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Johnny Allison: Scenes From A Life in Business, Banking

3 min read

The Conway Area Chamber of Commerce asked Home BancShares Inc. Chairman Johnny Allison to tell his story at its annual dinner meeting Thursday, and they got a good one.

Home BancShares, the publicly traded parent company of Centennial Bank, is a $15.3 billion-asset lender that has ranked No. 1 on the Forbes’ “Best Banks in America” list for the second consecutive year. The company operates 77 branches in Arkansas, 76 branches in Florida, five branches in Alabama and one branch in New York City.

Allison, who was raised in Jonesboro, said his story began with a dream at age 12. He and his brother wanted a $350 scooter so much they slept with a picture of it under their pillow.

The boys earned $250 one summer, digging a ditch for the mobile home park their father was building. Then Allison’s father took them to a bank to borrow the remaining $100.

(Allison said that’s where he learned about “repossession,” a term that came into play much later in his life, during the Texas banking crisis of the 1980s. That’s when Allison bought 8,000 repossessed mobile homes and made millions.)

The next summer, Allison’s father put three mobile homes on a lot next to the family’s home. Young Allison sold one in 30 minutes to a couple who paid $1,000 for it. Thinking all that was profit, the he decided he was done with ditches.

Allison’s father later died of a heart attack. Insurance paid off the mobile home park and gave the family some income. Allison began selling mobile homes. In his teens, he “was getting a Ph.D. in finance and didn’t know it.”

Allison attended Arkansas State University. There, he heard Holiday Inn Founder Kemmons Wilson speak — another turning point in Allison’s life.

Wilson told him, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” Allison took that to heart.

Businessman First

Allison said he also believes all bankers should be businessmen first, like he was.

“Most bankers have never started a business … They’ve never been in that foxhole,” he said. “I grew up in that foxhole … I’m a businessman who chose banking. I believe, over the years, that has helped me.”

Allison said he’s been “blessed” in picking the right deals.

“Sometimes, it’s said it’s better to be lucky than smart. However, my football coach said, ‘The harder we work, the luckier we get.’ He also said, ‘never stop and never give up.’ He also said, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ Good lessons I practice,” Allison said.

Allison spoke about leadership, too, and said he thinks a leader must have the trust of those who follow him, engage with them and provide knowledge, vision and encouragement.

Allison graduated from college and came to Conway with $120.

“I paid my rent by the week. I ate baloney sandwiches, saved what money I had, and, at the age of 23, I bought 23 percent of the [mobile home] manufacturing company that I worked for before I had a complete understanding of how to read a financial statement,” he said.

That didn’t pan out, so Allison stuck out on his own. He bought controlling interest in a bankrupt public company, Castle, for $1, and grew that business. Allison sold his stock for $1.5 million.

After Allison sold the Castle stock, he was invited in 1982 to serve on the board of First National Bank of Conway. Allison was the smallest shareholder; that didn’t last long.

He organized a group to purchase the bank, becoming the largest shareholder and chairman.

Once again, Allison grew a business. First National Bank of Conway merged into First Commercial Corp., then sold for $2.7 billion to Regions Financial Corp.

Allison considered retiring, but he kept hearing complaints about all the local banks being bought up.

So he and Robert “Bunny” Adcock bought The Bank of Holly Grove in 1999. Beginning in 2003, Allison led the prolific round of bank purchases that created Home BancShares.

He concluded his story by attributing the company’s success to “the wonderful people of this state, from our great customers to the unbelievable quality of the people I work with everyday.”

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