Wallace Fowler, who grew up in northeast Arkansas and became one of the state’s wealthiest businessmen and bankers, says his success came from hiring the right people and making sure customers are satisfied.
“I always wanted to do business and satisfy customers,” said the 81-year-old native of Manila (Mississippi County). “We’ve been very, very successful in getting the right people in the right spot.”
Former Gov. Mike Beebe said Fowler, a longtime friend, “is an example of what the American dream is all about.”
“He’s obviously a good businessman and has created a lot of wealth, not just for himself and his family, but for other people as well, employees and associates, and he’s done it from his bootstraps.”
Fowler, who built and sold banking operations and founded Fowler Foods Inc., which ranks among the top 12 largest KFC franchisees in the nation, is a member of the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
“I’ve just been blessed even today with people who work in our chicken stores and manage our stores,” he said, adding that his son Chris Fowler is now president of Fowler Foods.
Wallace Fowler grew up in the tiny community of Manila, where his father was the school superintendent. He was the fifth of six children and graduated from Oak Grove High School near Paragould.
He attended the University of Arkansas for one year but dropped out because, he said, “it wasn’t my cup of tea.” He then joined the U.S. Army, where he worked as a dental lab technician for three years.
“My two brothers were dentists so I volunteered as a lab technician,” he said.
While stationed in Fort Smith, he met and married his wife, Jama, in 1953.
The couple later moved to Germany, where he completed his military obligation. During that time he and his wife traveled extensively in Europe.
Following the Army, Fowler worked nearly a year at Dillard’s Inc. in Little Rock under company founder William T. Dillard. Dillard’s would become among the nation’s largest department store chains.
“I learned a lot working for Mr. Dillard,” he said. “He was very nice … and very aggressive. He ran a good operation. I had direct contact with Mr. Dillard daily, and he was always selling, telling me to go to the appliance department and work there and straighten that thing or go to the furniture department.”
Fowler left Dillard’s for Havertys Furniture Store, working in management in Dallas and Florida before returning to Arkansas to purchase his aunt’s furniture store in Jonesboro.
He later purchased small furniture stores in Batesville, Paragould and Walnut Ridge.
He said he enjoyed his time working outside Arkansas but never really wanted to live anywhere other than northeast Arkansas. “It’s my home,” he said.
“I gained a great deal of experience at Dillard’s and the furniture business down in Dallas and Florida,” he said. “I learned valuable lessons.”
In 1965, Fowler and some partners began purchasing Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises until they had more than 90 outlets and were the fourth-largest franchise holder in the country.
He also developed a close working relationship with the iconic founder, Col. Harland Sanders.
Fowler’s interest in banking began in the early 1980s, when a business partner who also was an executive of Worthen Bank approached him about buying Citizens Bank of Bentonville, which was struggling financially. After owning the bank for a few years and bringing it back to financial stability, he and his partners ended up selling it, but Fowler said he enjoyed that time immensely and wanted more banks.
In 1985, more than 80 of the chicken restaurants were sold to Scott’s Food Service Inc. for $37 million, and Fowler’s banking career took off full force as he began buying and selling bank franchises.
He was chairman of North Arkansas Bancshares Inc. before selling to Union Planters Corp. of Memphis for $36 million in 1990. He was chairman of Southwest Bancshares before selling to Little Rock’s First Commercial Corp. in a $127 million stock swap in 1997, and he was chairman and CEO of Liberty Bancshares Inc. before selling to Home Bancshares Inc. of Conway in 2013 in a $320.1 million cash-stock purchase.
Fowler said dealing with people and customer service attracted him to banking.
“I certainly like the banking business because it’s a people business, the people you hire and the people you do business with,” he said. “But as far as the nuts and bolts and the fine details of banking, that was not my cup of tea. Someone else had to worry about the ratios and things like that. I wanted to do business satisfying customers, and we were very, very successful in getting the right people in the right spot.”
Meanwhile, the Fowlers were rebuilding the KFC portfolio, including buying back some of the stores that had been sold to Scott’s.
Fowler Foods now comprises 50 KFCs, one Taco Bell and 15 KFC-Taco Bell combos spread across six states. The combined 2015 revenue of the Jonesboro-based company’s restaurants topped $74 million and included 1,500 employees.
Fowler has served on the Arkansas State Police Commission and is past chairman of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
He is a past chairman of KFC’s National Franchisee Advisory Council, National Advertising Cooperative and Facilities Council, as well as past president of KFC’s Southwest Franchisee Association. He also is a past member and treasurer of Taco Bell’s Executive Committee of the International Association of Franchisees.
In northeast Arkansas, he has served as president of the Jonesboro Economic Development Commission, on the executive committee of the Jonesboro Central Planning Association and as chairman of the Jonesboro Municipal Airport Commission.
Over the years, Fowler and his wife have given to many organizations, causes and building projects across the state, including $2.93 million for construction of the chancellor’s residence on the University of Arkansas campus and $3.5 million to help fund a new UA baseball and track training center on campus. The couple also gave $5 million to Arkansas State University for construction of the Fowler Center for performing arts, and ASU has created the Wallace Fowler Scholarship for marketing and finance majors.
John Freeman, president of the banking division of Evolve Bank & Trust in Memphis, said he has been a friend of Fowler’s for 25 years and first met him working on Jonesboro community projects together.
“While my admiration of Wallace and his entrepreneurial spirit is second to none of anyone I know, the greatest personal attribute I admire most about Wallace is his loyalty to his family, friends, employees and his sincere desire to help anyone he may to make Jonesboro and Arkansas a better place to live,” Freeman said.
See more at Ten Arkansas Business Icons Have Stories to Tell