UA Business Hall of Fame 2014: Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty

Global citizen Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty’s success is rooted in Arkansas soil. His distinguished career has spanned multiple sectors — Main Street to Wall Street, Pennsylvania Avenue to Pan-American and international highways; yet he traces his achievements back to the lessons he learned in Arkansas, and to the people who helped to inspire, support and guide him along the way.

McLarty was born in Hope on June 14, 1946. His father Frank, a respected businessman, owned Hope Auto; his mother Helen was active in the community and later became the first woman to serve on the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. They raised Mack and his younger brother Bud in a close-knit, loving home, where family, faith, fellowship and work were at the center of their lives.

An all-star high school athlete and football quarterback, McLarty also served as president of the student council and in 1963 attended Arkansas Boys’ State, where he was elected governor.

The following year, McLarty was selected to participate in the Hearst Senate Youth Program in Washington, D.C. He returned to Arkansas with an enduring commitment to policy making and public service.

At the University of Arkansas, McLarty majored in business and was student body president — launching a student bus system and inaugurating a speakers’ symposium that attracted national figures.

Named Outstanding Senior, McLarty graduated summa cum laude from the school of business — as did his classmate and college sweetheart Donna Kay Cochran. Married shortly thereafter, the young couple returned to Hope, where McLarty joined his father in expanding the family’s automotive and truck leasing enterprise.

In 1969, McLarty, 23, was elected to the Arkansas Legislature, where he coauthored bills to strengthen the economy and environment, but his growing family and business responsibilities led him not to seek reelection.

Under McLarty’s initiative, McLarty Leasing Systems embarked on a path of growth. He also directed the relocation of the company’s headquarters to Little Rock, where he and his family moved as well.

In 1979, the school bus manufacturer Ward Industries filed for bankruptcy. McLarty, investing with two other partners, bought Ward’s assets and turned the struggling enterprise around, saving several thousand jobs.

In this same era, McLarty Leasing merged with the New York Stock Exchange listed company Leaseway Transportation, and McLarty became an officer of Leaseway, responsible for the southern region.

McLarty served as president of Hempstead County Industrial Foundation; treasurer of David Pryor’s gubernatorial campaign; chairman of the state Democratic Party and member of the Democratic National Committee from 1974-76; treasurer of Bill Clinton’s 1978 gubernatorial campaign; president of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce; and the youngest director of the Commercial National Bank board. McLarty also helped create the IMPAC program, which worked to mobilize private sector support for putting personal computers in Arkansas classrooms.

In 1974, McLarty was also named the youngest board member of Arkla, Inc., a Fortune 500 natural gas company; and in 1983, was asked to serve as Arkla’s chief executive officer. During his tenure, Arkla grew to one of the nation’s largest natural gas distributors, with more than 2 million customers in 11 states.

Forbes and Wall Street Transcript recognized the company for management excellence, and the NAACP recognized it for its strong minority practices. The company also received the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s first Corporate Stewardship Award.

Also during that time, McLarty served on the Arkansas Business Council, which worked to develop and support then-Gov. Clinton’s educational reform initiatives. On the national stage, McLarty was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the National Petroleum Council and the National Council on Environmental Quality and also served as a governor on the St. Louis Federal Reserve Board.

In 1992 President-elect Clinton, McLarty’s lifelong friend, asked him to serve as White House chief of staff.

McLarty helped enact the historic, 1993 deficit reduction package, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Family and Medical Leave law, and the landmark welfare reform legislation. He also facilitated the President’s first meetings with global leaders Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin.

Later, as counselor to the President, McLarty served as White House Coordinator for the Centennial Games in Atlanta. He was also the point person for the northwest Arkansas airport, working closely with regional leaders.

He organized the successful 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami, which led to his appointment as Special Envoy for the Americas. In recognition, McLarty was awarded the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Medal and the highest civilian honors of seven Latin American countries.

Upon leaving the White House in 1998, McLarty had the opportunity to advise on the largest merger in history, which led to the creation of ExxonMobil. Shortly thereafter, he formed an international strategic advisory firm in partnership with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. McLarty continues that work as chairman of McLarty Associates, based in Washington.

While his government service had required McLarty to relinquish his business management role, the McLarty Companies continued to flourish during the 1990s. By the time McLarty left the White House, it was one of the top dealer groups in the United States, with 20 automobile dealership franchises and annual sales of roughly $600 million.

McLarty’s return to the private sector coincided with a significant period of consolidation in the retail automotive sector. The McLarty family merged its company with Asbury Automotive Group. McLarty became vice chair and a director on the Asbury board and helped take that company public.

Meanwhile, with the leadership of his son Mark, and building on McLarty’s experience as special envoy, the McLarty family began expanding their automotive endeavors abroad. Today, their fourth-generation family business has operations in Brazil, Mexico and China; founder Mark McLarty remains chief executive officer of these international entities.

In 2004, Mack McLarty reestablished his family dealership holdings in partnership with his son Franklin and his longtime friend and former competitor Steve Landers. In 2007, the company formed a partnership with Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. Today, Franklin serves as chief executive officer of RML — the largest minority-owned dealer group in the country, with 35 automotive franchises in eight states and $1.5 billion in revenue.

With Donna, McLarty has strongly supported the University of Arkansas, serving on the University’s 2010 Commission, establishing the McLarty Global Fellows program to enable international study for students, bequeathing his papers to the university, speaking at the Clinton, Fulbright and Walton schools, and delivering the commencement address in 2000, when he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws.

The McLartys are active members of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church and have been recognized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for their work in the community. They were also joint recipients of the Arkansas Humanitarian Award, as well as the American Gas Association Humanitarian Public Service Award.

McLarty’s many other civic honors include the Pinnacle Award, Easter Seals Arkansan of the Year, Sigma Chi fraternity’s Significant Sig Award, Junior Achievement of Arkansas’ Legacy Award and City Year’s Lifetime of Service Award.

But without hesitation, Mack McLarty would say his most meaningful achievement in life is his family: Donna, Mark and Franklin, daughter-in-law Gabriela and his granddaughter Brianna, who — to borrow a line from Mary Poppins — McLarty thinks is practically perfect in every way.