March 8, 2023 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm Statehouse Convention Center Little Rock
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Thomas Franklin “Mack” McLarty III

Thomas Franklin “Mack” McLarty III
Legacy of Leadership

When asked about the many state, national and world leaders with whom he has engaged over the course of his private sector and public service career, Thomas Franklin McLarty III responds with the same sense of gratitude that was on his 10-year-old face when he announced two innings of St. Louis Cardinals baseball with Harry Caray.

The man universally known as “Mack” has repeatedly stepped up to lead — sometimes eagerly, sometimes reluctantly, but always guided by the values he learned growing up in Arkansas: family, community, integrity, faith and hard work. 

McLarty was born in Hope, the county seat of Hempstead County, in June 1946. Two months later, William Jefferson Blythe III would be born in the same small town, and the two would remain friends even after Billy Blythe moved to Hot Springs and took his stepfather's last name, Clinton.

"Hope's name was probably reflective of that era in time and place … and I was a beneficiary of that," McLarty said. "I had wonderful parents, loving parents, supportive parents, Helen and Frank McLarty. They never pushed me, but they always supported me. I'm certainly standing on their shoulders. There's no doubt about that."

Engaged in student council in high school, McLarty became president of the student body at the University of Arkansas, where he fulfilled two campaign promises: to start a campus transportation system and launch a speaker series. In 1968, he graduated third in his class from UA's business school, and the classmate he would promptly marry, Donna Cochran, finished second. "I've almost come to terms with that,” he said with a warm smile.

Mack and Donna made their home in Hope after college, and Mack joined his father in the family business. In the mid-1950s, Frank McLarty had purchased the automobile dealership in Hope where his father had been general manager and a minority owner, and he added a dealership in Texarkana a few years later. But the business really took off, Mack said, when his father started a truck leasing company to serve the blossoming poultry industry.

This was the business McLarty joined when he came back from Fayetteville, with clients including many household names in Arkansas business: Hunt, Tyson, Mountaire, Meyer’s Bakeries and Arkansas Power & Light.

In 1970, the 24-year-old McLarty was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives. After a single two-year term, fatherhood and the demands of a growing business persuaded him not to run for reelection.

While building the truck leasing business, McLarty was elected to the boards of directors of Arkla Inc., the publicly traded natural gas utility, and Commercial National Bank (later First Commercial Corp.). He joined the executive suite at Arkla in 1983 as president and succeeded Sheffield Nelson as chairman and CEO in 1985, where he navigated the era of deregulation and Arkla emerged as a Fortune 500 company.

He worked to help his lifelong friend Bill Clinton get elected president in 1992, but he had never worked in Clinton's gubernatorial administration. The day after the election, he was surprised when Clinton asked him to be chief of staff.

"When someone asks you to help them serve the country, the right answer seems to be 'Yes, sir, I'd be honored.'"

McLarty spent a year and a half as Clinton's chief of staff, initially getting the White House staff and Cabinet in place, and then leading the president’s landmark economic plan in Congress, which later led to a balanced federal budget. McLarty then spent four years as counselor to the president and special envoy for the Americas, helping drive a range of successful initiatives including the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, hosting the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami and serving as White House coordinator for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. 

He left the administration in 1998 to return to the private sector, dividing his time among Washington, Little Rock and Hope. He established an international strategic advisory firm, McLarty Associates, later partnering with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and he continues that work today as chairman. His other ventures include RML Automotive, co-founded with Steve Landers and partnered with Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, which is now the largest minority-owned dealer group nationwide; and McLarty Cos., which comprises other business ventures. 

“It means a lot to Donna and me that we are now fourth-generation participants in the business sector, with our sons Mark and Franklin engaged in their own business and civic endeavors,” McLarty said, “and our Arkansas roots are still as strong as ever.” At a time when the average lifespan of most businesses is measured in decades, the McLarty Cos. recently celebrated their centennial — a legacy of leadership indeed.

Previous Arkansas Business of the Year Honorees