Arkansas Business Hall of Fame 2013: Bill Cravens

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 12:00 am  

William L. Cravens

William L. Cravens
Director, Oaklawn Jockey Club
Little Rock

Somehow, when Bill Cravens tells his story of how a University of Arkansas-trained industrial engineer ended up with a career-spanning relationship with the Oaklawn Jockey Club, spent time working as a certified public accountant, ran and merged banks and then came out of a heart-attack-induced retirement to guide Alltel Information Services and help found a community bank, it all adds up. That’s probably because of a saying he considers his guiding principle: “Go fix things.”

An engineer’s approach to business was forged early in Cravens’ small-town Arkansas upbringing in Paris, where he was born May 26, 1934. His mother and father, Vada Johns Cravens and Wyatt Lamar Cravens, both worked at a bank in Paris, which is where they met and fell in love.

Cravens’ early years were shaped in large part by growing up in an Arkansas coal-mining town and by World War II, which broke out when he was 7. Growing up during the war and seeing relatives go off to fight in Europe and the Pacific made him and many others his age want to go out, work hard and make something of themselves.

The value of hard work was brought home to Cravens when he was in the 10th grade and got a job keeping books for a wholesale grocer — a job that involved more than just keeping books, he was to find out.

The wholesale grocer also had a feed business, which meant Cravens fed a lot of chickens and handled a lot of 100-pound sacks of feed. Which meant the 155-pound young man weighed 135 at the end of the summer.

After graduating from Paris High School in 1952, Cravens was nominated to attend West Point, but a football play in high school that had removed three of his teeth caused him to fail the dental exam for the academy. So Cravens, a Razorback fan since he saw his first college football game in 1946, went off to Fayetteville to study industrial engineering at the University of Arkansas. It was a difficult choice for Cravens between becoming an engineer or an accountant. Nine hours of accounting were included in the industrial engineering coursework, which set him up well for his future business career.

While at the university, Cravens met his future wife Mary Lou. They married shortly after graduation.

After graduation, Cravens worked for General Electric in a job that took him to Kentucky, Illinois, Massachusetts and back to Arkansas. He was tempted by a job with GE in New York that would have meant working on an internal management consulting group. But by that time, the couple had three young daughters – Cathy, Cary and Lyn. Cravens looked for other engineering opportunities that would allow him to stay in his home state but instead moved to Little Rock in 1962 to later become a partner in the Russell Brown & Company firm as a certified public accountant. He had studied and passed the CPA exam on his own, without an accounting degree.

He was assigned as a client the Oaklawn Jockey Club, starting a relationship that continues to the present day. Another accounting client was First National Bank of Little Rock. Cravens left the accounting firm in 1976 to join First National Bank, becoming its president and chief executive officer in a career there that lasted until 1983.

While at First National, Cravens was instrumental in the merger of First National Bank and Commercial National Bank, forming First Commercial Bank, one of the first bank mergers in the region. In 1984, Cravens joined Worthen Banking Corp., becoming its chairman and chief executive officer. He guided the bank, which had previously sustained a trading loss that threatened its viability, to a successful recovery and a later sale.

1986 was another turning point for Cravens. He suffered a heart attack and underwent angioplasty — at a time when that procedure was still fairly new. He resigned from Worthen, and “laid around the pool for about six months,”he said. Not being one to “lay around the pool” for very long, Cravens opened a private business as a certified public accountant and professional engineer.

 

 

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