by Paul Gatling
Posted 12/7/2012 08:53 am
Updated 12 months ago
A little more than five years after being honored as a member of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class, James Smith is still a community-minded bank executive in Benton County.
The path from then until now, however, has been marked by ups and downs.
Smith, 42, is the commercial loan manager and market manager for Northwest Arkansas for Springfield, Mo.-based Great Southern Bank. The $4.2 billion company opened a loan production office in Rogers in 2003, and in May 2010 opened a full-service branch — its only Arkansas branch — in the Pinnacle Hills area of Rogers.
In terms of countywide deposits, $16.9 million as of June 30 this year, the bank — with 15 local employees — has a modest market share in Benton County, about 0.36 percent.
The bank’s niche, however, is easily defined. During a recent sitdown at his office, Smith said: “Our sweet spot is commercial real estate. That is what we are good at. That’s what we are great at.”
In 2007, Smith was senior vice president of private banking at Bank of Arkansas NA in Bentonville. He’d been in the industry for 10 years, long enough to pick up on the warning signs of a strained economy.
“That was about the time the meltdown was starting, and I could feel the vibrations in Northwest Arkansas,” he said. “I could feel them within my own bank. Everyone knew there was a real estate bubble here.”
The concern was enough for Smith to listen to an offer from Washington Mutual Bank to lead its retail banking expansion efforts in southern Texas. He was hired in July 2007 to put together retail-banking teams in San Antonio, Houston and Austin.
Fifteen months later, Washington Mutual — at the time the country’s largest savings and loan association — failed, and was placed into receivership. The bank’s assets were sold to JPMorgan Chase, which now operates the former banking assets as a part of Chase Bank.
“It was a pretty dark time,” Smith said.
Fortunately, Smith was chosen to stay on through the merger. But he opted to take a different route when he was recruited to Capital One Bank as a market sales executive in the Houston area.
That eventually led to a promotion, and by the end of 2010, Smith was leading strategic initiatives for business banking for the entire company.
“That went very well; everything was going according to plan,” Smith said. “Our oldest son was a sophomore in high school, and we were at least going to stay in Texas until he graduated.”
But family news required a new plan for the Smith family — moving back to Northwest Arkansas. An elderly relative living in Neosho, Mo. — the hometown of both Smith and his wife, Cindy — was in failing health, and the couple didn’t hesitate to make the move back.
“My wife said we, or at least I, have got to go back … like next week,” Smith said. “We had a moving truck loading up our stuff the next weekend.”
Smith spent about two months separated from his family while continuing his job in Houston before being hired in December 2010 at Great Southern Bank. He’s been the face of the company in the Northwest Arkansas market ever since.
Smith said Northwest Arkansas is home for him and his family, which includes two boys — a senior and a second-grader — in the Bentonville School District.
A former Bentonville City Council member in 2007, Smith ran again for city council last month, but was unsuccessful in his bid to unseat incumbent Bill Burkhart. Smith said he would continue to be active in the community as much as he can through other avenues.
Service to others, he said, has always been important to him. Smith served with the military police in the U. S. Army for five years after high school, an opportunity he cherishes.
“I wouldn’t trade that for anything; that was a big part of my life,” he said. “My family has always had a sense of service, and that is rooted in what I do.”
Smith is a past vice chairman of the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce board of directors, and was instrumental in establishing the area’s first YMCA — the NWA Mercy Family YMCA in Rogers — in 2011. The club has a little more than 2,000 members and Smith is currently chairman of the board of directors.
“It’s been a special project because it’s all about developing our youth,” Smith said. “I feel like we haven’t done as good a job as we should in doing that.”