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Jonesboro Business Leader Wallace Fowler Dies at 87

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Wallace Fowler, the Jonesboro businessman who built and sold multiple banks and led robust KFC and Taco Bell franchises, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Fowler died at NEA Baptist Hospital in Jonesboro, where his wife, Jama, died two weeks earlier at age 85.

Visitation is scheduled for 2-4 p.m. Sunday at Emerson Funeral Home in Jonesboro. The funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at Emerson Funeral Home.

Wallace Fowler was once described by his longtime friend, former Gov. Mike Beebe, as “an example of what the American dream is all about.” Another friend, Jonesboro native and Home BancShares Inc. of Conway Chairman and CEO John Allison, said Wednesday that “there are no replacements for a man like that,” and commented on Fowler’s impact on his hometown.

“I have said and still do say the people of Jonesboro should build a statue of Wallace,” Allison said. “He was the most powerful icon Jonesboro has ever had in my lifetime.”

Throughout a fruitful business and personal life, Fowler led bank companies and restaurant franchises, civic and community initiatives and gave away millions of dollars to universities and nonprofits.

Through all his business endeavors, he kept his eye on deliving good customer service.

“I wanted to do business satisfying customers, and we were very, very successful in getting the right people in the right spot,” he told Arkansas Business in 2016.  

Wallace Fowler grew up in the tiny Mississippi County community of Manila, where his father was the school superintendent. The fifth of six children, he graduated from Oak Grove High School near Paragould. One year at the University of Arkansas convinced him that he wasn’t a college man; he joined the U.S. Army and, because two of his brothers were dentists, he volunteered as a dental lab technician for three years.

While stationed in Fort Smith, he met and married Jama in 1953, and he completed his military obligation in Germany.

After that, Fowler worked nearly a year at Dillard’s Inc. in Little Rock under company founder William T. Dillard. It was the start of a career in customer-oriented retailing — even when he was selling banking services.

From Dillard’s he went to Haverty’s, where management experience in Dallas and Florida prepared him to be his own boss. He returned to his northeast Arkansas to purchase his aunt’s furniture store in Jonesboro, later buying furniture stores in Batesville, Paragould and Walnut Ridge.

In 1965, Fowler and some partners began purchasing Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises until they had more than 90 outlets and were the fourth-largest franchisee in the country.

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 struggling Citizens Bank of Bentonville. After bringing it back to health, Fowler and his partners sold the bank (which ultimately became part of Bank of America), but the banking bug had bitten.

In 1985, more than 80 of the KFCs were sold to Scott’s Food Service Inc. for $37 million — about $90 million in today’s dollars — and Fowler 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 Allison’s Home BancShares in 2013 in a $320.1 million cash-stock purchase.

Meanwhile, the Fowlers were rebuilding the restaurant portfolio, including buying back some of the stores that had been sold in the ‘80s and eventually chaining up more than 80 KFCs and Taco Bells, now managed by son Chris Fowler.

Fowler’s exceptional business acumen led to his induction into the University of Arkansas’ Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2011.

Whether he was selling furniture, buckets of chicken or checking accounts, Fowler was in the trenches. 

“We kept two airplanes in the air every day going to visit stores,” he said in an interview with Arkansas Business in 2020, when he received the newspaper’s “Legacy of Leadership” award

“I’m a big believer that you have to see what is happening in the stores, talking to the customer and making sure they are getting what they want.”

The list of Fowler’s achievements and activities is long: past chairman of KFC’s National Franchisee Advisory Council, National Advertising Cooperative and Facilities Council; past president of KFC’s Southwest Franchisee Association; former member and treasurer of Taco Bell’s Executive Committee of the International Association of Franchisees; president of the Jonesboro Economic Development Commission, executive committee of the Jonesboro Central Planning Association; chairman of the Jonesboro Municipal Airport Commission and more.

Wallace and Jama Fowler were also philanthropists, giving away millions — especially to Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas.

“He’s obviously a good businessman,” Beebe said in 2016, “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.”

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