Arkansas' Public Firms Lack Director Diversity

by Mark Hengel  on Monday, Jul. 28, 2008 12:00 am  

Mary Good, dean of the Donaghey College of Information Science & Systems Engineering at UALR, serves on Acxiom Corp.'s board of directors.

Of Arkansas' public companies, nine have no women or minorities on their boards of directors.

Although Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff has no women or minorities on the board, J. Thomas May, Simmons CEO and chairman, said the boards of its eight community bank charters reflect more diversity. Most of the community boards have either a minority or woman represented, though the majority of community board members are white males.

May said Simmons looks for members of diverse backgrounds. However, the corporate board is also seeking a diverse set of leadership skills to fill seats on its board.

When Simmons chose the members of its current board, "we were looking for certain people in certain categories," May said. "That's why these people were selected. The bulk of our members are the presidents of particular companies. We are looking for particular expertise."

The company's board has members such as the president of Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance of Arkansas, the Arkansas president of AT&T Corp. and the CEO of CDI Contractors LLC. The three individuals provide experience running a diverse group of companies, May said, and also represent segments that are important to Simmons' business.

May said diversity is important to the company, and Al Lowery Jr., Simmons vice president and an African-American, sits on the central Arkansas board of Just Communities, an organization dedicated to encouraging better relations among all races, religions and cultures.

Andrew Melton, CFO and senior vice president of ThermoEnergy Corp. of Little Rock, said his company's board also has trouble finding women and minorities capable of serving on its board.

The company, which develops technologies for wastewater treatment, has to strike a balance between investors and individuals with knowledge of the company's industry, Melton said. Board members include the chemistry department head at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and the director of finance at FlightSafety International, an aviation and marine training company headquartered in Flushing, N.Y. Melton said the board sought the chemistry professor because of his knowledge of the industry. The director of finance was selected for his knowledge of accounting practices.

"If you can send us any female or minority that wants to serve on a public board and who has knowledge in [our industry], we would consider adding them," Melton said. "The broader experience base we have for the board, the more beneficial it is to us."

"Some Options"


Lawrence Davis, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and an African-American, said if a company is searching for candidates for a directorship, he could "give them some options."

Many of the university's faculty members serve on boards throughout the country, and Davis himself serves on the Southeast Regional Education Board and formerly served on the board of directors of the Little Rock branch of the St. Louis Regional Federal Reserve. He does not serve on the board of a public company, though, he said.

He said he does not keep up with the issue much because there are many others of greater importance. However, he said a company should not limit itself to searching for the heads of other public companies of similar size.



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