Darrin Williams stepped into leadership at Southern Bancorp Inc. after coming to prominence as a successful Little Rock lawyer and state legislator.
As CEO of Southern Bancorp, Williams, 48, oversees blending the two worlds of a for-profit lender and a nonprofit community development financial institution.
The $1.1 billion-asset Southern Bancorp Bank of Arkadelphia, one of the largest rural development banks in the nation, helps support its charitable sister company, Southern Bancorp Community Partners.
After leading at Southern Bancorp for more than three years, Williams believes an unofficial title better defines his role: “I’m not a CEO,” he said. “I’m a CCO, chief cultural officer.”
He focuses his energies on promoting a unified vision and consistent internal branding of the organization, where traditional banking backgrounds are common among the employee roster. Helping accomplish this are 25 cultural ambassadors, staffers from around Southern Bancorp’s network who compose its Brand Council.
“Putting profits above people is what led to the 2008 financial meltdown,” Williams said.
While conventional loans are welcomed as part of the mix, stretching beyond the norm to make a difference is an accepted part of the risk analysis.
That is quantified in a 10-year goal of helping 10,000 people attain affordable housing through ownership, helping create and retain 100,000 jobs and helping empower 1 million customers to save and create wealth.
That last item looks particularly ambitious given Southern Bancorp’s current count of 80,000 bank customers. Williams isn’t daunted.
Helping people build net worth helps break the poverty cycle. To that end, even small things add up, such as helping people save more by preparing tax returns at no charge or providing a check-cashing venue for unbankable clientele with bad credit or no credit.
“We will give people accounts,” Williams said. “Some may not get overdraft protection because of a really bad credit history. We are willing to take chances on people other banks won’t. When it comes to loans, we try not to say no, but we may say, ‘Not yet.’”
On a recent Tuesday morning, Williams was extra stoked, energized after the equivalent of a revival meeting for do-gooder financiers on the other side of the world at the March 7-9 conference of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values in Kathmandu.
An on-the-ground tour of microlending successes in Nepal gave inspirational juice to a literal mountaintop experience in the Himalayas.
The big impact of small loans was a powerful lesson. Loans of less than $10,000 account for 55 percent of Southern Bancorp’s lending activity.
“It’s interesting to see that all across the world, although our financial institutions are different, the issues are so similar,” said Williams, the adopted son of a Church of Christ minister and his wife. “Our mission is poverty alleviation by making financing available regardless of privilege of birth or ZIP code.”
Most of the company’s 366 staffers are devoted to the bank, which operates in eight counties in southern and eastern Arkansas as well as nine counties in Mississippi.
On his watch, Southern Bancorp has struck several deals to expand its footprint on both sides of the Mississippi.
Regulatory-mandated divestiture prompted Pine Bluff’s Simmons First National Corp. to donate in 2014 a branch at Eudora in extreme southeast Arkansas. The $15.9 million-asset Bank of Bolivar County (Mississippi) was purchased for $1.1 million in December 2014.
Southern Bancorp is buying the $42.9 million-asset Farmers Bank of Hamburg (Ashley County) in a $4.5 million transaction.
The increased cost of operating in a post-2008 regulatory environment has created more opportunities for deals with small banks struggling for profit and seeking an exit strategy.
Supported by a mix of operational income and financial benevolence, the organization recorded a profit of $10 million through Southern Bancorp Bank in 2016.
“At the heart of it, we run a loan fund,” Williams said. “No margin, no mission. If we were a pure nonprofit, we would suck at it because we pay taxes every year.”
Williams was surprised when he was asked to be the CEO in 2012. At the time, he was heading toward his last term as a state representative and serving as managing partner at the Little Rock law firm of Carney Williams Bates & Pulliam PLLC.
“I was in the business of suing banks and public companies as a partner in a class-action practice. I told them, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
But he did agree to join the board and reconsidered the CEO job in 2013 when his wife asked him what he would do if he could do anything.
“If I could do what I wanted to do, I would help people understand how to use money,” Williams said. “Every day, we’re helping people improve their lives.”
He had thoughts of running for Arkansas attorney general while serving as a Pulaski County state representative in 2009-14. He was well-acquainted with the office, having been chief deputy attorney general to Mark Pryor from 1999 to 2002.
“I would’ve loved the opportunity to serve, but I was able to serve the people of District 36 for three terms,” Williams said.
He was recognized nationally for his legislative work, including being named a 2013 Champion of Small Business by the National Capital Coalition and an Aspen-Rodel Fellow in Public Leadership by the Aspen Institute. Williams also was named as one of 12 state legislators from around the country as a Legislator to Watch by Governing Magazine.
Now, any political aspirations are subsumed by his Southern Bancorp work. “Never say never,” said Williams, a 1990 history graduate of Hendrix College. “I am a political animal, but I am a practical politician. I think I can do as much good and service for people where I am.”
He started building his leadership resume as student body president of Little Rock Central High School in 1985-86. Internships for Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen and U.S. Sen. David Pryor accompanied his college years.
Work in the Office of the General Counsel for the Securities & Exchange Commission followed his law degree at Vanderbilt University and master’s in securities and financial regulation at Georgetown.
‘Good Business Sense’
Williams remains an advocate for improving the state earned income tax credit by modeling it after the federal program. It’s a move with an eye toward helping people climb the financial ladder on their way to moving into higher tax brackets.
“These are people who are working but struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “We gotta help folks who need help. We can’t afford not to. It makes good business sense.”
Williams, a member of the Democratic Party, was tapped to preside over the House of Representatives during the 89th General Assembly. That changed when Republicans won control of the House in the 2012 general election.
That partisan, power-changing event, which hadn’t occurred in 138 years, led to Williams becoming a former House Speaker-designate instead of the first black Speaker of the House.
“I’m going to be a footnote in the history of Arkansas,” he said with a laugh. “But the right thing happened.”
As Speaker pro tempore of the Arkansas House of Representatives in the 2013 legislative session, Williams said, he was able to carry the ball more effectively for health care reform.
“Had I been the Speaker, that would not have happened,” Williams said.