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HIGH PROFILE: Larry Middleton knows his family’s story must be about more than its success, but also its struggle

by Kim Dishongh | December 8, 2019 at 2:20 a.m.
“It is our story. I’m proud of our family and what it’s become, where it came from and what it is today, and I can’t wait to see what Mark’s children and Blake and Seth and Anna Grace, what they have in store for us. It’s going to be amazing and I’m sure it’s going to have all the ups and downs that ours did but in a very different way.” - Steven Laurence Middleton

As a 16-year-old, Larry Middleton sacrificed the Toyota Celica he had saved for to give his family's business a chance.

By the time he was 17, he was trying to figure out how to buy a house.

"As a sophomore, while the other kids were interested in sports, I was very interested in finance," says Middleton, executive vice president at Stephens Capital Management. "Real estate was my first passion. I was reading the real estate transactions in the business section of the newspaper."

Back then, the Middleton family had frequent meetings around their dining room table, a momentous one resulting in their collective decision to start a company.

"We wanted to try to change our plight, and we all had a vote. We made the decision that we wanted to start a heating and air conditioning business," he says.

It takes money to make money, though, hence his decision to sell his car to cover the cost of a new truck for what would become Middleton Heat & Air.

Middleton's childhood was idyllic and marked by economic challenges, and he is gratified and mildly self-conscious about his grown-up success.

"I think sometimes when you walk into a setting like this," he says in the library of his spacious Chenal home, "the presumption is trust account, inheritance, entitlement, none of those. If you saw the former home and you saw the challenges and you saw the hard work and the unknowns and the chance that we are inspired now to make these kinds of decisions and help others ... it's really gratifying to me."

BOND, JAMES BOND

Middleton and his siblings, Mark Middleton and Sandy Middleton Marshall, are chairing the Arkansas Children's Hospital's black-tie fundraiser, Miracle Ball

Miracle Ball, set for Saturday, is on track to raise $1 million for the hospital for the second year in a row. The money is earmarked for emergency and trauma services at Children's, in honor of first responders.

The theme -- "Casino Royale: A High Stakes Evening" -- was crafted with Middleton in mind.

"Larry finds James Bond very appealing," says Fred Scarborough, chief development officer and chief communication officer at Children's. "We've had a playful time thinking about how we create this evening."

Guests will move from a casino reception hall where they will play games of chance to a banquet hall designed like the iconic Grandhotel Pupp, where Casino Royale was shot in 2006.

"We are raffling a 2020 convertible Jaguar, and tickets will be $1,000 each. We're only selling 150 of them, total, so folks have a one in 150 chance of winning," Scarborough says.

Scarborough says Middleton "thinks in numbers."

"That is the language that makes most sense to him. But he's very practical, and he's a very detail-oriented person, which I found interesting," he says. "He is also quite creative, and he has been interested in every aspect of the way in which we've designed the evening."

Middleton says he and Mark and Sandy have divvied up the tasks involved in chairing Miracle Ball.

"Sandy has been the chief interface with Children's and is coordinating and facilitating the entire event on our behalf. As you might imagine, my job was to handle the financing and raise the money," he says. "Mark, because of his gift of speaking in his career as a lawyer and having had a political background, is going to be the spokesman for the family. We are all 'Type A.' There are strong personalities, and we are accountable, and there is a healthy, open, constructive criticism and support."

The three were close as children and remain close in adulthood.

"We talk every day," Middleton says. "And we all live within a mile or two of each other."

He and Mark Middleton own a real estate company, MidCorp, together, which holds commercial properties across the state.

AN OLD SOUL

"He's kind of the quintessential older brother," Mark Middleton says of Larry. "He's a very strong mentor. He's a fierce protector. He's a loyal supporter. He's also a constructive critic and a sensitive critic. He's made the path for my sister and myself a much safer, an easier one."

He remembers his big brother being an industrious 6- or 7-year-old and taking the lead after their father, Chuck Middleton, injured his leg and couldn't work for a time.

