J. Thomas May

Former CEO

J. Thomas May

Tommy May was among the most-admired chief executives in Arkansas even before he became the embodiment of grace under pressure by continuing to lead his company for more than six years - and counting - after being diagnosed with a disease similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Since that diagnosis in December 2005, Simmons First National Corp. - the parent company of Simmons First National Bank of Pine Bluff and seven other, smaller bank charters in Arkansas - has grown by more than 30 percent. The bank has remained profitable despite sluggish loan demand during and after the Great Recession and the federal takeover of the student loan business in which Simmons had been particularly active.

Simmons has even participated - although to a lesser degree than Home BancShares Inc. of Conway and Bank of the Ozarks of Little Rock - in the expansion opportunities created by bank failures outside the state. In 2010, Simmons acquired Southwest Community Bank of Springfield, Mo., and Security Savings Bank FSB of Olathe, Kan., in deals brokered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

May recently told Arkansas Business that Simmons, sitting on what he described as "a large level of excess capital," was continuing to look selectively for failing banks to acquire.

"Our focus and strategy in doing an FDIC deal is not just buying a bad bank at a deep discount," he said, "but it is buying a failed bank at the right price in a good market ... ."

May became CEO of Simmons in 1994, and during the next decade he executed 10 traditional acquisitions to expand the company's footprint throughout Arkansas while remaining fiercely loyal to Pine Bluff, a stagnant banking market that has nonetheless "been very good to our company."

Unlike most bank holding companies, especially those with the extra reporting requirements of a publicly traded corporation, Simmons has continued to operate multiple charters answering to both state and federal regulators.

"While this model is more expensive and a bit more complex," May told Arkansas Business, "we think the benefit that comes in making traditional acquisitions - recruiting and retaining excellent community bankers and differentiating ourselves from the larger banks - more than offsets the negatives associated with multiple charters.

"We have no plans to eliminate the multiple charters as long as that model is working for our shareholders, and we believe our performance has proven the model to be successful."

Growth by conventional acquisition came to a screeching halt after 2005, first because of what May delicately called "seller price expectations being too high" and then because of the recession.

"We believe traditional acquisitions will be part of our strategy going forward, but we expect most of that activity is still in the out years of 2014 and beyond," he said.

And that means it will likely be under the leadership of a new, as yet unnamed, CEO. In January 2010, May told Arkansas Business that he hoped to work four more years - until his 67th birthday, which will be in December 2013 - and he has stuck to that schedule.

"My progression has been slow, and thanks to God and my doctors at UAMS, I have been able to continue to work hard and maybe it has forced me to work a little smarter," May said.

"I've not always been accused of being real smart. In other words, it has caused me to do a better job of delegating some duties which a good banker should have done regardless of health consideration."

He credits his wife, Kathryn, who "makes sure I don't sit around and mope. In the mornings, she joins me in a cup of coffee and we share a devotional, then she tells me it's time to get to work!"


May had a long resume of education, experience and honors even before his diagnosis with ALS more than six years ago. But after his illness became public knowledge, the recognition has stacked up.

Little Rock construction company owner Bill Clark and his wife, Margaret, made a $1 million donation to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in May 2006 to establish the J. Thomas May Chair in Oncology. (A year later, Bill Clark died of cancer.)

In 2008, UAMS dedicated the J. Thomas May Center for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Research, which is supported by more than $1 million in gifts to UAMS from friends and colleagues of May.

Money continued to be raised for UAMS through the sale of red wrist bands bearing the words "I support ALS research in the honor of Tommy May."

The J. Thomas May Fieldhouse at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was completed in 2008, and in February 2010, May and the late Bill Clark were inducted simultaneously into the University of Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.


May's total compensation in 2011 was $1.05 million, down from $1.35 million in 2010, according to Simmons' annual proxy statement filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

May's base salary increased slightly to $488,625, but he received no bonus, and the $206,752 value of his stock awards was less than half of the award in 2010. He didn't exercise any stock options in 2011.

He owns almost 200,000 shares of Simmons First National Corp. stock, valued at more than $5 million at recent closing prices in the $26 range.