Business Icons: George Gleason Aims Bank of the Ozarks To Be the Biggest

George Gleason is chairman and CEO of Bank of the Ozarks Inc.
George Gleason is chairman and CEO of Bank of the Ozarks Inc. (Karen E. Segrave)
George Gleason is chairman and CEO of Bank of the Ozarks Inc.
George Gleason is chairman and CEO of Bank of the Ozarks Inc. (Karen E. Segrave)

The morning after a 25-year-old George Gleason purchased the Bank of Ozark in 1979, he gathered the staff for a motivational talk.

“The theme of the speech was we may never be the biggest bank in Arkansas, but if we work really hard and every one of us does the very best we can, … we can be the best bank in Arkansas,” said Gleason, who bought the bank for $3.5 million.

Thirty-seven years later, Gleason said, he realized that he set the goals too low in that first staff meeting.

In July, after completing two major acquisitions, Bank of the Ozarks Inc. had nearly $18 billion in total assets, making it the largest bank chartered in Arkansas.

And Gleason, who has been the chairman and CEO of the company since 1979, aims to be among the largest banks in the country.

He projected the publicly traded bank will have close to $20 billion in total assets by the end of the year, and within a year or two it should have about $30 billion in assets. (As of March 31, only 55 of 6,051 banks in the country had assets of $30 billion or more.)

Growing the Bank of the Ozarks to one of the top-performing banks in the country has made the 62-year-old Gleason a business icon in Arkansas.

“I had a lofty goal,” Gleason said. “I just didn’t set it high enough. But you can always amend your goals.”

Growing up in Yell County, Gleason was the son of entrepreneurial parents who lived through the Depression. George and Mildred Gleason molded their son to take over the family businesses, which included a grocery store, dry goods store, farm and rental property.

Hard work was a way of life for Gleason.

Before daylight, he was on the family farm and didn’t leave until after 5 p.m. From there, he would shower and then work in his parents’ office, learning to keep the books or handle tax returns.

“And you worked every Saturday, and you worked every holiday. And you worked at least half a day every Sunday,” he said. “Oftentimes, you were exhausted at the end of the day.”

And he enjoyed it.

Gleason’s parents also stressed “the incredible value of knowledge and education.”

After graduating from Dardanelle High School, Gleason attended Hendrix College in Conway. His goal was to get a business and economics degree in two years, which he did.

From there, it was on to the University of Arkansas law school, where he graduated in 1977. “I was fortunate to graduate first in my class in law school, then write the top paper on the state bar exams,” he said.

Gleason quickly dismissed a notion that he was the smartest person in college. He credits his work ethic for his success. “There were a number of people in law school that were as smart or smarter than I was, but I studied really, really hard,” he said.

After graduation, Gleason began working for the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.

His practice area included securities law and handling bank acquisitions and other banking-related matters for clients.

“In the process of doing those transactions, I did a fair amount of investigation and analytics on the business of banking and the profitability of banking,” he said. “As I did that, I had a very strong sense that I would be good at that.”

Gleason’ entrepreneurial spirit grew. “And I realized … that I needed to find a way to get into business and out of the practice of law,” he said.

In 1978, King Crow, an employee of what was then Commercial National Bank, mentioned to Gleason during a lunch that he should buy a bank. “That unplanned conversation had a lot to do with the fact that I’m in the banking business today,” Gleason said.

Within months, Gleason made the move and purchased the Bank of Ozark. He used his father’s 989-acre ranch in Yell County and a trust that was established for his three sisters and himself as collateral for the loan to buy the bank.

At the time, Bank of Ozark had about 30 employees and total assets of $28 million. Now the renamed Bank of the Ozarks has more than 2,600 workers.

Away from the bank, another life-defining moment came in 1982 when Gleason became a Christian. He said he struggled for years to reconcile the demands of the banking business and his religion.

“How do you balance the requirement of being a person of faith and spend as much time and energy and effort … as you have to do to be successful in business?” he said.

Gleason, though, said he came to realize that “God needs people who are businesspeople and professional people … to share their faith and exhibit their faith in the workplace.”

The tenets of his faith are evident throughout the company, he said. “I have preached to our staff my belief that doing our job with the highest levels of integrity, honesty, fair dealing, ethics in everything we do is absolutely paramount,” Gleason said. “I’ve told the staff scores of times that I would rather be CEO of the worst-performing bank in the country and to have gotten there with our honesty and integrity intact than to be the CEO of the best-performing bank in the country and to have gotten there by ill means.”

Gleason said that over the years he’s considered moving the headquarters out of Arkansas. “I deeply love Arkansas, but as a businessman, one has to do what you’ve got to do to run your company,” he said. “Your loyalty to one community or one state can’t transcend your obligations to your shareholders to do what’s in the best interest for the company.”

Instead, the company has assembled a talented team in Little Rock, which has allowed it to remain in Arkansas’ capital city, where it’s been since moving from Ozark (Franklin County) in 1995. And there’s no indication a departure is in the works.

Instead, construction is expected to start later this year or early next year on a new corporate headquarters, approximately 180,000 SF, in west Little Rock. The completion date is set for 2018.

The company’s current home is its 92,000-SF building at 17901 Chenal Parkway.

Gleason said he doesn’t have any intention of retiring anytime soon. “I’ve said many times I will do this job as long as I am the best person to do this job,” Gleason said. “And the day that I’m no longer the best person to do this job, I will hand the reins over in a very orderly manner.

“I only work 70-80 hours a week now, so I think I can sustain this pace for a while longer,” he said.

See more at Ten Arkansas Business Icons Have Stories to Tell