Incoming CEO George Makris Jr. Plans to Tap Simmons First's Big, New Markets

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, May. 6, 2013 12:00 am  

George Makris Jr. is not a banker. Or wasn’t until January, when he became CEO-elect of Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff, heir-apparent to a legendary banker who will retire at the end of this year, J. Thomas May.

Makris, who will turn 57 this month, had spent his career in his family’s Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship, M.K. Distributors Inc., another Pine Bluff mainstay less than a mile from the Simmons headquarters building. And he has been a bank director for decades, starting with 12 years at Pine Bluff’s National Bank of Commerce, which was acquired by Worthen, then Boatman’s, then Bank of America. He has been a director at publicly traded Simmons since 1997.

If there’s anything all that experience has taught George Makris, it’s that he is not a banker. Or, in his words, “I’m not a banker, and I put myself in the category of an old dog. You aren’t going to teach me many new tricks.”

But he is a marketer — M.K. received regional and national awards from Anheuser-Busch in March — and marketing may be what Simmons First National Corp. needs now more than ever as it looks to untapped — if you’ll pardon the beer pun — markets in Missouri and Kansas for the growth that simply isn’t available back home.

In the past three years, Simmons First National Bank, the flagship of the bank holding corporation’s eight charters, has acquired three failed banks in Missouri and one in Kansas. Those acquisitions now represent almost a third of the bank’s deposits and about one-sixth of the holding company’s. But they are spread so thinly among St. Louis, Springfield, Kansas City, Salina and Wichita that Simmons has less than 1 percent of the deposit market in each of those markets except Salina. There it has about 6.5 percent of the market, but that’s still less than $90 million in deposits.

Simmons’ Share of Select Deposit Markets    
As of June 30, 2012

InstitutionMarketIn-Market Deposits (in thousands)Market Share
Simmons First National Corp. (8 charters)    Arkansas $2,566,061 4.81%
Simmons First National Bank     Arkansas $1,326,575 2.48%
  Pine Bluff MSA $752,915 57.53%
  Jefferson County $728,975 62.71%
  Little Rock MSA $215,380 1.53%
  Missouri* $439,900 0.3%
  Kansas $160,142 0.25%
  St. Louis MSA* $253,899 0.31%
  Kansas City MSA* $90,828 0.21%
  Salina, Kan. $86,049 6.53%
  Wichita, Kan. $30,971 0.24%
  Springdale, Mo. $6,827 0.09%

*Includes Excel Bank and Truman Bank, both of which were acquired by Simmons First National Bank with FDIC assistance after the summary of deposits snapshot on June 30, 2012    
Source: Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. summary of deposits

The good news, as Makris pointed out at Simmons’ annual shareholders’ meeting last month, is that even a small gain in market share in those big, new cities could be very lucrative. The bad news is that Simmons, a name that has meant banking in Pine Bluff for 110 years, is meaningless in St. Louis or Kansas City. Or worse, it means something completely different.

“We don’t sell chickens, and we don’t sell mattresses,” he told the shareholders, underscoring the branding problem.

Having to explain that Simmons is a bank “is new to our culture,” he said in an interview last week in his new office in the headquarters building on Pine Bluff’s Main Street. Simmons First National Corp. has, for reasons that Makris still finds valid, maintained eight separate charters in Arkansas: Simmons First National Bank and seven state charters that all start with “Simmons First Bank of” — of El Dorado, Hot Springs, Northeast Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas, Russellville, Searcy and South Arkansas. Signage and marketing materials that just say “Simmons First” work fine for all of them, Makris said, but it’s not very helpful on a strip-center branch in Missouri, where the locals might at least need to see the word “bank.”

In Arkansas, particularly in Pine Bluff, “we’ve penetrated about as much as we can,” Makris said. The company is active in community outreach, sponsoring kids’ sports teams and other activities, “but we have to do very little name recognition advertising, and that’s not something we’ve been good at.

“We have to get good at that.”



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