Lyon Family

by Arkansas Business staff  on Monday, Jul. 12, 1999 12:00 am  

Frank Lyon Sr. began by selling suits door-to-door and later became General Foods' youngest district manager. He started with $5,000 in borrowed money and ultimately wound up with the Whirlpool and RCA distributorships for 90 percent of Arkansas and parts of Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana and Texas.

Lyon Sr., who died in 1998, brokered a "huge" deal with his old friend Sam Walton in early 1970s, Frank Lyon Jr. says. The deal involved every RCA television Wal-Mart Stores Inc. sold nationally until 1989 coming from the Lyon distributorship.

Frank Jr. graduated from Harvard Business School in 1967, and the two acquired Twin City Bank in North Little Rock in 1968 as a $10 million asset institution. It grew 150 times before selling to Mercantile Bancorporation in 1995.

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Arkansas was acquired in 1969, and Coca-Cola plants in Shreveport, Texarkana and Natchitoches, La., were added later.

"The reason we sold Coke, even though it was at the top of the market, wasn't because Coca-Cola was buying distributorships, but because I had been diagnosed with what they thought was terminal cancer," Frank Lyon Jr. says. "I got together with my dad, who was pretty much retired, and we thought we'd do a better job of liquidating some of these things than some bank trust department would. The Lord had His arms around our shoulders and we sold them at the right time.

"Then I got well, fabulously well, and have been for the past 11 years. I'm told I've got the same odds of it not coming back as you would or anybody else."

The Coke distributorship was sold for probably more than $250 million to Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. in 1989. TCBancshares was sold to Mercantile Bancorporation in 1995. Mercantile announced earlier this year it would sell to Firstar Corp. of Milwaukee and Lyon will be the largest individual shareholder in Firstar with 14.2 shares worth about $525 million.

Frank Lyon Sr. lived in Little Rock until his death. Frank Lyon Jr. tries "to get back to the state at least once a month," he says, to attend board meetings and watch over family businesses.

The family owns 13,000-acre Wingmead Farm in Prairie County and three John Deere AgPro dealerships in south Arkansas. The family also owns Summer Wind Farm in Kentucky, where brood mares are acquired to breed to premier stallions. Frank Jr. owns the mother of Favorite Trick, 1997 Horse of Year, and the mother of Skip Away, 1997 Older Horse of Year. The family is such a big donor to what was Arkansas College in Batesville that the school changed its name to Lyon College to honor the family in 1995.



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