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)

Dennis James, chairman of the James Keet & Strawn Financial Group in Little Rock and former CFO at Ozark Bankshares, recalls another marketing ploy:

“Once I walked into the bank lobby at Ozark and noticed the tellers had a $100 bill pinned to their lapel. Of course, I walked right into the trap and asked what it was all about. She rattled off a memorized spiel about how I would get a $100 bill on the spot if I opened a certain type of account. That was probably the first of its kind in Arkansas.”

Gleason’s hardball marketing with its nontraditional approach stunned many competitors and prompted numerous complaints to regulators. No foul was the ruling.

Perhaps the man to blame for Gleason’s decision to enter banking is King Crow, the president of Arkansas Federal Savings Bank in Little Rock. It was Crow, then an employee at Commercial National, who suggested the idea of buying a bank to Gleason during lunch in 1978.

“I said, ‘That’s a possibility,’ and one thing led to another,” Gleason remembers. He soon left the Rose firm, and the rest is history.

“He’s a great banker; he’s not a very good racquetball player,” Crow chides mockingly before laughter breaks his façade. “He’ll probably take exception with that and challenge me to a game.”

Besides racquetball skills, Crow adds this equally significant foible: “He likes a dry salad. He has the most atrocious palate of anyone I know. His taste in food is bland.”

Like his salad, Gleason’s sense of humor is dry and sometimes self-effacing. His response to the question of “What scares you?” is as warm and dry as the Santa Ana winds.

“Other than how this article is going to come out?” he quips, then pauses to reflect. Gleason looks out of the southeast window of his third-story office. From this vantage point, the Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock & Dam is visible over the roofs and treetops of downtown Ozark. North of this man-made structure, the forested slope of Randall Reed Mountain climbs rapidly from the banks of the Arkansas River.

“The one great caution in my life is that I never forget how I got to where I am,” Gleason answers in earnest. “I used to think about my job all the time. I’ve just learned to focus on other things. … It’s a matter of discipline and commitment.”

As a reminder, Gleason mentally pictures that phrase — “Remember how you got here” — in the bathroom mirror as he begins each day. Gleason now appears to have those phantom scales weighing personal life and career at a happy equilibrium.

“I’ve questioned whether I’d have to get out of business to do this,” he reveals. Gleason believes trading a portion of his self-will for a higher one can maintain that balance.



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