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story.lead_photo.caption “Customers want to know, ‘What are they doing for me today?’ Not what happened 70 yeas ago." - Larry Timothy Wilson

Larry Wilson started out as a floor-mopper. Now, he's president of First Arkansas Bank & Trust in Jacksonville. The bank's 70th anniversary will be Tuesday, a day he intends to mark by showing up for work as usual at 6 a.m.

That way, Wilson says, he gets the day's heavy thinking out of the way so that "interruptions don't bother me. I react to the phone, and I react to the customers," including customers who are surprised that he answers the phone.

Celebrating will be mostly behind the scenes at the headquarters Main Bank in downtown Jacksonville, also 22 branch locations in central and north-central Arkansas, and the bank's credit card operation in Atlanta. Wilson expects the anniversary "means more to us as a team than it does to our customers."

"Customers want to know, 'What are they doing for me today?'" he says, "not what happened 70 years ago."

But milestones come with memories. Wilson's father, Kenneth Pat Wilson, was among the founders of Jacksonville's first bank. It opened as Jacksonville State Bank in 1949, and Larry Wilson grew up with the business. As a teenager, he filled in when the janitor was off work. He left the University of Arkansas with a master's degree in business administration on a Saturday in 1971 and started work at the bank the next Monday.

He remembers when the usual way to do business at the bank was to step inside. He misses the closer connection he used to have with more of his customers, before drive-throughs, debit cards and online banking.

"Our lobby traffic is down," he says, and with it goes some of the banker's chance to help people manage their finances. First Arkansas' website offers a tip sheet on how to make a budget ("Tally up everything you spend money on."), advice that he'd rather give in person. But times change, and the bank's president, chairman and chief executive has a dollars-and-cents choice of what to do about it. He can retire -- like that's going to happen -- or he can show off banking's latest innovation.

An interactive teller machine, or ITM, is a new feature of the Main Bank's drive-through lanes. Other banking companies might have similar machines, but Wilson dubs his distinctly Southern-style version a "QUB" with a dash over the "U" to pronounce it "cube."

"I like technology," he says, "and this is fun to play with." He taps the machine as a customer would, and the screen lights to the smiling presence of video teller Jordan Sereal.

"Oh, there's Jordan," he says. "Hi, Jordan."

"Hi, Mr. Wilson," she answers, able to see him on camera.

"Jordan's mama worked here, too," Wilson says, and family counts with him. He lives on land that his grandfather owned, and his son, Mark, is a third-generation banker, executive vice president at First Arkansas.

The teller's onscreen assistance makes it possible to do "pretty much anything" a customer needs during and after regular banking hours, Wilson says. And the same as with the bank's phone helpline, he promises, "we speak American." In fact, "Southern American," if not always down-home Arkansan. The farthest-off voice that a person might reach on the customer service line would be from Georgia, U.S.A., not outsourced across the ocean.

His customers want to be understood, Wilson says, and they "expect instant gratification."

But instant isn't really quick. For a banker, it takes forever and always.

TIME IS MONEY

The line is from comedian Steven Wright: "I saw a bank that said, '24-hour banking,' but I don't have that much time."

Wilson, though, does seem to have that much.

"He has an open-door policy at the bank that goes as well at home," his wife of 14 years, Wendy, says. "People know they can call him." She credits much of his banking success to the way "he's so easy to talk to, and he's the same with everybody.

"He would be no different meeting the president of the United States than he would be sitting on the back porch."

"Easy to talk to" is the first quality she liked about him when they met among friends at a baseball game in Memphis. "We started talking, and we just hit it off," she says. "Everyone in the group knew we were being set up, all except for him and myself."

Married to the bank president, she also married into one of the longest-established and most influential families in Jacksonville, a city of about 28,000 northeast of Little Rock. First Arkansas' three-story Main Bank is the big place on downtown Main Street.

Across from the bank, the Nixon Library branch of the Central Arkansas Library System displays five showcases full of arrowheads and stone tools discovered by Wilson's lawyer brother, Mike, on the family's land near Bayou Meto. Some of these bits of chipped stone date back 11,000 years. The Wilson family's banking tradition isn't quite that old, but long enough.

