Leadership Change Causes Ripples at Southern Bancorp

by George Waldon  on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012 12:00 am  

The past 12 months have produced a round of uncharacteristic change at Arkadelphia's Southern Bancorp Inc. The staff moves range from top executives to middle management.

The latest change was effective Feb. 20 with the hiring of a new president and CEO of the holding company's commercial bank, Southern Bancorp Bank: John Olaimey, former executive vice president of Little Rock's Centennial Bank who left banking after the 2008 sale of Centennial to Conway's Home BancShares Inc.

In some cases, personnel moves at the $1.1 billion bank holding company reflect an unusual out-with-the-younger, in-with-the-older twist.

A succession plan announced by the company in January 2011 with the "retirement" of its top executive, Phil Baldwin, 52, has vaporized. Baldwin declined comment about why he left Southern Bancorp.

When his departure was announced, the company announced that Baldwin would remain "at Southern for several months to ensure a seamless transition to new management." However, Baldwin was gone by the end of the month.

(Click here for a related story on the 2010 departure of a Southern Bancorp nonprofit executive.)

His retirement was short-lived, too.

Less than six months later, Baldwin took a job as president of CredAbility of Atlanta, a national nonprofit credit counseling agency.

Hired as the chief financial officer in 2000 and promoted to president and CEO in 2002, Baldwin directed the growth of Southern Bancorp into America's largest rural development bank.

The company established a national reputation for blending community development banking with nonprofit efforts in communities in southern and eastern Arkansas and western Mississippi.

"Phil stepped down because the working conditions got too difficult for him to do his job," said a former Southern Bancorp executive who worked closely with Baldwin.

What pushed Baldwin to leave? According to some current and past Southern Bancorp staffers: friction with Walter Smiley, the 73-year-old chairman of Southern Bancorp who has remained on the board of directors since its inception in 1988.

Smiley stepped in as interim president and CEO of the holding company and has retained the position and operational control ever since. Even before he held the formal titles, Smiley has long held power at Southern Bancorp without any stock ownership.



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