Arkansas Business' 'Gone but Not Forgotten' (25th Anniversary)

The Arkansas business world of the past 25 years has included too many legends to condense into a list of only 25 people who are "Gone but Not Forgotten" – but we can try. 

Below, in chronological order of death, readers will find two brothers who changed the Arkansas financial landscape, the founder of a company consistently ranked as the world's largest and several politicians who shaped the laws governing business in Arkansas.

These men – and they are all men – made friends and enemies throughout the state. Their personalities influenced those around them, and as a result, each continues to play a role in Arkansas' business community today.

1. Witt Stephens
It didn't matter the business, W.R. "Witt" Stephens succeeded. He sold jewelry, belt buckles and eventually brokered municipal bonds, which is how he made his big money.

During the Depression, Stephens recognized that Arkansas municipal bonds were good investments, though many feared default. He bought many bonds for pennies on the dollar, and when the economy began improving, Stephens sold them for a healthy profit. With the money, he established Stephens Inc.

Witt Stephens passed the running of Stephens Inc. on to his younger brother, Jackson T. "Jack" Stephens. Witt Stephens then set his sights on natural gas, buying Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. The firm had a poor earnings record, but within two years, Witt Stephens increased earnings from $1.8 million in 1954 to $7.2 million in 1956, when he sold the company. He stayed on as president and chairman at Arkla, extending gas service.

Witt Stephens died in 1991.

2. Sam Walton
Love his company or hate his company, almost everyone recognizes Sam M. Walton's name.

Walton built his local store into a retailing empire that made Bentonville a city that all companies recognize and visit. His formula: keep prices low. His methods: anything from computerization to reducing packaging waste.

Already a retail veteran, Walton opened the first Wal-Mart in Rogers in 1962 and out-competed several larger retailers who also saw discount stores as a possible moneymaker.

And despite his down-home appearance and manner, driving a pickup truck rather than riding in a limo, Walton stayed ahead of the technological curve. He began computerizing operations as early as 1966, and the company has remained a trendsetter since.

Walton died in 1992.

3. Orval Faubus
One event will forever define Orval Eugene Faubus: the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957.

Faubus opposed the federal government's attempts to integrate the school. He called on the National Guard to keep nine black students from entering Central, placing Little Rock in the center of a national dialogue about race.

While now viewed as a devastating choice – for race relations, the state's image, simple justice – the decision helped Faubus win re-election four times.

Faubus died in 1994.

4. Herschel Friday
Friday Eldredge & Clark of Little Rock is still most commonly known as "the Friday firm," a nod to founder Herschel Friday.

Friday built his law firm into the state's largest, a title it still holds. And his reputation as a litigator almost landed him on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Friday never achieved the nomination, in part because, as the Little Rock School District's general counsel, he represented the district and others in the fight against desegregation. Those who knew Friday say that he was only doing his job and did not share the attitudes of those he represented.

Friday died in 1994 in a plane crash.

5. Mahlon Martin
Mahlon Martin was the first black city manager of Little Rock and, during Bill Clinton's first term as governor, became the first African-American to head the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration. He went on to head the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, in 1989.

During his time in public service, as both city manager and head of the DF&A, Martin earned a loyal following. He was extremely popular, and his support was central in earning approval of Gov. Clinton's budgets and spending proposals.

Martin died in 1995.

6. John Cooper Sr.
John Cooper Sr. had the ability to make communities out of almost nothing. That ability helped him found Cooper Communities Inc. of Rogers, a development company that created Cherokee Village, Bella Vista Village and Hot Springs Village – three retirement communities.

Each has attracted retirees from around the nation, and the company now manages eight communities, ranging from 900 to 36,000 acres. More than 100,000 families call Cooper communities home.

John Cooper died in 1998.

7. Richard Butler Sr.
It's tough to say whether Richard C. Butler made his name in law or banking.

He worked with the Little Rock School Board to extend the district's time to desegregate its schools, arguing that immediate desegregation would make maintaining viable public schools nearly impossible. The U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled against the school board after only 30 minutes of deliberation.

Butler began working in the banking business not long after, joining the board of directors of Commercial National Bank in 1962. He became president in 1963 and served as chairman from 1968 to 1981.

Butler spent much of his time afterwards as a philanthropist.

Butler, who was ill and did not want to become an invalid, ended his life in 1999 at the age of 89 by jumping into the Arkansas River from the Interstate 430 bridge.

8. John Robert Starr
He posed vested but shirtless squatting on top of a newspaper box with a knife clenched between his teeth.

Thus did John Robert Starr declare to the world that he was ready to wage a fight-to-the-death newspaper war with a much larger, more established paper.

Starr became managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat in 1978 and soon began taking on the Arkansas Gazette. Starr insisted that the Democrat cover news across the state and write in a style accessible to everyday readers.

Starr's confrontational style and determination to beat the Gazette paid off when, in 1991, the Democrat's owner, Walter Hussman, shut down the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi. In 1992, Starr resigned from what had become the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Starr died on April 1, 2000.

