Johnny McCaleb remembers rolling west across the Mississippi River bridge at Helena en route to the start of his post-collegiate career in 1976. Looking back, the “Welcome to Arkansas” sign with its “Land of Opportunity” motto proved to be more than a drive-by greeting.
The message became a harbinger, heralding the launch of his 45-year Arkansas-centric career in accounting. Along the way, the Ole Miss grad got to work with some of the state’s ascending public companies and a slew of cherished colleagues.
“Arkansas has truly been a land of opportunity for me,” said McCaleb, who grew up in Cleveland, Mississippi.
In college, he briefly toyed with football as a vocation but instead turned to thoughts of becoming a lawyer. Political science, initially envisioned as his undergraduate path to attorneyship, shifted to accounting.
“I liked it so much I stayed,” McCaleb said of his decision to forgo law school.
He came to Arkansas to join Little Rock’s Russell Brown & Co., then the largest public accounting firm in the state. In 1978, McCaleb became a certified public accountant and followed that by wading into Securities & Exchange Commission-tailored accounting for public companies.
His early years were spent working with financial institution clientele that included the 1983 merger of two Little Rock bank holding companies, First National Bancshares Inc. and Commercial Bankstock Inc., to create First Commercial Corp.
His work for Tyson Foods coincided with the poultry processing giant ramping up its activity on the mergers and acquisitions trail. The Springdale company’s lengthy battle with rival ConAgra Foods Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska, for Holly Farms Corp. of Memphis is a standout memory.
Tyson’s nearly $1.3 billion purchase of Holly Farms closed in 1989 and took the company into heightened national prominence.
“It was an amazing company to work with,” McCaleb said of Tyson Foods. “I got to do things I never did dream of with an Arkansas company that became an international company.”
The same merger mania that created business opportunities with clientele produced consolidation in his profession as Russell Brown was acquired by Arthur Young & Co. in 1982, which merged with Ernst & Whinney in 1989 to form Ernst & Young.
“The odds of making partner at a Big 8 accounting firm didn’t look good,” said McCaleb, who made partner with Ernst & Young in 1999. “But I developed the same strong relationship with Tyson that I had with First Commercial. My career really took off then.”
In 2005, he joined Baird Kurtz & Dobson (today’s BKD LLP) as an audit partner in advance of the announced closing of Ernst & Young’s Little Rock office. Nearly six years ago, he received a phone call from the chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff.
“They were looking for someone with SEC and banking experience, and I had tried to pick them up as a client forever,” said McCaleb, who joined Simmons in January 2016. “It’s been a blast.”
Among his civic endeavors, McCaleb has served on boards for Arkansans for Drug Free Youth and CARTI Inc.
“I have always taken personal development of those who worked under me with the greatest importance,” he said of his greatest accomplishments. “Secondly, I have always taken client relationships and providing quality service as a top priority, and I served most of my clients for 20-plus years.”
He sums up his management philosophy as: “Take care of your clients, provide outstanding service and never surprise them, and develop a strong team to work with. Enjoy what you are doing, and if you are not, find something else.”