Mallioux returns to mortgage origination roots

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,336 views 

Ross Mallioux started in early February as mortgage division manager for Fort Smith-based holding company First Bank Corp. His mortgage team handles mortgage operations for bank subsidiaries in the Fort Smith metro, Northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. That includes First National Bank of Fort Smith (FNBFS), First National Bank of NWA, a division of FNBFS, Central National Bank of Poteau (Okla.) and National Bank of Sallisaw (Okla.).

Ross Mallioux’s roots in a lengthy banking career nearing four decades in Northwest Arkansas go back to the residential mortgage business.

“I think I probably enjoy this part of banking as much or more than anything else,” he said in a recent interview. “Helping people buy a house is a cool deal. It’s the largest purchase that anybody makes in their lifetime.”

Mallioux said the most important thing he’s learned during his career is that customer service is the most critical factor in deciding whether a customer will stick with your bank. He said there is value in having experienced lenders who still deal with people one-on-one.

It’s the foundation of his business philosophy and a source of pride. He hopes it can be a determining factor to increase business at his new job leading the mortgage business for one of the state’s largest banking organizations, Fort Smith-based holding company First Bank Corp.

“There’s more to a loan than an interest rate,” Mallioux said. “We want to add value to our clients. There’s a lot of great technology out there. We will take the same technology that everybody else has and marry that with good old-fashioned customer service.”

Mallioux, 59, joined privately-owned First Bank Corp. in early February. His mortgage team of 11 lenders and 10 operations/support staff handles mortgage operations for bank subsidiaries in the Fort Smith metro, Northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. That includes First National Bank of Fort Smith (FNBFS), First National Bank of NWA, a division of FNBFS, Central National Bank of Poteau (Okla.) and National Bank of Sallisaw (Okla).

FNBFS was chartered in 1872 and has 11 branches in the Fort Smith metro. As of Dec. 31, the bank held $1.89 billion in assets. The company entered the Northwest Arkansas market in 2004 with the acquisition of Bank of Rogers and its holding company, BOR Bancshares Inc., for $26.5 million.

The company now has six branches in Benton and Washington counties: Rogers (2), Bentonville, Centerton, Lowell and Fayetteville. Those offices operate collectively as First National Bank of NWA, led by president Rob Husong.

Starting in 1984, after graduating from the University of Arkansas, Mallioux has spent his banking career in Northwest Arkansas, mainly in Fayetteville. A Harrison native, he went to work for publicly traded holding company First Federal Bancshares of Harrison right out of college. He opened the company’s first Northwest Arkansas branch in Fayetteville.

As the bank grew its regional footprint, Mallioux grew his profile. He was president of First Federal’s western division in 2011 when shareholders approved a deal that sold majority ownership of the company to a Little Rock investment group, Bear State Financial Holdings LLC.

Sensing it was time for a change, Mallioux began seeking other banking opportunities. The following year, he joined Little Rock-based Bank OZK as the $26-billion asset company’s Northwest Arkansas president.

Mallioux departed Bank OZK for a mortgage banking role with Chambers Bank in October 2020.

“I got a call from Rob [Husong], and he said [First Bank Corp.] needed a mortgage department manager and was I interested in having a discussion,” Mallioux recalled.

Husong said he’d known Mallioux for more than two decades, dating to his days at First Federal. He said Mallioux’s reputation among peers in those days was top-shelf.

“If you got a call from Ross, you had reached a certain level in your career depending on your industry,” Husong recalled. “If Ross was calling you, you had arrived. So many [bankers] either don’t remember First Federal or weren’t here when First Federal was and may have lost sight of what it was. It was one of the fastest-growing banks in the area.”

Admittedly, Husong said he was unsure how appealing the First Bank Corp. job would be to Mallioux. Mortgage lending is competitive, and it can be more challenging to develop new business than in the past.

“I didn’t think someone of his caliber would be interested in our role,” Husong said. “But looking around, we kept coming back to Ross as a perfect fit — if he had an interest. I’m not sure he knew whether he wanted it, but the more we talked, I think the culture reminded him of the community banking back in his First Federal days.”

Mallioux said he vetted the First Bank Corp. job with Husong and Sam Sicard, president and CEO of FNBFS. He recalled a lengthy conversation with Sicard one afternoon in Fort Smith.

“We spent more time talking about [company] culture than anything else,” Mallioux said. “The culture here is that of a true community bank. It starts at the top and flows down. Happy is the best word I can use to describe it. And at this point in life, that’s as important to me as anything else.”

Said Sicard: “Ross has been a leader in the area for more than 35 years and has a proven history of leading very successful teams.”

Homebuying has been a frenzy over the past two years for various reasons. Mallioux has been at the front of the unprecedented market. With the inventory of homes for sale at historic lows, he said buyers who need financing have difficulty competing.

“Cash buyers and investors are part of the problem, but first-time homebuyers are also having a hard time competing with other first-time homebuyers,” he said. “A Bentonville house that went on the market recently with one of my agents had 50 showings and 27 offers within 24 hours. The home sold for $40,000 more than the list price.

“It’s just the sheer number of people who want to buy a house, and there’s just not enough houses out there.”

Mallioux said soaring mortgage rates aren’t doing homebuyers any favors, even if the rates are still relatively low.

Over the past three months, mortgage rates have posted their most significant jump since the ’90s. As of March 30, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate stood at 4.67% — up from 3.11% in December.

Mallioux said it’s likely to go higher.

“I think the refinance market is largely over,” he said. “Folks did that when rates were in the 2’s and 3’s, and now we’re in the 4 handles.”

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, higher mortgage rates typically slow home-buying activity, but the number of applications submitted by hopeful homebuyers continues to rise.

According to Mallioux, mortgage rates are rising due to speculation that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates several more times this year to control inflation.

“Yes, rates are going up, but they’re still excellent, with some perspective,” Mallioux said. “Young, first-time homebuyers have never seen rates this high. They think a 4% mortgage is off the chart. We were doing three-year [adjustable rate mortgages] at 13.25%, and we had the best deal in town when I first started. The sky is not falling by any means at these levels.”