9. Herbert Hall McAdams II
Herbert Hall McAdams II understood how to buy and sell banks. He bought Little Rock's Union National Bank in 1970 for $10 million. The bank later was sold to Worthen Banking Corp. of Little Rock for $115 million.

But the man who had once vowed to leave Arkansas because it was "backward" instead made an indelible mark on the state through his business acumen. McAdams, a Jonesboro native, was also CEO of Citizens Bank of Jonesboro for 32 years. He played a large role at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, founding the Arkansas State University Foundation Inc. in 1977 and serving as its chairman until 1992.

McAdams died in 2001.

10. William T. Dillard
William T. Dillard decided early on that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. Dillard's father was a merchant in Mineral Springs (Howard County). And while Dillard wanted to follow his father, he also dreamed of expanding beyond Mineral Springs and Arkansas.

At 23, after training at Sears Roebuck & Co., Dillard founded T.J. Dillard & Co. in Nashville, the Howard County seat, in 1938. Before long, he began buying other chains and assembling Dillard's Inc. In 1969, Dillard took his company public, and its annual sales reached $7.8 billion in 1998, the year he turned over the chief executive job to his son.

Dillard died in 2002.

11. Paul Klipsch
Paul Klipsch decided he wanted to bring concert sound to living rooms everywhere. So in 1946, Klipsch & Associates of Hope began building and selling home speakers that cost $400. It took several years for the speakers to take off, but as rock and roll became more popular, sales began to increase.

The patents Klipsch filed for his speakers earned him a place in the Audio Hall of Fame and Engineering & Science Hall of Fame.

Kipsch sold the company for an undisclosed sum in 1989. The company had $20 million in sales and employed 220.

Klipsch died in 2002.

12. Sid McMath
Sidney Sanders McMath made a name for himself many times over.

He became student body president at the University of Arkansas and was a decorated World War II veteran. He beat the Hot Springs political machine of Mayor Leo McLaughlin by winning the prosecuting attorney's race in 1946, after which he promptly filed a suit against the mayor that led to McLaughlin's downfall.

Oh, and he served two terms as governor. He was, by all accounts, an ambitious man. McMath lost his attempt to win a third term as Arkansas' governor in 1952. He also lost subsequent runs for U.S. Senate and a race against Gov. Orval Faubus in 1962.

McMath's successful law practice lives on in Little Rock as McMath Woods.

He died in 2003.

13. Frank Durward White
He was the last man to beat Bill Clinton.

Frank White snatched the governorship from the Boy Governor in 1980 and served one term before Clinton returned the favor.

White, a Texarkana native, became a prominent Little Rock figure on moving to the city in the early 1960s. He eventually took a job with Commercial National Bank and became involved in the Jaycees. He also served as director of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and helped found Fellowship Bible Church of Little Rock.

White was State Bank Commissioner at the time of his death in 2003.

14. Richard Arnold
Richard Sheppard Arnold's first-class legal mind earned him a spot on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and he even had his       name tossed about as a possible U.S. Supreme Count nominee. President Clinton decided against nominating his fellow Arkansan because he had undergone treatment for lymphoma.

Arnold never managed to follow several of his family members into the U.S. Congress, but he attempted twice, losing in 1966 and 1972. The U.S. Courthouse in Little Rock is named after Judge Arnold, who died in 2004. 

15. Louis L. Ramsay Jr.
Louis L. Ramsay Jr. mastered two professions, serving as president of both the Arkansas Bankers Association and the Arkansas Bar Association.

He is probably best remembered, however, as leader of Simmons First National Bank of Pine Bluff. He became president in 1970 and assumed the chairman and CEO roles in 1973, holding the posts until 1983.

And even after he had stepped back from his roles at Simmons, Ramsay was elected by Pine Bluff residents as the City's Most Influential Citizen in 1989.

Ramsay died in 2004.

16. Fay Jones
When he first started school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the only architecture classes E. Fay Jones could choose from were in the engineering department. When the university started a new program under the direction of John Williams, Jones enrolled. By 1974, Jones was the first dean of the university's school of architecture.

Early in his career, Jones struck up a friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright, the most recognized name in American architecture. Jones apprenticed and worked with Wright off and on after World War II, with Wright's organic style influencing Jones.

Jones earned the American Institute of Architect's Gold Medal in 1990. His Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs was ranked fourt, right, on the AIA's top designs of the 20th century.

Jones died in 2004.

17. Jack Stephens
Jackson T. "Jack" Stephens joined his brother, Witt, at Stephens Inc., an investment firm Witt Stephens founded to trade Arkansas municipal bonds. Jack Stephens became CEO in 1956, when the brothers united, and held the job until 1986, when his son, Warren Stephens, took the helm.

