Posted 10/28/2013 12:00 am
Gene Whisenhunt developed an interest in business while growing up in Glenwood (Pike County). That interest culminated in his work with the Frank Hickingbotham family, a relationship that began at Little Rock’s TCBY Enterprises and continues today with Hickingbotham Investments Inc.
“I need a lot of diversity and a lot going on,” Whisenhunt said. “We have a lot going on.”
The company’s varied holdings employ 515 and produced total revenue of $371 million in 2012. The Hickingbotham Investments portfolio includes luxury auto dealerships (VIP Motor Cars of Palm Springs, Calif., Desert European Motorcars of Rancho Mirage, Calif.), Harley-Davidson stores in Tennessee and Oklahoma, food service equipment sales and distribution through Little Rock’s AIMCO Wholesale and real estate investments via FDH Enterprises Inc. and Partners Land Development.
“Accounting led me to Mr. Hickingbotham,” Whisenhunt said. “He gave me ownership opportunities. I enjoy the relationship with him and his family. We became the closest of friends.”
Whisenhunt had a bookkeeping class his senior year in high school that sparked an interest in business and accounting. A football recruiting trip to Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia led to an influential meeting with Margaret Wright, head of the Accounting Department.
“I was really drawn to her leadership,” Whisenhunt said. “That caused me to focus on accounting, and when I started down that path, it was a fit. Accounting seemed to be the best background for business, whether you stayed in accounting or not.”
He graduated summa cum laude in 1983 from OBU with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Whisenhunt followed that in 1984 with a master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in accounting from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston.
He started his career in Little Rock as an accountant with Ernst & Whinney, which became Ernst & Young in September 1989 through a merger with Arthur Young & Co.
During his 1984-89 tenure with the firm, Whisenhunt worked in the audit division and rose to manager. He enjoyed the on-the-job learning experiences afforded by a large accounting firm, but spending half his time on the road prompted a search for more family-friendly employment options.
Whisenhunt was on the brink of accepting a job offer in Hope with Klipsch & Associates in November 1989 when he was confronted with a surprise opportunity courtesy of Terry Elliott, managing partner of the Arkansas office of Ernst & Young.
Unable to talk Whisenhunt out of leaving, Elliott urged him to meet with Frank Hickingbotham and phoned the CEO of TCBY Enterprises Inc. to make it happen. “They actually made me an offer that day,” Whisenhunt said of his unplanned interview with Hickingbotham. “It was for less money and less perks, but I felt it was the best fit. When I met Frank, we just clicked.”
Whisenhunt started with TCBY Enterprises as vice president of finance and later was promoted to senior vice president of finance. In 1995, he was named executive vice president and chief financial officer of the frozen yogurt concern.
An unsolicited tender offer by Capricorn Management Inc. led to the $137.5 million sale of TCBY in June 2000. At the time, TCBY had more than 3,000 locations, with operations in 70 countries.
“That was a very good time, as far as career goes, but I had to figure out what I was going to do,” Whisenhunt said. “In my journey, that was another fork in the road where I had to decide.”
Capricorn, the parent company of other treat concepts such as Mrs. Fields, Great American Cookies, Pretzel Time and Pretzelmaker, moved the TCBY offices to Salt Lake City.
While his career path diverged from TCBY after its sale, his relationship with Hickingbotham Investments and volunteer labors in Arkansas have endured.
Whisenhunt is chairman of the Ouachita Baptist University Board of Trustees and Baptist Health Extended Care Hospital-LR Inc. He also is secretary of the Baptist Health Foundation Board of Trustees.
His past civic positions include president of the Ouachita Baptist University Executive Foundation Board and chairman of the Little Rock Christian Academy Board of Trustees.