Lowell McClanahan

By DANIEL MARSH Published March 25, 2012 at 2:54 a.m.
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— Lowell McClanahan said he has lived three lives: as a Navy aviator, a corporate executive and, most recently, as the interim chief financial officer for the city of Conway.

While he found his career as a Navy pilot thrilling, McClanahan said one word has defined the majority of his professional career: “vision.”

“Everybody who knows me knows I can’t say two sentences without the word ‘vision,’” McClanahan said. “It is hugely important to individuals, cities, states, nations and governments. I try to get everybody tied to a vision. It’s a way of asking questions to determine where you want to go and how you are going to get there. You don’t attain the vision, but it’s important to take all the steps along the way.”

McClanahan said he has always seen himself as a leader and has pursued that role in all levels of his career. But life for McClanahan began in the Arkansas County town of Gillett.

“It was a farming community focusedon football,” McClanahan said. “Every ablebodied boy played.” McClanahan said he played right end for the Gillett Wolves and was an all-district player.

“I preferred basketball, which there was not much interest in, but people from all around came for football,” he said.

McClanahan’s mother, Ruth, was a housekeeper, while his father, August, was the barber in Gillett “for a long, long time.”

As a Gillett football player, McClanahan participated in the town’s most well-knownevent - the Coon Supper.

“It started out in 1943 as a celebration where the football players got their jackets and awards,” McClanahan said. “Since then, it’s become more of a political event. It has continued every year, even though the school has closed. The town only has about 700 people, but the Coon Supper can bring in up to 1,200.”

He said participating in the Coon Supper in those days was wonderful.

“They put [the players] on a pedestal,” he said.

McClanahan said his life really began after he graduated from high school in 1961. Planning to become a teacher, he enrolled in Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) and graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science degree in education. Then he and a friend decided to apply to the U.S. Navy.

“He got weeded out,” McClanahan said of his friend, “but I became a pilot. He looked like Sean Connery in his JamesBond days - of the two of us, nobody would have guessed that I would be the one who’d go on to seven years of active duty.”

Though his Navy career was beginning just as the war in Vietnam was heating up, Mc-Clanahan said he was “excited and naive” about joining the military. “As I look back on my 20s, I ask myself how I could have done a better job of putting together a decade. I was doing things my peers could not have imagined.

“I spent seven years on active duty and another seven years in the Reserve. I was promoted to commander in the Naval Reserve in 1979 without setting foot on a ship. I do have 12 carrier landings.”

He said his first carrier landing, aboard the USS Lexington, was one of the most exciting moments of his life.

“I was the fourth plane in a four-plane formation,” he said. “The Lexington looked like a postage stamp. As I came around, it became more reasonable for me to land on. I was too naive to be scared.”

In his career as an aviator, McClanahan flew the P-3 Orion, an antisubmarine aircraft.

“My favorite mission was flown out of Rota, Spain, in 1968,” he said. “We flew out one night into the Atlantic. We turned around and came back to the Mediterranean. I was looking out at the Straits of Gibraltar. We had a very powerful lamp on our wing, and we lit up a Soviet nuclear sub going into the Mediterranean at the same time. We took pictures of the sub and reported it to the intelligence people. The picture was classified top secret, but two years later, it was on the cover of Time magazine.”

McClanahan said he and his flight crew would fly to 20,000 feet and drop sonabuoys - floating microphone devices that enabled Americans to listen for Soviet submarines.

“From the signal in the water, we could identify the particular sub,” he said. “We were afraid we’d actually find one and have to kill it, but [the Soviets] were a ragtag operation.”

McClanahan said he enjoyed life in the military. He married Marsha Black of Conway in 1968, and they began raising a family.

“We have two sons, David and Douglas. I tried talking David into attending the Naval Academy, but he would have none of it at first,” McClanahan said. “Then he called me one day and said, ‘I hate my job.’ Today he is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Florida.”

McClanahan said he discovered his real “life mission” when he attended the University of North Florida for a master’s degree in business.

“I loved accounting,” he said. “I got a job at a wire company in Jacksonville, Fla., and I was going to school at night. At work, I would ask how the accounts receivable were handled, and pretty soon I had the company running like a textbook.”

McClanahan’s knowledge of cost accounting landed him a position with Xomed Inc.

“Cost accounting is an art not taught in college,” he said. “But it’s a skill that was in great demand. I was 32 and competing with younger applicants who had their CPAs, but I was doing what the president of the company wanted done.”

McClanahan was the chief financial officer of Xomed for 12 years, until Bristol-Myers Squibb acquired the company in 1989 and attached it to the Zimmer Patient Care Division, over which he was CFO for eight years.

