Johnny Allison, Rotary Leader of the Year, Never Dreamed of Being One

Johnny Allison, Rotary Leader of the Year, Never Dreamed of Being One
Johnny Allison (Karen E. Segrave)

John Allison needed $100 to help pay for a scooter. 

As a young man Allison, founder of Home BancShares Inc. of Conway, and his brother agreed to spend a summer digging a utility ditch for their father, who was building a lot for his mobile home business. The duo earned $250 of the scooter's $350 price tag and went to the bank for the rest, which introduced Allison to concepts like loans, payments and interest calculations.

The lessons of hard work and money management stuck with Allison. He shared some of those lessons at Tuesday's Rotary Club of Little Rock luncheon, where he was honored as the club's 2018 Business and Professional Leader of the Year.

"We had to work for everything we got and as it turned out that's the right way to do it," said Allison, entailing career highlights and leadership concepts that have led him to the chairmanship of a $14.5 billion-asset bank with 176 offices.

Allison detailed his rise from working at his father's mobile home business, making sales and handling financial paperwork at age 13, to the series of sales, acquisitions and mergers that landed him where he is. 

"I never dreamed of being a leader," Allison said. "Most leaders don't realize they're leaders because they're so busy doing what they're doing they don't know they're leading."

Already a successful mobile home manufacturer, Allison was invited onto the board of First National Bank of Conway in 1983. In hard-driving Allison fashion he organized a group to purchase the bank and within six months was the largest shareholder and board chairman.

"And I didn't know anything about banking," Allison said.

He learned. First National Bank of Conway merged into First Commercial Corp., with Allison serving as executive committee chairman before it was sold to Regions Financial Corp. for $2.7 billion.

Allison owned Spirit Homes until selling it in 1995 and also founded Capital Buyers Inc. in 1988, purchasing failed savings and loans and close to 8,000 repossessed trailers during troubled financial times. 

"I think I went to Texas on a bicycle and flew home on a Lear Jet," Allison said.

Allison said he simply wanted to open a local bank for friends, family and former employees when he and Robert "Bunny" Adcock bought The Bank of Holly Grove in 1998.

But Allison couldn't pass up opportunities, and beginning in 2003 began a series of bank purchases that led to the creation of Home BancShares, the parent company to Centennial Bank. The $820 million acquisition of Stonegate Bank last year propelled Home BancShares to No. 1 on Forbes' 2018 "Best Banks in America" list.

Tying into Rotary's spirit of good works, Allison and his wife have been consistent benefactors to his alma mater Arkansas State and the Jonesboro community. Once inspired by Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, Allison helped establish the John W. Allison Entrepreneurial Speaker Series at the UCA College of Business.

Allison boasted that his company has created more millionaires than any other Arkansas company, noted his team is 98 percent Arkansan and, after 26 record quarters posted by Home BancShares, he predicted a 27th.

"I don't know if we're best in the nation or not but we're one of the best," Allison said.