George Gleason II: The Wizard of Ozark Bankshares

by George Waldon  on Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 12:00 am  

George Gleason II was barely in his 30s when he was featured on the cover of Arkansas Business. (Photo by Andrew Kilgore)

A version of this article originally appeared in Arkansas Business on Aug. 3, 1987It is being republished as part of Arkansas Business' 30th anniversary issue. You can access the digital edition for free here.

The setting is mid-1984 near the bluffs of the Arkansas River in Franklin County. Some unusual goings-on are transpiring here at the Bank of Ozark, flagship of Ozark Bankshares Inc.

Some observers believe the group’s young CEO, a whiz kid lawyer named George Gleason II, is receiving a hard lesson about the rigors of banking. They note that Gleason, who in 1979 bought control of the Bank of Ozark at age 24, has initiated an about-face in strategy.

Reports indicated Ozark Bankshares, which includes Arkansas Valley Bank in Dardanelle and Newton County Bank in Jasper, is adopting a conservative stance toward the market.

Word has it that officials are tightening loan provisions, even with established clientele. Those eye-catching interest rates once offered for deposits are being lowered into the banking mainstream, too.

Gleason’s move contrasts sharply with the wheeling and dealing of unsecured, non-recourse and negative amortization loans offered by some lenders.

Could this be the same Gleason-led group that plunged into deregulation armed with a take-no-prisoners marketing campaign in search of major asset growth during 1981-83?

That blitzkrieg campaign bagged new deposits numbering in the tens of millions of dollars by featuring interest rates sometimes as high as 1 percent above anyone in the state, including the biggest institutions.

Some view Ozark Bankshares’ withdrawal as a sign that things aren’t going well in the house that Gleason built. They believe he is now paying for his aggressive posturing. Apparently those premium interest rates on deposits necessitate some risky investments that aren’t panning out as expected.

Not so, explains Gleason. His reasoning at the time reads like a prophet of doom: “We see things getting tough. The national economy doesn’t look good. The oil and gas industries don’t look good. Agriculture doesn’t look good. A lot of real estate markets are getting overbuilt.”

The hindsight afforded by the passage of three years has upheld Gleason’s beat-of-a-different drummer analysis. Joe Hiatt, chairman and CEO of American State Bank in Charleston, comments: “He proved his wisdom when he pulled his wings in.”

Invariably, one of the first things people associate with Gleason is intelligence, and for good reason. Through his school days in Dardanelle, he was known as the smart kid. Setting the grade curve came as naturally for Gleason as for his three older sisters — Marcia, Lynne and Diane. All graduated as class valedictorians, as had his parents George and Mildred.



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