Randy Dennis’ goal starting out was to find a steady job so he could support his wife and the baby they had on the way.
“I went to work at a job because I really needed a job. I made $12,000 a year working at AFS [Arkansas Financial Services] and that was more money than I thought imaginable in 1977,” says Dennis, who had just finished his master of business administration degree at the University of Arkansas.
In 1993, he founded DD&F Consulting Group, which provides performance and risk management services for financial institutions across the United States.
“We don’t do any transactions without guidance and advice from DD&F,” says John Allison, chairman of Home BancShares Inc., ranked No. 1 on the Forbes 2018 “Best Banks in America” list. “Forbes ranked us the best bank in America, and we probably wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for Randy Dennis.”
DD&F is not what Dennis had envisioned for his future.
“I never could see that far,” he says, seated in a conference room in one of the four historic buildings the company occupies in downtown Little Rock. “Being down here with the Venture Center, you have all these young guys and young girls who have this vision that they’re going to change the financial world. I never had that.”
AFS was owned by 75 savings and loans.
“At that time, the center of the savings and loan universe was Little Rock because it was the ninth district, so they served Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico, and I traveled that whole area. I did branch applications, mergers, new charters, feasibility studies, anything having to do with regulatory I was involved with,” Dennis says. “It was a great foundation to learn.”
In 1988, Dennis watched as First Federal Bank of Malvern became one of the first savings and loans to fail. When it garnered no bids at auction, he realized the state’s bankers didn’t understand savings and loans. He introduced himself to the state banking commissioner.
“I said, ‘I would just like to tell you how it works and why I think there’s an opportunity for your state banks,” Dennis says. “He liked me and that started my relationship with the Arkansas State Bank Department.”
Dennis worked with AFS to help banks across the nation understand — and buy — savings and loans.
“That worked out real well until 1992, and then all the business just quit,” he says. “By this time I had seven children and the oldest was 16 and the youngest was young.”
He started DD&F, joined by two of his AFS colleagues, Bill Deboll, now retired, and Bob Fegly, in the building that housed AFS.
“It was scary times. There was no work. It was just dead quiet,” Dennis says. “I said to those guys, ‘If you go, you can’t make what you made at AFS, you know? We’ll just pitch in and hopefully we’ll make it.’”
Dennis said he prayed a lot through those times.
“It was one of the few times God spoke to me,” Dennis says. “He said, ‘If I can handle the children of Israel, I can handle you. It’s time to go.’”
The three of them got busy, each using his own skills to make things work.
“We made a great trio,” he says. “I was the one out front in the car going to meet with banks and talking to them and putting deals together and Bob and I would get together and he would run the numbers on it and present it to boards and Bill would make sure it got approved. He would do the regulatory side.”
In 1993, more savings and loans failed, providing enough work to keep them going for another year.
“By then the banking had started taking off,” he says.
John Hargrave joined DD&F around that time, and the group moved into 601 Rock St. DD&F moved into regulatory work and chartered new banks in 1996, when they ran out of savings and loan work.
“After 2007, when the world fell apart, we worked with the Mutual of Omaha and they bought a $6 billion package — banks in Arizona, Nevada and one out in California — and at that time, about two weeks after IndyMac failed out in California the FDIC was so scared about what was going to happen they went above and beyond. As I watched what was happening I thought to myself this is the next big deal. There are going to be a lot of banks failing and this is how banks are going to be able to expand.”
DD&F put together a program for clients, explaining how to buy failed banks if they were interested in expanding.
“We did that with Bank of the Ozarks, we did that with Centennial, we did that with Simmons, we did that with Arvest and we did that with a number of others all over the country. Arkansas banks were some of the early adopters when the failed banks came out,” Dennis says.
Allison, of HomeBanc Shares Inc., was grateful to have Dennis by his side.
“He went with us when we closed. Those are kind of scary days,” Allison says. “If you wanted a transaction you showed up at the bank incognito, so to speak, and the state police are there and the feds are there and you’d just go in and take over the bank. Randy went with us to help us do the changeovers.”
George Gleason, chairman and chief executive officer of Bank of the Ozarks, says Dennis is “a great resource for Arkansas banks, and frankly, for that matter, for banks all over the country.”
He doesn’t know of another firm like DD&F.
“When we were engaged in our purchasing of the failed banks from the FDIC, he was just an invaluable resource to us because there were always a lot of questions and always a lot of uncertainties and he knew who to contact and how to ask the questions in a way that you could get an answer that you could rely on in pursuing those transactions,” Gleason says.
Gleason also considers Dennis a friend.
“He is a very devoted family man and a man of great faith,” Gleason says. “I believe him to be a man of the utmost integrity and honor in the way he handles himself. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to do business with him.”
PARTING THE RED SEA
Dennis worked many weekends but family was his focus.
“One thing Randy always did when our kids were growing up was Saturday morning ‘Doughnuts With Dad,’” says Dennis’ wife, Donna. “Just him and them for chocolate milk, doughnuts and great conversation. It was such a memory that our sons do it now with their kids and it has become ‘Doughnuts With Randad,’ as grandkids are now included.”
For the past four summers the Dennises have hosted “Cousin Camp,” a themed stay on their Monticello farm with however many of their 22 grandchildren are over 5 years old. (Another grandchild is on the way.)
“We’ve surpassed our Suburban so we have to rent a van to go down there. It is a lot of fun, the kids really enjoy it,” he says. “We usually have a biblical theme and this year we did Moses and I parted the Red Sea.”
