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OPINION | REX NELSON: Banking on Arkansas

by Rex Nelson | July 10, 2021 at 2:50 a.m.

The building towers over the neighborhood where I live in west Little Rock, much like something one would expect to see in the prosperous northern suburbs of Dallas. And I mean that comment in a good way.

Bank OZK has changed the trajectory of this busy stretch of Arkansas 10.

Thanks to a project that eventually will house 900 white-collar employees, restaurants are popping up. It also has added to a budding financial corridor that includes an existing office building for First Security Bank and the multimillion-dollar transformation of the former Family Life building into the headquarters of Arkansas Federal Credit Union.

The AFCU building initially will house 200 employees and later expand to double that number. AFCU operates almost 20 branches in central Arkansas, the Fort Smith area and northwest Arkansas.

Thus the state's largest credit union (AFCU has more than $1.2 billion in total assets and serves about 110,000 members) and its largest bank (Bank OZK has almost $27 billion in total assets with more than 250 offices across 10 states) will be within walking distance of each other.

George Gleason, who purchased a controlling interest in an Ozark-based bank in 1979, dreams big. The 44-acre tract is large enough to house six more buildings, and Gleason has every intention of having a full corporate campus as Bank OZK continues its remarkable growth. There might be everything from a conference center and hotel to host visiting employees from across the country to perks such as a fitness center and child-care facilities. I've learned to never underestimate Gleason.

It's quiet on this rainy day as I enter the spacious atrium for the first time. I admire the Lorenzo Quinn sculpture in the lobby (Quinn is an Italian sculptor, the fifth son of actor Anthony Quinn) and hear about additional works that will be housed outside. The 75-foot-tall atrium opens to all five levels of the 248,000-square-foot building.

Executive vice president Susan Blair is my tour guide. We'll later meet Gleason and other members of the senior management team for lunch in the boardroom.

"This building was constructed with the modern work force in mind," Blair says.

That means a 111,000-square-foot underground parking deck that keeps employees out of the elements, an open floor plan, 38 conference rooms, 475 work stations and 281 private offices. When they get ready to go outside, employees can enjoy more than 15,000 plants, eight acres of wildflowers, and 500 native trees.

There are 90 benches crafted from limestone quarried near Batesville and 13 benches made from reclaimed cypress. Employees are encouraged to take walks around the campus. On this day, a Minute Man food truck is parked out back. Water reclamation ponds on the grounds are stocked with koi.

I watched construction for months as 120 million pounds of concrete, 3 million pounds of steel, a million pounds of stone and 200,000 square feet of glass were used in a structure designed by Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects and constructed by CDI Contractors of Little Rock. Still, I had no idea just how nice a workplace this would be.

Inside, there's art from around the world--expensive art. There are already more than 50 pieces of artwork, including paintings along with glass, marble and bronze sculptures.

I marvel at the 10-by-38-foot walls of polished marble (there are 12 of them) that are their own works of art. The marble came from South America, Asia and Europe.

Gleason is sure to add to the art collection in the years to come. The atrium later will be open for public events, and there may be docents who can explain the art collection to visitors. Think of it as part bank and part art museum.

"This is the fourth headquarters we've had in Little Rock," Gleason says at the start of lunch. "We have a long history of underestimating our needs."

In 1995, Gleason relocated the bank from Ozark to a 3,500-square-foot space in downtown Little Rock. Three years later, the bank built a 40,000-square-foot structure at 12615 Chenal Parkway. By 2008, growth necessitated construction of a 92,000-square-foot structure at 17901 Chenal Parkway. A data center was added in downtown Little Rock in 2015.

"It became apparent soon after moving into the new building in 2008 that we were going to need more room," Gleason says.

Bank officials tried but were unable to acquire adjoining property, which now houses a senior living facility and an Aloft hotel.

"We needed more land than they had available if we were going to look several decades out," Gleason says.

Gleason has long been friends with Ed Willis, developer of The Ranch on Highway 10. The two men were able to negotiate a deal for the 44 acres. Now Gleason is prepared to change the face of far west Little Rock.

On the same day I'm having lunch with Gleason, Simmons First National Corp. announces it will pay $278 million to purchase two Tennessee banks. With the acquisitions, Simmons will have assets of more than $25 billion. Just as Bank OZK is changing west Little Rock, Simmons revitalized the River Market District with its purchase of the Acxiom building for $25 million in 2017.

The growth of the state's publicly held banking companies (Bank OZK, Simmons and Home BancShares of Conway, which operates as Centennial Bank) bodes well for the Arkansas economy. Along with the steady growth of privately held banks such as First Security and Arvest, the banking sector truly is one of Arkansas' shining stars.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Print Headline: Banking on Arkansas

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