One of Northeast Arkansas’ most influential businessmen and philanthropists has died. Wallace Fowler Sr. died Wednesday (May 4) at NEA Baptist Hospital. He was 87. His wife and business partner, Jama Wallace, died just two weeks prior.
The Wallace family was known in Northeast Arkansas for owning and operating hundreds of KFC and Taco Bell restaurants. The family started Liberty Bank, which was later sold to Home BancShares, the parent company of Centennial Bank. The family owned and operated several furniture stores among their other business ventures.
A Manila native, Fowler attended schools there and in Oak Grove. In 1954, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. While serving with the Army in Fort Chaffee, Wallace received a telephone call from his brother, Dr. Jim Fowler, asking him to visit him at his home and help with some yard work. In truth, his brother planned to introduce Wallace to his children’s babysitter, a young woman from Amity named Jama Sue Massey, whom he married.
The Army moved the couple to Germany, where they enjoyed spending weekends traveling throughout Europe. When Wallace left the Army, the Fowlers returned to Little Rock, where he joined Haverty’s Furniture, and over a 10-year-period, became a sales leader and manager. Additionally, he worked as a buyer for Dillard’s before a career opportunity led him to Jonesboro and the development of Fowler Furniture with stores in a number of Northeast Arkansas cities.
Chris Fowler recently told Talk Business & Politics that one of his favorite memories of his father growing up was that on Sundays the family would go to the airport and watch planes take off and land. They would eat buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and when they moved to Jonesboro in the 1960s the elder Wallace decided to own and operate a KFC franchise.
From there, he and his partners expanded to 93 total restaurants. Wallace Fowler and his partners sold 85 of them in 1985. His partners kept four and Wallace kept four. The Fowler family then began to grow the franchises once more.
In December, Fowler Foods sold its shares in those KFC/Taco Bell stores for more than $100 million. At the time, the company only owned three of the restaurants and served as a management company for the other 88 restaurants. The stores were in Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.
The Fowler family started Liberty Bank in 2003. In 2013, the Fowlers sold Liberty Bank to Home BancShares in a $280 million mega-deal.
A 2011 inductee into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, Wallace served as a member of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, the Arkansas State Police Commission and many national and regional committees for KFC. He received numerous awards for his contributions to his community and the state of Arkansas.
His family has donated millions to various charities including the NEA Baptist Charitable Foundation. His funeral is slated for Sunday at Jonesboro Memorial Park Cemetery.