In 1994, Dennis cashed in all of his frequent-flier miles and took his family to Europe for 32 days.
“That was the trip of a lifetime,” he says. “We went 10,000 kilometers [about 6,200 miles] and rented a J5 Peugeot van. A friend who was over there gave us camping gear and we went all over Europe, all the way down to Rome and all the way up to Legoland in Denmark.”
When Dennis’ son Chad was 12, his soccer coach quit and Dennis was called upon to take over the team, although he had not played the sport.
In 1996, he started the soccer program at Central Arkansas Christian.
“He would take off every day and go there for a couple of hours and coach kids, even though he wasn’t getting paid for it,” Donna Dennis says.
PRAYING AND WALKING
He and Chad walk together most mornings at 5:30.
“We spend time praying and talking,” Randy Dennis says. “He asks me questions about work and about his lawn business. He lives next-door to me.”
Another son, Josh, works with him at DD&F.
“Working side by side with my dad these last 13 years has been one of the greatest privileges I have ever had,” Josh says. “Not only do I get to work in close proximity to a national expert and leader in banking, and get to pick his brain on our work. I also get the added benefit of being able to talk to him about marriage, raising multiple kids, and other life challenges that come with growing up.”
Son Michael works for DD&F remotely from California where he is in seminary school, and daughter Ashley worked for him for several years before she decided to become a stay-at-home mother. She and her husband and five children moved to Chicago a couple of years ago. Jeremiah, too, works for him part time while in seminary school in California. Daughter Rachel is a missionary. Son Zach, like Chad, has a lawn-care business in central Arkansas.
“When our kids were young I encouraged them to mow yards,” Dennis says. “I remember when they wore out my mower and Chad said, ‘Dad, you need to buy a new mower,’ and I said, ‘Lesson No. 1 in business — you need to buy a new mower.’ And that was the beginning. They bought a deck mower.”
Each year, Dennis writes a Christmas card — four pages, single-spaced — about his family’s previous year.
“It’s really a neat deal to see that Christmas card,” says Nathan Waldrip, vice president and chief information officer at Armor Bank in Forrest City. “I think anytime you can see that personal side of people and relate to them in that way it has an effect, and if nothing else it gives you more respect for that person.”
Waldrip was a student in the risk management class at the Barret School of Banking in Memphis that Dennis has taught for the last few years.
Dr. Sinclair Armstrong, chairman of Armstrong Bank in Fort Smith — started by his grandfather in 1909 — contacted Dennis in the 1990s.
“We wanted to grow,” Armstrong says. “We came to Little Rock and did some strategic planning with him. Since that time we began using him as an auditor and loan review and then that morphed into acquisitions and we grew under his help and guidance and leadership from … probably under $100 million in assets and now we’re right at $1.5 billion.”
Armstrong Bank’s last acquisition was completed about 2 ½ years ago.
“Just to give evidence to how he’s respected in the industry I contacted this bank and they asked me who I was going to use and I told him Randy Dennis and they said, ‘We know Randy, too.’ They said, ‘We trust him. He’s an upstanding person,’ and so we didn’t have any other person working with us. He worked through both sides,” Armstrong says.
Dennis is grateful to be held in high esteem by his clients, but says, “We don’t want to be a household name. The only people who need to know about us are the bankers, the people who would like to have a vision. Our mission is simple: We are a servant organization. We believe that our sole mission in this company is to make our clients successful. We believe if we do that then our future is secure and then we will be successful.”
Not having sales goals and marketing targets presented a challenge as DD&F applied for the Governor’s Quality Awards.
“I thought we did pretty well but when you get involved with the Governor’s Quality Awards you can’t just say you do well, you have to prove you do well,” he says. “That was probably one of the most painful times in my life because if we mess up, if we fail to do something, if we let a client down, it just kills me. It’s personal. The Governor’s Quality Awards examiners would ask me questions and I would say, ‘I don’t know, that’s a good question. I don’t think we do that.’ Every time I had to say that I died inside.”
In 2016, DD&F received the “Governor’s Award for Performance Excellence,” bestowed on only a handful of applicants.
Dennis is no stranger to hard work, but he credits a higher power with his success.
“I hope my epitaph would say, ‘He lived a miracle life, because he wasn’t smart enough to be able to do all he got to do. He wasn’t good enough to have a great family like he did, but he was blessed,’” Dennis says. “You would never find anyone more fortunate, more blessed, than me.”
“We believe that our sole mission in this company is to make our clients successful. We believe if we do that then our future is secure and then we will be successful.” - Randy Dennis
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Feb. 2, 1953, Fort Smith
• FIVE PEOPLE I WOULD INVITE TO MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY ARE: The prophet Daniel, an extraordinarily wise man; my dad who died way too young; John Wooden of UCLA fame; Robert Lewis, retired Fellowship Bible pastor; and Abraham Lincoln, a great leader.
• MY BEST CHILDHOOD MEMORY IS: Boating on Beaver Lake with my mom and dad when I was in high school. We fished, I learned to ski up there and it was ultimately the hook that got my wife because I taught her how to ski.
• SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME IS: That I worked at a chicken processing plant in college.
• A BOOK I RECENTLY READ AND LIKED: Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.
• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT IS: To take your whole family on vacations.
• MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH IS: Probably our farm in Monticello. It's a place to play. It's about 200 acres.
• IF I COULD EAT ONLY ONE MEAL I WOULD CHOOSE: My favorite hamburger at The Box.
• I'M MOST PROUD OF: How well my family has turned out, much better than me.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Blessed