$150 Million Sale Brings an End To Wilson Empire

Lee Wilson & Co., one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Arkansas, quietly sold in a transaction estimated at $150 million.

Formed in 1886 by Robert Edward "Lee" Wilson, his namesake agricultural conglomerate at its peak owned 65,000 acres in northeast Arkansas, four towns in Mississippi County, a bank, farm equipment dealerships, short-line railroads and more.

Wilson built the empire by buying and logging the bottomland hardwood forests and transforming the swampy fields of stumps into profitable fields of cotton, drained by networks of ditches and protected by levees.

(RELATED: Wilson Family Legacy Remains Through Wesson Farms)

The company's land holdings totaled about 30,000 acres in Mississippi County when it was purchased in December by Gaylon Lawrence of Sikeston, Mo., and his son, Gaylon Jr. of Nashville, Tenn. Details of the transaction have stayed under wraps except for a $75 million loan from Metlife used to help finance the deal.

For now, the Lee Wilson & Co. name remains, and Steve Wilson, great-grandson of the founder, is helping with the ownership transition. The sale of the legendary company marks the end of five generations of Wilson ownership.

But it's an event the family has prepared for since converting to a subchapter S corporation more than a dozen years ago. The move reduced the exposure to huge taxable gains on real estate owned by the company for decades and better positioned its 11 shareholders and three generations of family for an eventual sale.

The corporate conversion "was done because this was going to happen one of these days," R.E.L. "Bobby" Wilson V of Memphis said of the sale. "We knew that it was going to be very, very difficult for us to make it another generation. There were getting to be too many cousins.

"Our family got along really well, all things considered, and we did what we had to do. Did we get the best price we could for our land? Only time will tell. Will this land be worth more 30 years from now? Undoubtedly, but you gotta do what you do."

The timing of the Lawrence family's unsolicited offer was good for the Wilson family, too. The sale is overshadowed by favorable farmland values and a favorable tax structure.

"Sometimes it's better to be lucky rather than good," Bobby Wilson said. "If my brother Mike had lived, he would've agreed that it was time to sell."

Mike Wilson served as chairman and chief executive officer of Lee Wilson and Co. from 1987-2008. He oversaw corporate administration while his brother Steve oversaw the farming operations.

The dual leadership arrangement remained essentially intact after Mike Wilson's death three years ago. Perry Wilson, a Little Rock lawyer and vice president/general counsel for Lee Wilson & Co., took over the duties performed by his father, Mike, while his uncle Steve took on the title of CEO and continued in his role.

"My dad encouraged me to cut my own swath in life, which I did," Perry Wilson said. "He inadvertently prepared me for [taking over his role and overseeing the sale]. The family was pleased with the continuity.

"I drew a fine balance between letting the managers continue to do their job while I scurried around to learn about everyone else's jobs. They respected me, and I respected them."

Only two Wilsons, Steve and his stepmother, Mildred, will remain in the town that bears the family name. The sale of Lee Wilson & Co. doesn't affect her plans for the future either.

"I am staying here," Mildred Wilson said. "At my age I don't want to go anywhere. I've lived here 50 years and loved every minute of it."

She has called Wilson home since marrying Bob Wilson in 1961 and served on the board of directors after his death in 1987. When the family board members gathered late last year to approve sale negotiations, they did so without realizing that it would be the board's final meeting. The main action of the group was to authorize Perry Wilson to handle the sale of Lee Wilson & Co. to the Lawrence family.

"We weren't emotional about it," Mildred Wilson said. "It was just a business meeting. [The sale] was finalized before the next meeting, and that was it."

Bobby Wilson credits the family's willingness and ability to invest in land improvements that began in 1974 for continuing family ownership, despite two decades dominated by weak crop prices.

"It's so difficult to hold your property together because the return isn't there, and you have all these people," he said. "We survived when a lot of family farms went out of business.

"The two things that allowed our family to extend our ownership of the land were irrigation and leasing. If we hadn't irrigated it, we wouldn't have found the tenants, and if we didn't have the tenants, we couldn't have farmed. It was just getting too large and unwieldy."

Wilson, a senior vice president and commodities futures specialist with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, worked at Lee Wilson & Co. after college until 1988. He remembers his decision to leave the day-to-day affairs of the business to his brothers and dad.

"There was just a few too many of us, and I was interested in the futures business," Bobby Wilson said. "I really enjoyed it. I approached Mike and Stephen and said you guys don't need me."

During his time with the company, Bobby served as the president of the Bank of Wilson, chartered by his great-grandfather in 1908. The bank later branched into Osceola and was renamed Arkansas State Bank.

"I was a glorified loan officer," he said. "Maybe if my dad had me go work at a larger bank and learn how to grow a bank, it could've been an exciting job."

But that's not what happened although the family later joined forces with Frank Oldham to move the headquarters to Jonesboro, expand the shareholder base and grow the bank.

The Wilson family held a 38 percent stake when the $358 million-asset concern was sold in November 2005 to BancorpSouth Bank of Tupelo, Miss., for $51 million in a combination cash/stock deal.

Bobby Wilson recalls how his brief banking career was launched: "My dad told me, ‘The bank president died. Go over there and run the bank. You'll figure it out.'"