Posted 10/23/2000 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
A familiar buzz is emanating from Jonesboro these days. Wallace Fowler Sr. is forming his third bank venture at an age at which many successful businessmen prefer to wind down their careers.
"Dumb things are happening. You never know," the 65-year-old executive said before fessing up.
"Yes, we are actively pursuing an opportunity to have a bank in Jonesboro.
"It appears it will be a charter from out of town, and we will start the application process to move the charter to Jonesboro."
Fowler is the third prominent investor in Little Rock's First Commercial Corp. to return to banking since Regions Financial Corp. bought that holding company in July 1998. Fowler credits Conway businessman Johnny Allison and Truman Arnold of Texarkana with inspiring him to get back into banking.
"It seemed like they were having a good time, so we decided to join the fun," he said.
Allison resigned from the Regions board of directors a month after the takeover to become a lead player in buying the Bank of Holly Grove, moving its charter to Conway and forming First State Bank. Allison, First Commercial's seventh-largest shareholder, also played a key role in organizing the new Twin City Bank in North Little Rock this year.
Arnold, a former First Commercial director and its fifth-largest shareholder, bought a 65 percent stake in the troubled First National Bank of New Boston, Texas, in 1998. Arnold rechristened it Century Bank and, earlier this year, purchased the charter for First State Bank of Gurdon to launch operations in Arkansas.
Allison has made coy references to the need for a locally owned, statewide bank network in Arkansas, which begs the question: Is there a conspiracy afoot to rebuild the First Commercial franchise and take the venture public?
"I'll tell you what I'm telling my investors in Jonesboro," Fowler said. "We're not building a bank to sell, but we may join with other banks in the state to create a bank holding company and possibly go public.
"But as far as names go, we're leaving that out of the picture. There appears to me there will be a run of smaller banks coming together to form some back-shop efficiencies and combine their power to make bigger loans. You've got to be running lean and mean."
Back in the Saddle
Fowler entered the First Commercial fold after selling Southwest Bancshares and its First Arkansas banks to the Little Rock public company in 1997.
Talk of him forming a new bank venture started not long after the Regions-First Commercial merger was announced in early 1998. Back then he observed, "No, I'm tired and worn out, and I'm not for sure I want to be in this market today. As they say, though, you never say never."
Some who know Fowler believed he would not be content to remain on the sidelines, given his enjoyment and success at building a bank franchise.
"Forty-five days ago, I would have told you it wasn't true," Fowler said last week. "I got to thinking we needed something exciting going on. During the past 30 days, I've shopped around for a bank with everyone I knew."
He won't say which bank he is finalizing a deal with. His sales calls to lenders both in and outside the Jonesboro market are credited with inspiring MidSouth Bank to advertise "This Bank is Not For Sale."
Reading between the lines, it appears Fowler was unable to strike an agreeable sales price to buy an operational bank. That means he is in the process of acquiring a dormant bank charter, a la Allison's Twin City Bank and Arnold's Century Bank.
One big advantage of purchasing an existing bank charter versus forming a de novo charter is the time frame for selling or merging. New bank charters are prohibited by law from doing either for five years.
Fowler intends to be in operation in Jonesboro by January, subject to regulatory approval. "We're taking it in steps as fast as we can," he said.
An 11,000-SF office building already is under construction on Southwest Drive. The site was home to a tennis court, part of a residential spread he once owned.
"We're thinking about putting a big sign out that says 'Future Home of ??????? Bank,'" Fowler said. "That would certainly create a lot of talk and excitement."
No name for the venture has been chosen. He is mulling over a half-dozen or so different ideas but isn't sure which, if any, of those candidates will emerge as the final choice.
"I don't think a name is that important," Fowler said.
Although final selection of a name is undecided, two of the top executive posts are filled. Fowler will be chairman of the board, and his son, Mark, will be president, a post he held at First Arkansas Bank until the sale to First Commercial.
"It hasn't been determined who will be CEO," Fowler said.
Other First Arkansas alumni have rallied to the call that Fowler is about to be back in the banking business.
"We have a marketing department but no bank, he said. "They're doing a lot of loafing right now on the golf course, PR work, I suppose you could call it."
Drumming up potential investors and making contacts with prospective clientele is more like it. Some investors have taken two profitable rides in Fowler-led bank ventures and aren't shy about a third outing. Many Southwest Bancshares shareholders made $5 for every $1 invested.
"Or more," Fowler said, "depending on when they sold their stock. I certainly don't think we'll have any trouble selling stock. We plan to make an initial stock offering in the $15 million range.
"You only need $3 million to capitalize a bank, but we hope to grow fast enough to need more money. Jonesboro is overbanked. There's no question it will be very competitive."
The retail-minded Fowler is ready to re-enter the Jonesboro banking wars and stake claim to a piece of the pie. That will come at the expense of his competitors.
Fowler is expected to repeat his First Arkansas success by making a big splash entry and building the bank into the market's leading franchise.
He could finance the venture out of his own deep pockets, but bringing in other investors is a proven formula for attracting customers and quickly building a bank.
In this context, sharing the wealth can be a profitable move.