Strategic Insights From Leading Bankers: Bank OZK

RankingBanking will be examined further as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired virtual platform, which will include a panel discussion with Gleason and Mark Tryniski, CEO of Community Bank System. Click here to access the agenda.

Is Bank OZK misunderstood?

The $26.9 billion bank may be based in Little Rock, Arkansas — with offices primarily in the southeastern United States — but Chairman and CEO George Gleason II will quickly, but politely, correct you if you refer to Bank OZK as a community bank.

“We consider our bank a truly national bank and presence,” Gleason says, adding that in 2019, he spent 153 days outside of the bank’s headquarters traveling across the United States and internationally. “Sometimes people [comment] that we do a lot of loans outside of our area,” he adds. “I consider it absurd, because the United States is our market, and we do loans all over the United States. It’s a very balanced, diversified portfolio by product type and geography.”

Bank OZK’s unique business model positioned it to top Bank Director’s 2021 RankingBanking study, sponsored by Crowe LLP. To delve further into the bank’s performance, Bank Director Vice President of Research Emily McCormick interviewed Gleason about his views on factors impacting long-term performance, including how OZK positions itself to take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace. The interview was conducted on Oct. 26, 2020, and has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

EM: First off, tell me how you approach long-term performance for Bank OZK and balance that with short-term expectations.

GG: I’ve been doing this job over 41 years now, and I hope to continue to do it a number of years more. When you’ve been in a job a long time, and you expect to be in it a long time in the future, thinking about long-term performance is much easier than if you’re new to a job, and you’re in it for a very short period of time. With that said, we all live in a world where our stock price moves day to day based on short-term results, and many investors seem to be overly focused on short-term results. So, it takes a lot of discipline and a willingness to be viewed as not doing the best you can do in the short run to achieve the long-term results.

But we have always focused preeminent attention on achieving longer-term objectives, and that has paid off for us tremendously well. Probably the best example of that is our unwavering commitment to asset quality, credit quality. There have been a number of times in my 41-year career where our growth for a few quarters or even a few years has been disappointing, relative to what people thought we were capable of doing, because we held to our credit standards and our discipline, and let competitors take share from us when we thought some of those competitors were being too aggressive. That has always paid off for us in the long run, every single time.

EM: Out of the last crisis, Bank OZK participated in several FDIC deals. We’re in another, very different crisis. Are you applying some lessons that you learned through the last crisis, or through your experience in banking, to what we’re going through now?

GG: I’ve been through a lot of downturns, and the causes are always different. It may be excesses in real estate; it may be excesses in subprime mortgage finance. It may be a bust in the oil and gas industry [or] the savings and loan crisis. [N]ow you’ve got the Covid-19 pandemic-induced recession. Causes vary, but all economic downturns result in people being out of work and suffering economically, and businesses struggling and suffering, and businesses closing. Every economic downturn creates challenges for people that are in the credit business, as we are, but it also creates a lot of opportunities.

The key to being able to capitalize on the opportunities is No. 1, being appropriately disciplined in the good times so that you are not so consumed with problems in the bad times that you can’t think opportunistically. No. 2, you’ve got to have adequate capital, adequate liquidity and adequate management resources. If you have those ingredients and combination … you’re able to spend much more time in a downturn focused on capitalizing on opportunities, as opposed to mitigating your risk. That’s been an important part of our story for several decades now, is we have almost universally been able to find great opportunities in those downturns. … [W]e’re already finding some ways to benefit in this downturn. So, the causes are different, but the result is always the same: [Y]ou’ve got challenges, you’ve got opportunities and you’ve got to be ready to capitalize on those opportunities.

EM: What opportunities are you seeing now, George?

GG: Obviously in the very early days, there was some tremendous dislocation in the bond market. We had a couple of good weeks where we were able to buy things at really advantageous prices. The Fed was so aggressive in their efforts to fix the plumbing of the monetary system that they took those opportunities away literally in a matter of weeks.

We’ve seen a lot of competitors pull back from the [commercial real estate] space; that’s given us an opportunity to both gain market share and improve pricing. We have seen customers evolve [in] how they deal with our branches; it’s given us an opportunity to create some efficiencies [and] advance our rollout of some future technology, all of which have helped us accelerate our movement toward a more consumer-friendly, technology-oriented way of dealing with our customers.

And frankly, Emily, we’re so early in seeing all of the economic impacts from this recession. Some of the impacts, I think, have been pushed out several quarters by the aggressive monetary and fiscal policy actions out of Washington. I think that really good, attractive opportunities will appear in 2021 and 2022. I think we’re just getting started on seeing opportunities begin to emerge.

EM: OZK maintains high capital levels. Why do you view that as important, and how are you strategically thinking through capital?

GG: We’re operating from a position of having excess capital, and that is probably a great and appropriate thing in this environment. [We’re] certainly in an environment where you’d rather have too much capital than too little today and … I believe there are a lot of opportunities that will emerge over the next four to eight quarters where we’ll be able to put that capital to work in a very profitable manner for our shareholders. So, we feel very good about the fact that today we have one of the highest capital ratios of all of the top 100 banks.

EM: Bank OZK has seen some high-level departures in the past few years; most recently, your chief credit officer. I think sometimes that gives people pause, and I wanted to give you the opportunity to address that.

GG: The reality of that is we are very dependent upon human capital and intellect in running our business. … I have always put an emphasis on hiring, training and developing really smart people who have intense work ethics, and who love to win and want to be part of a winning team. We have an abundance of talent in our company, and we’re constantly training, grooming and improving that talent.

When you hire and develop that quantity and quality of well-trained, well-developed staff, hard-charging people who want to win and want to succeed and want to push, some of those people are going to go on and pursue other opportunities, and that is great. And because we have such an abundance of talent, we’re in a position where we can say, “Congratulations, we’re happy for you. Thank you for everything you have done for us,” and I can turn around and say, “Next man up; let’s go.” That really is our culture. So yes, we plan for people to leave. We have plans in place on how we’re going to replace people if they are not available for one reason or another, and we’ve got the depth of talent that it lets us move on without missing a beat.

EM: One more question: Bank OZK has a record of strong performance, which is why it’s included in this year’s RankingBanking study. That said, I sometimes hear whispers of doubt about what you guys are doing, perhaps due to your unique model. I’m curious about how you respond to those doubts from the financial and investment communities.

GG: We feel under-appreciated ourselves sometimes. [W]e have built an extraordinary bank with an extraordinary team of people and a great business model; maybe one of the absolute best business models in the banking industry. I think it will prove to be very durable and very profitable over a long period of time.

Because our model is so heavily involved in commercial real estate, and commercial real estate is something that is sometimes in fashion and sometimes out of fashion, I think we experience that sense of being out of step sometimes. But we do commercial real estate day-in, day-out, every day, up-cycle, down-cycle, and we do it in a way that allows us to be successful no matter which direction the CRE cycle is trending at any point in time.

I believe as this pandemic-induced recession plays out, our business model is going to prove its mettle and equip itself very well. I think that sense [of], “Wow, do we really want to own a CRE bank at this stage in the cycle?” will go away, because people will realize we’re a bank committed to consistent, high asset quality, and we’ve underwritten and will continue to underwrite our portfolios in a way that facilitates that. I think we’ll finally get the credit that my team deserves for the excellent work they’ve done.

I’m told a lot of times by investors, “You’re a great bank. We want to own you. Maybe in a couple of quarters will be the right time to buy a CRE bank.” I think that reflects a less than full understanding of the power of our franchise.