Wilson, 71, credits his work ethic to his community-building father, and to his ever-patient grandfather. He remembers his grandfather's farm, and barnyard animals and growing things "like it was Mayberry." His grandfather took time to teach him "how to use tools, how to fix things, how to solve problems."

His father was a different study, "ambitious and hard-working." Having established Jacksonville's only bank at the time, Wilson's father also figured into the placement of Little Rock Air Force Base at Jacksonville, helping raise money to buy and give thousands of acres to encourage the project.

"He knew all the people who had land," farmers who had to be convinced to sell, Wilson says. The gambit paid off not only in bringing the base to Arkansas but also in bank terms. The military's C-130 troop and cargo planes also deliver a nearly $600 million economic impact to the state, according to government figures.

The airbase opened in 1955, and Wilson's bank opened its branch location on the base a year later.

"The mentorship I received from my dad, here at the bank, has been very valuable," Wilson says. He is shaped by his father's drive and his grandfather's tool kit.

Wilson's banker son, Mark, relates a lesson about both kinds of know-how.

MONEY DOWN THE DRAIN

"I was working as a summer teller in high school," Mark Wilson says. "I was at the West Branch in Jacksonville, at the other end of Main Street from our Main Bank where Dad worked, when I flushed a urinal and it wouldn't stop flushing.

"I called our maintenance guy and didn't reach him, so I did what any other teenager would do: I called my dad and told him what happened.

"'I'll handle it,' was his terse reply. I protested that I just needed to know whom to call to fix it, but he had already hung up the phone.

"Five minutes later, our president and CEO walked in the front door of the branch with a tool bag, and he took me back to the bathroom and showed me how to fix a urinal.

"It's one of my favorite stories about Dad. He's a great leader and a very successful businessman, but he's never acted like a big shot. And all of us who work here love that about him."

TAKE IT TO THE BANK

Larry Wilson can't remember ever seriously wanting to do anything but follow his dad into banking -- not even when his brother turned to a legal career instead, and not when it meant starting low on the ladder.

Nothing else offered the same chance "to interact with people," he says, "to meet new people and help them with their financial situations. It's very rewarding."

Mark Wilson came to the same decision for the same reasons and more, seeing how his dad went about business.

"I wanted to follow my grandfather and father into the banking business my entire life," Mark says. "Even as a child, I loved going around town with my dad. He knew everyone in town, and we had people we trusted in every type of business -- [for example], who could repair our car and give us a fair price. We could count on them, and they knew they could count on us at the bank."

Larry's other son, Patrick, is a lawyer in Little Rock, and daughter Alexis Jenkins is in residential construction in Oxford, Miss. A big get-away for the bank president is a drive to Oxford, loop back to Fayetteville for the Razorback-rooting fun of it, and home again in a reasonable time -- never too far from the bank.

MONEY TO BURN

Jacksonville's first bank opened when gas was 27 cents a gallon, bread was 13 cents a loaf and a bottle of Coke cost a nickel.

It started with three workers. Today, First Arkansas employs 300.

"You're growing, or you're dying," Wilson says. "We don't want to rest on our laurels."

A new branch in Conway is the most recent opening. Other branches include spots in Cabot, Sherwood and still the only bank at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Among significant dates in the bank's 70-year history:

1977: The Main Bank installed Jacksonville's first ATM, automatic teller machine, ancestor of today's QUBs. Wilson describes this pride-and-joy QUB as "an ATM on steroids."

1993: The Main Bank caught fire on Mother's Day. "Didn't sleep that night," Wilson remembers. "We opened for business the next morning in a building that had previously housed a savings and loan branch."

1998: The bank's name changed from First Jacksonville Bank and Trust to First Arkansas Bank & Trust, or FAB&T. The Beatles had nothing to do with it, but Wilson doesn't mind the least if people say his bank is "fab."

"I think a lot of Larry," Arkansas State Bank Commissioner Candace Franks says. "He has a lot of energy and pride in what his bank has been able to provide to the community.

"That's a fine family over there, and a fine Arkansas banking family."

Lorrie Trogden, president of the Arkansas Bankers Association, says Wilson "has banking in his blood," and, "I can always count on Larry to answer the phone when I call.