Under Jack's leadership, Stephens Inc. became one of the largest investment banks in the mid-South. And Jack Stephens' business sense helped the company cash in on Alltel Corp.'s 1990 purchase of Systematics, an information technology company. The company sold for $528 million in stock. Stephens Group Inc. owned 48 percent of the company's stock at the time.

Stephens' acumen also helped the firm make more than $350 million by spending $30 million to recapitalize Worthen Banking Corp. in 1985.

Jack Stephens shared some of his success with the world, donating to a number of charities. His $48 million gift to UAMS, the institution's largest ever, allowed the medical school to build the Spine & Neurosciences Institute that now bears Stephens' name.

Jack Stephens died in 2005.

18. Ernest Joshua
Ernest P. Joshua Sr. started his company, J.M. Products Inc. of Little Rock, in the mid-1970s by himself.

The company, which now has operations in the Caribbean and Africa, has since become one of the largest manufacturers of ethnic hair care products in the nation. It maintains its headquarters and two production facilities in North Little Rock and Little Rock.

The company grew thanks to its flagship Isoplus brand, but Joshua and his wife, Thelma, diversified their holdings into salons and barbershops and a beauty school.

Joshua was the Small Business Administration's 1986 Arkansas Small Business Person of the Year.  He died in 2005.

19. B. Finley Vinson
One can't pass the Regions Building in downtown Little Rock without thinking of B. Finley Vinson.

Vinson started his banking career with People's Bank of Little Rock shortly after leaving the Navy. Vinson's boss told him to focus on marketing the bank, and that's what he did. People's Bank changed its name to First National Bank based on Vinson's suggestion.

The bank's growth warranted a 600,000-SF, 30-story building at Capitol and Broadway. Construction began in 1973. In 1993, First National merged with Commercial National, forming First Commercial Bank. Regions Bank bought First Commercial in 1998.

Vinson died in 2006.

20. J.B. Hunt
J.B. Hunt, sporting cowboy boots and a cowboy hat almost all the time, earned a reputation as a visionary in the trucking industry.

Hunt saw his first trucking opportunity when he noticed Arkansas farmers burning rice hulls, a good litter for poultry. Hunt began shipping the excess hulls to poultry farmers, growing into the largest rice-hull carrier in the country by the end of the 1960s. Soon Hunt had turned his company into a trucking empire.

He also set the curve among carriers by keeping costs lower than competitors and going public in 1983. In addition to introducing many innovations that created better efficiency in transportation, Hunt formed the industry's first intermodal operation, teaming with what is now BNSF. 

Hunt died in 2006.

21. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller
Forbes magazine estimated the fortune of Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, among the heirs to John D. Rockefeller, at about $1.2 billion, a number Win Paul said was too high. Whatever his worth, it was substantial.

Despite this, Rockefeller earned a reputation as a hard-working public servant. The son of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller served two terms as Arkansas' lieutenant governor, donating his salary to charity and traveling on his own dime to recruit foreign investment in Arkansas.

Rockefeller announced he would run for governor in 2006, but his health forced him to withdraw.

Rockefeller died of a blood disorder in 2006.

22. W.E. Ayres
W.E. Ayres grew up in the South, but not in Arkansas. He became a fixture in Arkansas, however, thanks to his work at Simmons First National Bank of Pine Bluff.

A few years after graduating from Millsaps College in his home state of Mississippi, Ayres took a job at Simmons. By 1969, he was a senior vice president. By 1977, he was a director. And in 1985, he took the reins as the bank's president, a title he held until retiring in 1995. For fun, he then became president emeritus until his death in 2006.

23. Bill Clark
William Clark took full advantage of an offer he received around 1987. Clark started CDI Contractors that year, partnering with Dillard's Inc. of Little Rock.

The company originally began building many of Dillard's stores. Business branched out from there, with revenue eventually topping $500 million. Commissions also began rolling in from clients outside of Dillard's. Clark and his firm built the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Immanuel Baptist Church and Episcopal Collegiate School.

Clark died in 2007.

24. Jack Fleischauer
Jack Fleischauer's résumé included executive positions at Arkansas banks such as Worthen Bank & Trust, National Bank of Commerce at Pine Bluff and First Commercial Bank, which Regions Financial Corp. bought.

After the purchase, Fleischauer became president of Regions' western region, including Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and western Tennessee. He remained engaged in the communities he lived in, spearheading several United Way campaigns in cities where he lived. He was also among the group that founded the King Cotton Holiday Classic at Pine Bluff.

Fleischauer died in 2007.

25. Bill Gwatney
Bill Gwatney was a hard-nosed legislator during his 10 years in the state Senate. His colleagues dubbed him "Gwatzilla," a nicknamed based on the Godzilla-like monster that appeared in commercials for his family's three car dealerships and his commanding presence.

Gwatney was chairman of the state's Democratic Party when he was shot dead at the party's headquarters in 2008. 

 

(Click here to see all the stories in our anniversary edition. Or click here to flip through each page of the edition in this special free electronic version.)