“When I was the CFO, we were the most profitable division of Zimmer,” he said.

During his years with Zimmer, he learned the importance of “visioning,” he said.

“We decided what we had to do in order to remain the most profitable division,” McClanahan said. “You have to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, identify opportunities and threats, and establish your strategy. You are taking action with your eyes open.”

While in Dover, Ohio, working for Zimmer, McClanahan made another longtime commitment - to the Rotary Club.

“I enjoy the Rotary life,” he said. “It is the pre-eminent civic organization.”

He is in his third year as treasurer of the Conway Rotary Club. Prior to that, he was the club’s sergeant at arms.

A family illness brought the McClanahans to Conway, where they have lived since 2004.

“I was enjoying my retirement,” he said, “but one night in 2009, I was watching the news and started throwing my shoes at the TV.”

Fed up with the rising federal deficit, and with Washington’s seeming inability to stop it, Mc-Clanahan formed the Faulkner County Tea Party.

“I am discouraged about our government leadership,” hesaid. “Every level of government frustrates me, and I felt the need to get involved on a positive basis.”

He said the Faulkner County Tea Party promotes constitutional government and fiscal responsibility.

“We believe in being frugal. We also believe in education,” he said. “We want people to have the correct information so they can make their own decisions.”

He said the county’s tea party has about 500 members.

“We are for good government, not no government,” he said.

One side effect of his activism, he said, was getting more involved in local politics.

“We formed watchdog groups that we would send to meetings to listen,” he said. “I went to a Conway City Council meeting and didn’t say a word. The next night, the city’s CFO resigned.”

At issue was a reported shortfall of $2 million. McClanahan said he contacted Mayor Tab Townsell, told him of his accounting expertise, and was soon named interim CFO.

“I loved working in the finance department,” he said. “They have great people working there.”

He realized that many of the same issues and difficulties in Washington, D.C., are apparent on a local level.

“I worked on making sure the city had accurate cash-flow projections,” McClanahan said. “They had not had that before. I tried to work with the council using my experience in the corporate world to decide whether the right questions were being asked.”

He said he found that the correct questions were not being asked.

“Fund accounting makes it difficult for people to understand what is going on,” he said. “At Zimmer, we obviously had a profit motive, which was easily defined. But how do you know if you have succeeded or failed if you are the director of a parks department? There is no clear guideline for success.

“When I volunteered, it was thought that the city had lost $2 million, but no money was lost. The fund accounting reports were so complex that people could not understand them.”

He said a “misreading of the financial report” led to the controversy.

“They needed better financial management at the city,” McClanahan said. “I set about getting routine management reporting procedures so that everyone could understand where they were.”

Townsell said his experience working with McClanahan for 18 months made him “a better mayor.”

“City finances are a complicated matter,” Townsell said. “It’s like running 21 different businesses. Each one has differentrules and regulations. Lowell brought in 20 years of experience from Bristol-Meyers Squibb. He brought a more businesslike approach to government, and he was a joy to work with.”

Townsell said McClanahan left the city in a better financial position.

“I think the mindset that he’s left us all in will prevent us from having that kind of problem inthe future,” Townsell said.

Though McClanahan said he feels positive about Conway’s fiscal condition, he feels less so about the nation’s.

“Nobody is willing to lead toward fiscal responsibility,” he said. “I am not optimistic about a solution.” He and his wife are preparing to move to Niceville, Fla., to be nearer their grandchildren.

“We’ve loved living here,” Mc-Clanahan said of Conway. “It’s a great community with wonderful people. Niceville is a lot like Conway in terms of size. We are drawn there by our grandchildren and saltwater fishing.”

Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or at dmarsh@arkansasonline.com.

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closegetting to know Lowell McClanahan

Birth date: April 24, 1943

Birthplace: Gillett

Biggest influence: High school math teacher Bill Wilson

First job: Farm laborer/tractors and shovels

As a child, you said, “When I grow up, I want to be”:

Independent

One thing you want to accomplish in life but haven’t:

I would like to have the opportunity to become an effective

influence working to solve our country’s economic

problems.

Most people don’t know: I’m an introvert.

I cannot live without: My darling wife, Marsha

My favorite memory is: The day I landed an airplane on a

carrier, the USS Lexington

Hobbies: Fishing (particularly in saltwater), photography,

golf and reading

Favorite quote: “All truth passes through three stages.

First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it

is accepted as being self-evident.” - Arthur Schopenhauer

Favorite author: Vince Flynn

Favorite book: The Source by James A. Michenor

Favorite movie: Atlas Shrugged

None DANIEL MARSH can be reached at .

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