"At one point in our life, there was a food scarcity in our house," he says. "Our parents had started a family at a young age, so neither of them was formally educated. And we didn't have insurance, so we were just in a really tough spot. I think Larry, even as a young child, felt an obligation to make a contribution to make sure the family was well. Without anybody knowing it, he went door to door in the neighborhood and kind of outlined what our hardship was. Neighbors started showing up with big sacks of groceries and basically started replenishing our food supply."

As kids they walked the three blocks from their Bryant house to school each day, returning for lunch break, and then walking back together. Their father coached their baseball teams and was a volunteer firefighter and their mother, now Anita Middleton Marshall, was team mom.

"I think Larry was a little man when he was born," says Mark Middleton. "He always had a strong sense of responsibility and was kind of, seemed to be older than his age, and that was partly due to our family circumstance because we had some hardship."

Mark and Larry Middleton were the earliest employees of Middleton Heat and Air, working under the tutelage of their father. The company completed projects in anticipation of payment so they could, in turn, pay the vendors who supplied their equipment. After they bought the truck with money from the sale of Larry Middleton's car, their father convinced a scrapyard owner to let him pay in installments for another tool they needed.

"There was not really room for error," says Middleton of the hardship and uncertain times that drive him. "You can't replace that feeling."

Their mother got an associate's degree in nursing and went to work in labor and delivery at Doctor's Hospital in Little Rock so that she could support the family while the company got off the ground.

The stories she told about her work inspired Larry Middleton to volunteer with Arkansas Children's Hospital's Circle of Care as a young professional.

"The combination of my mom's nursing background and the idea that I saw the difference that Children's was making in the lives of children that had faced a wide range of challenges and my ability to both volunteer my time and enjoy it -- but also, later, to help support them financially -- has been rewarding for me," he says.

After high school, Middleton went to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for two years on academic scholarship before transferring to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

"I called the University of Arkansas and asked to speak with the dean of the business college then and I asked him if I could come up and see the college," he says. "I decided I really wanted to focus on finance and I found that finance was easy and fun. I'm so fortunate that I found a field that I love."

As a junior in college, he was one of 15 students selected for a portfolio management class.

"That's the first time I was able to spend time with people who were similarly inclined," he says. "They liked finance. They were capitalists and they were excited about economics."

STEPHENS CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

Each year, students in the portfolio management class visit Little Rock, where they get the opportunity to sit down with leaders in the finance industry. Middleton got a chance to meet Jack Stephens.

"The presence of that firm and the significance of that man ... it was a really meaningful experience for me," he says.

Middleton had worked during the summers after his freshman and sophomore years for Merrill Lynch, first as a mail clerk, which allowed him to learn the inner workings of the office, and then as a wire clerk, wiring transactions for 26 brokers. After college, in 1985, he was offered a job as financial adviser.

Five years later, he interviewed at Stephens.

"Upon exiting the building, I had the opportunity to visit with Warren Stephens. It was interesting that I just met his father five years earlier," Middleton says. "Warren had just been appointed to be the head of Stephens. We visited for 15 minutes and he asked me if I wanted to join him and I said yes on the spot. I joined Stephens Capital Management at the age of 30 and I've been there for 28 years, purely based on that handshake."

Alan Warrick, senior adviser at Lovell Minnick Partners, met Middleton when both worked for Merrill Lynch.

"We formed an alliance later in life, in a business partnership with Larry at Stephens and myself at Transamerica," says Warrick, former CEO of Transamerica Worksite Marketing. "We kept that last one for the better part of the last 15 years, so we've been friends as well as business associates. He also manages money for me."

Warrick says Middleton earned his trust years ago.

"It runs the entire gamut from his character to his professional expertise," Warrick says. "I think the best way to sum up Larry is he's never forgotten his roots. He grew up in a humble background and he's kept that humbleness all the way through. He's consistently a good listener and he's a good thinker and he's very compassionate."

Middleton's parents divorced the same year he was hired at Stephens, though they continued working together in the family business.

"I grew up a lot that year," he says. "It was a transitional year, but it was a good year."

He was newly married with his eyes set on starting a family.

He and his former wife, Theresa, have three children -- Blake, Seth and Anna Grace. Blake recently graduated from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville , and Seth is a junior there. Anna Grace is a high school senior.

Seth and Blake were both part of the portfolio management class at UA.

