Warren Stephens Steps Out: CEO is Newsmaker of the Year

A series of uncommon events made 2004 a watershed year for Little Rock billionaire Warren Stephens.

The personable CEO largely maintained his veil of privacy regarding business. But he entered the public spotlight on a number of fronts, including philanthropy, sports and downtown development in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Stephens, who has led the Little Rock investment banking firm of Stephens Inc. since his 29th birthday in 1986, created a stir with his intent to help make a new minor-league baseball park happen.

He invested $5.8 million to assemble an 11.6-acre site in downtown North Little Rock for a proposed new home for the Arkansas Travelers and more.

"I bought that property to protect it," the 47-year-old avowed sports fan said. "I've always thought that piece of property was great."

The location at the southeast corner of the Broadway Bridge and West Broadway has captured his imagination. And Stephens positively gushes while envisioning what a nice addition to the riverfront scene a $20 million-$25 million ballpark would be.

"I get real excited about the ballpark," Stephens admits.

A few day games during the work week could be sprinkled among the 70-game home schedule, drawing a crowd of trolley-riding downtown workers to catch a few innings of ball while grabbing lunch at the park. Picture the nighttime view of Little Rock's skyline while enjoying a game under the lights, drawing attention from hotel visitors as well as motorists traveling along Interstate 30.

"Little Rock has something going on downtown," said Stephens, smiling at the images. "That's cool."

OK, the park is physically in North Little Rock, but that's a mere political contrivance from his perspective. He believes the two cities divided by the Arkansas River don't have to remain divided by provincial notions of us and them.

"I don't think of any difference between North Little Rock and Little Rock," Stephens said. "There was some disappointment in Little Rock circles that the park was going north of the river, but I don't have a lot of concern for that.

"There was a push to have it near the Clinton library, but I didn't think that was a good location. It just didn't fit."

Plans for the new ballpark are clipping along on pace to yield a definitive blueprint and financing package before opening day on April 7, according to Stephens.

His involvement with the project amounts to a joint venture with North Little Rock, which is bringing an additional 11 acres to the development table. A master plan for the combined 22-acre property is expected to include retail space and residential development.

A mix of public and private money is expected to bankroll the project, with Stephens donating the land in exchange for naming rights.

Talk is making the rounds the ballfield will be named in honor of a baseball great and former Stephens staffer: William Malcolm Dickey, 1907-93. Bill Dickey, a Hall of Fame catcher who grew up in Little Rock, played 17 years with the New York Yankees from 1928-46 and compiled a lifetime .313 batting average.

Stephens acknowledges the possible scenario but said no decision has been made.

Main Street

The same goes for his redevelopment plans for a dozen properties along Little Rock's Main Street between Markham and Capitol Avenue. Interest in his plans led the Arkansas Times to publish an article in July alluding to a grand $100 million revitalization plan.

Stephens said the planning process for the Main Street properties isn't as far along as some suppose.

"Nothing has really developed on that," he said. "We're still at a point where we're deciding what we want to do. What happens on that street is still up in the air.

"We don't have a $100 million plan. We have a very preliminary plan, and no one has put any dollars to it."

While Stephens controls the properties, he is not averse to forming partnerships to transform the dormant addresses into a mixture of retail and residential space.

Stephens said he bought the properties in order to have a voice in what happens with Main Street redevelopment. And he is determined to play a role in drawing some of the River Market resurgence south along Main Street.

Nostalgic childhood memories of attending movies at the Center Theatre on a a hopping Main Street helped motivate his growing real estate portfolio.

"I'd like to make it a real theater," Stephens said. "But I don't know if that will happen. We'll see."

Since purchasing the Center Theatre in 2001, he has continued expanding his Main Street holdings annually, with deals for mostly empty or dilapidated properties topping $3.3 million.

His personal assembly process officially is entering its fifth year and builds on past Stephens acquisitions along Main Street that push the total transactions to more than $9 million.

While his Main Street efforts have a do-gooder quality, he is quick to point out that the pieces of the redevelopment puzzle will have to build a financially viable mosaic.

"All these things have to make economic sense," Stephens said. "That's a fundamental thing people sometimes forget about."

He could undoubtedly put the millions of dollars represented by his pet projects into more profitable venues, but it's clear Stephens enjoys having fun as well as making money.

And fun was a prime motivation in developing his 1,200-acre ultra-exclusive Alotian golf club in west Pulaski County, which opened Labor Day. Alotian might be PGA-quality material, but Stephens isn't seeking special events to host.

"I've said on and on again we did not build it for that," he said. "It's something we would consider. Maybe a special amateur tournament or a professional event, but it would have to be great for golf and Arkansas to be considered.

"Anything to help central Arkansas and the state we can look at. But a tournament is tough on a course and an imposition on the membership. It may never happen, and that would not bother me."

Another of his fun public projects is helping fund a 7,000-mile odyssey that brought the USS Razorback from Turkey to North Little Rock's downtown riverfront. Stephens gets a kick out of seeing the World War II-era submarine jazz up the local vista. He's watching with interest as North Little Rock attempts to establish a maritime museum, with the Razorback as a centerpiece.

Stephens Inc., at his direction, donated $400,000 toward the $500,000 purchase and relocation budget of the sub, which was present at the official Jap-anese surrender in 1945.

The gift originally was earmarked to purchase and move from California the USS Hoga, a tugboat that saw service at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. However, the logistical picture of getting the Razorback cleared up first, and Stephens agreed to shift the funding to the submarine.

Stephens also helped fund his family's $30 million endowment for Little Rock's Episcopal Collegiate School this year, one of the largest lump-sum gifts to a secondary school ever. Providing scholarships to at-risk students with academic promise who couldn't afford the school's steep tuition is a prime directive of the endowment.

"Over time, that may be the most significant thing we've done in terms of providing a college prep education to as broad a range of people as we can," he said.

Stephens and his wife, Harriet, long-time supporters of the Arkansas Arts Center, have been named honorary 2005 chairpersons for the center's prime fundraiser — Tabriz. Warren Stephens is chairman of the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation.

Back at the Office

Stephens reports that 2004 was a good year for his varied business interests, though he remains characteristically sketchy on details.

Total employment at Stephens Inc., with 532 staffers in Little Rock alone, has grown from 752 to 789. The largest increases are in the Memphis office (from four to 20) and St. Petersburg, Fla., (five to 22).

"We have had a good year," Stephens said. "It's been a year of growth for us in people and in terms of business. It's been nice to have a year like this after the past two years.

"We've seen an uptick in all the businesses we're involved in. That's part of an improvement in the economy in general. There's a confidence returning to business that had been lacking."

He believes that the recessionary trend that started after the 2000 presidential election and was exacerbated by the events of September 11 is continuing to wane.

"We feel good about the future," Stephens said. "Interest rates are going to go up, but it won't affect capital spending or consumer spending in any significant way,"

He remains hopeful that meaningful strides to reform Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid will result in partial privatization. Stephens believes the moves — which would undoubtedly benefit investment firms like Stephens Inc. — will help balance the out-of-kilter financial future of the programs, caused by the continued demographic weight of aging baby boomers.

The Republican booster also likes President Bush's goal of revamping the federal tax structure.

"Five years from now, those things will make a huge change," Stephens said.

During that same window of time, the face of Little Rock-North Little Rock likely will see significant changes because of his projects now in motion.