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)

“Why continue to push everything to the limit all the time? Gosh, I slept seven-and-a-half hours last night,” Gleason exclaims in amazement. “In our really busy days, we’d work almost all night, but that was ridiculous.”

Gleason’s zest for work remains in the shadow of his enthusiasm for his wife and children. Some of his most enjoyable work is being a father and playing with kids, whether it involves watching Union Pacific trains pass through town, throwing rocks in the Arkansas River or watching Care Bear movies on the home VCR.

“It’s as fulfilling as any job I’ve ever had,” he smiles. “The impacts on my kids are going to impact other kids on into the future. That’s a lot more important than buying another bank.”

In a characteristic break from the norm, Gleason has some unusual plans for 5,400 SF beneath his office. He and his family intend to take up residence on the unoccupied second floor of the bank.

The structure (gray-painted brick, dark tinted windows and red metal roof) will soon include an extra large Manhattan-style walkup apartment with six bedrooms and five bathrooms. The move is a reverse of the take-work-home principle, allowing Gleason to spend even more time with his family.

“We’re committed to the family, and we’re committed to the business,” he states. “We’ll lease from the bank at market rate like any other tenant would.”

Unconventional, Innovative

Gleason’s reputation for being unconventional and innovative was also manifested through banking operations. Some approaches he undertook from 1979-86 are now routine, while others are still novel for small and medium-sized banks:

  • Making loans and soliciting deposits from outside a bank’s traditional trade area.
  • Focusing on loans, which are debt-type investments, rather than stocks and bonds, which are equity investments.
  • Originating loans and developing a network of participating banks to help finance multimillion-dollar commercial and residential real estate loans.
  • Coordinating private placements in municipal bond issues and building a trust department.

Under his leadership, the Ozark Bankshares banks were acting, and on a smaller scale performing, like big-time financial institutions. As one competitor points out, “When he came in, he made a big splash; he seemed to want to be bigger and better than other banks, including Little Rock.”

The company ran full-page ads in area newspapers comparing its interest rates with other Arkansas banks in 1981-83. With the competition as much as 1-1.5 percent lower, the display left little doubt about who had the best deal going.

The then-unheard-of practice of listing competitors by name in direct comparison galled neighboring bankers. Some of the state’s larger institutions got similar treatment. Every $1 million in new deposits flowing into Gleason’s banks was coming out of someone else’s vault.

“We named names and compared rates,” Gleason agrees. “Boy, it had the desired effect. It was a success in a business sense but foolish. Our advertising went from legitimate competition to outright warfare. That was hurtful to people. We could’ve been almost as successful without advertising other people’s rates.”

 

 

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