled with paintings, sculptures, and blown glass from around the world.
Gleason’s passion for art appreciation began in his teenage years from a World’s Fair experience in San Antonio. In his professional career, he was afforded the opportunity to become a serious art collector. He never dreamed he would unknowingly be pitted against billionaire Alice Walton and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art through anonymous art bids.
“We would go to sales and we had done our homework and we really liked this piece or really liked that piece. And we would bid on it, but we knew what it ought to sell for. And it would just go on up. There just seemed to be this escalating trend in prices in the market,” Gleason recalled.
“I was sitting in the sunroom one Sunday morning when the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published their article announcing Crystal Bridges. I think there were a dozen or 13 or 14 pictures in there that she had acquired and we were the underbidder on about half of them,” Gleason said. “I told my wife that morning, I said, ‘Alice is going to buy everything great and most things good. And if we want to have a third-rate collection of American art, we just need to resolve to that or we can start collecting European art.’ So our personal collection went all European. By the time we were back collecting for the bank, the Alice Walton effect on prices had diminished. And once again, when good items came up, we were able to buy them at a fair price.”
THE PANDEMIC, THE FUTURE
Gleason says the bank adapted internally to the COVID-19 pandemic and helped many clients with three- or six-month deferrals on loans. However, he said while some clients suffered during the pandemic, others have thrived.
“The strange thing about COVID-19 is, economically, you have winners and you have losers. Some of our customers’ businesses have been boosted to unprecedented levels of business volume and activity and profitability because the services they provide or the projects they’re developing or the houses or buildings, or whatever are in higher demand than ever before, as a result of COVID-19. And then you have other people like people who are in the hotel and restaurant business who had been profoundly adversely affected by it,” he said.
Bank OZK did about a half-billion dollars in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Gleason said without the quick action from the federal government, the devastation for businesses and individuals would have been worse.
“I think it [PPP] is like any program of that scale that is put together quickly. It accomplished a lot of things that it was intended to do. It’s been a very useful program to keeping the country going through the disaster. But when you put together a program that is going to do that much and interact with that many tens and hundreds of thousands of people all across the country, you’re going to have instances of fraud and abuse and misdirection of funds that go to a place that probably wasn’t intended when everybody in Washington was crafting the legislation,” he said. “But I will give the Fed and our lawmakers and the president great credit. The response to the pandemic was very quick and very robust.”
While he worries about the rising national debt, Gleason contends that more stimulus is needed to make it through the current COVID-19 challenge.
“I do think we need another round of stimulus. I’m not of the camp that it needs to be outlandishly large nor does it need to be anorexically skinny. I think there’s probably a good middle ground,” he said. “I don’t think we need another PPP program. I think we do need an extension of unemployment benefits at a more moderate rate for the millions of people that are going to be on unemployment much longer than their current benefits are designed to last.”
You can watch a full tour of the Bank OZK headquarters and a longer interview with Gleason in the video below.