"In addition to being a busy bank executive, Larry has also been kind enough to lend his talents to the association, serving as the chairman of the board in 2006, as well as many other capacities throughout the years. He is a real asset to the association as well as the banking industry as a whole.

"Likewise, Larry has passed the banking bug on to other members of his family, and Jacksonville and the Arkansas banking community are lucky to have them."

MONEY FLIES

Outside of his own bank, Wilson has served on dozens of boards, committees and community service organizations -- notably, 27 years as an alderman for the city of Jacksonville, up to 2004.

"I would say I helped get the city on better financial footing," he says. A banker in the room means that somebody knows how to deal with audits.

Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, Hendrix College board of trustees, Jacksonville Water Commission, Bayou Meto Cemetery Board, and on goes the list of past and present involvements. The constant in a changing mix is Wilson's commitment to military affairs, continuing his father's work on behalf of the airbase.

Col. (Ret.) Rob "Gator" Ator knows Wilson for the banker's membership in the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council and Base Realignment and Closure Task Force. Ator is director of military affairs for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

"He's a great guy, a very selfless Arkansan," Ator says. "He looks at Little Rock Air Force Base as his base. I want every Arkansan to look at their military installations that way."

The challenge for Wilson's father was to help make the base a reality. For Wilson and Ator, the job is to do all they can to keep it. In that mission, Ator relies on Wilson as "absolutely invaluable" for his longtime connections.

"People like Larry," the colonel says. "He's the guy who's helping crack the doors [open]."

In 2016, First Arkansas donated $16,000 to lay a Christmas wreath on every headstone at the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock: 5,100 wreaths. Of all the bank's contributions, Wilson says, the wreath-laying "without a doubt received the most appreciation."

BANKING HOURS

"A thriving bank helps the community," Wilson says. It makes no sense to him to close shop on federal holidays when most other people have business to do, like Columbus Day, so he stays open.

In fact, it makes no sense to him to quit at all.

"We work hard, but we have fun doing it," Wilson says. "We make a difference in the communities we serve. As long as my health holds up, I plan to keep at it."

Be there Monday, 6 a.m.

SELF PORTRAIT

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Feb. 27, 1948, in Little Rock. We lived in Jacksonville, but there was no hospital in Jacksonville.

• THE BIGGEST CHANGE IN BANKING IN THE LAST 70 YEARS IS: The pace of change. It's gone to warp speed. Very few changes took place when I started in 1971. Now -- so many.

• ONE THING ABOUT BANKING THAT NEVER CHANGES IS: The characteristics of a good loan -- the ability to repay, the collateral involved, the purpose of the loan.

• SOMETHING ABOUT BANKING THAT I WISH MORE PEOPLE KNEW IS: That our decisions on lending money are not personal. They are business decisions to us, but it's sometimes difficult for customers to understand that.

• WHAT KEEPS A BANK FROM LENDING MONEY BASED ON A HUNCH AND A HANDSHAKE IS THAT: We have so much government regulation, so many rules. We have to make sure we are consistent with our lending practices.

• THE FIRST MONEY I EVER MADE GROWING UP WAS: We moved, and my dad gave each of us a quarter. [Wilson's brother and sister, Mike and Kathy, raked in, too.] It was a big deal.

• THE MOST MONEY I EVER FOUND FOR FREE WAS: Probably a $20 bill. I found six bucks outside The Rep the other night, but I found out who lost it and gave it back. You don't find money very often, anymore. [One of those many changes: People carry plastic instead.]

• THE LAST TIME I CARRIED ENOUGH COINS TO JINGLE IN MY POCKET WAS: I don't remember. I keep a coin purse in the car, and that's where I drop any coins I might have and count it later.

• I BALANCE MY CHECKBOOK: Because it's online now, a couple of times a week.

• MY FAVORITE PLACE TO BE OUTSIDE OF JACKSONVILLE IS: Fayetteville. We have a condo up there, and it's just a great place to get away.

• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT WAS: If you're going to do a job, do it well. That was from my grandfather.

• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Fortunate. Or if I could say two words -- extremely fortunate.

Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.
“We make a difference in the communities we serve.” - Larry Timothy Wilson

High Profile on 11/03/2019

Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Larry Wilson keeps a personal touch at First Arkansas Bank & Trust

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