"They come in for that conference and they meet with different firms," he says of the class. "I thought it would be nice if they had somewhere to go the night they come in. So I have dinner for them here, and I invite a CEO or someone who's in the industry, and I make them put up their phones. And they get to have candid dialogue with those parties."

Middleton says his relationship with his children is close.

"There's an openness about business and life in this house because I want them to have that experience," he says. "A man is not defined by his pocketbook, he's defined by his character."

VACATIONS ABROAD

He enjoys travel and is trying to show his children the world.

With Seth, who is interested in animals, he went for two weeks to South Africa for safaris. They flew in a helicopter over the desert, windows open, with a flock of migrating flamingos.

With Anna Grace, who was choosing a car for her forthcoming 16th birthday, he visited London and Paris with a side trip to the Volvo headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden.

"I said, 'Let's go spend half a day learning about safety of the cars," he says. "I think she was more interested in going to Paris, but the idea that I saw that extra band of metal that made the car stronger really made me feel better about it."

Blake shares his father's passion for cars -- Middleton has a collection of vintage Corvettes -- so together they went to Monaco and Santorini and Mykonos, Greece. They sailed the Mediterranean Sea and went to the Casino Royale and had Vesper martinis, James Bond's signature drink.

Here he pauses, reluctant to share more.

"I like to tell my stories, but I don't want to sound pompous," Middleton says, turning the conversation back to the good he hopes to do with his wealth. "It's very real, the hesitancy of sharing stories about travel and about money. Your investment bank background is that there's a persona that's reached. But if people don't know the backstory, they can't appreciate the current story."

He has given souvenirs and photos from the Casino Royale trip to Scarborough for use as Miracle Ball decor.

"This casino theme is centered around a game of chance where the house, being Children's Hospital, always wins," Middleton says. "But the real objective here is to change the odds for the children so that the children of Arkansas are the winners of this effort."

Middleton is eager to recognize first responders -- fire, police and emergency medical technicians -- in a special presentation during the Miracle Ball. His father helped start the volunteer fire department in the Bryant area, after all.

"It was such a small community that the police came by and had dinner at our house on Thursday night," he says. "My mom cooked fried chicken, so we just would leave the doors open, and we had extra seats."

He is happy to talk about his family.

"I'm so proud of Mark and Sandy. I'm so proud of my mom for the sacrifices she made to give us an opportunity and for my dad to be 34 years old and to believe that he could start a company. He worked in our garage -- it wasn't even enclosed. ... And to still be based in Bryant ... you know, our roots run deep in that community.

"It is our story. I'm proud of our family and what it's become, where it came from and what it is today, and I can't wait to see what Mark's children and Blake and Seth and Anna Grace, what they have in store for us. It's going to be amazing, and I'm sure it's going to have all the ups and downs that ours did but in a very different way."

SELF PORTRAIT

• DATE, PLACE OF BIRTH: Nov. 15, 1960, Little Rock

• I LIKE TO EAT: Steak and sushi

• MY CAR IS: A Range Rover

• TWO BOOKS I READ RECENTLY AND ENJOYED WERE: Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis and Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins

• MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Christmas tree hunting with my family in the backwoods of Saline County

• FIVE PEOPLE I WOULD LIKE TO INVITE OVER FOR DINNER: John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Graham, Warren Buffett and J.P. Morgan

• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: My mom told me that "education and work ethic are the great equalizers in life."

• MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH: Santorini, Greece

• IF I KNEW TODAY WAS MY LAST DAY ON EARTH I WOULD: Spend it with my immediate and extended family overlooking the ocean with a sunset while sharing our favorite memories.

• I'M MOST COMFORTABLE: With family

• MY PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: Raising three children to be responsible young adults

• IF I COULD CHANGE ONE THING, SOMEDAY I WOULD LIKE TO: Drive a vintage sports car down Highway 1 on the Pacific coast of California.

• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Earnest

Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.
“As a sophomore, while the other kids were interested in sports, I was very interested in finance. Real estate was my first passion. I was reading the real estate transactions in the business section of the newspaper.” - Steven Laurence Middleton

High Profile on 12/08/2019

Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Larry Middleton knows his family’s story must be about more than its success

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