Hitting a Home Run With George Makris

Sports probably kept George Makris out of jail. 

At least, that’s his telling of it. Makris is now chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Corp, the holding company of Simmons Bank, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but he admits he wasn’t a great kid. Thanks to the guidance of his parents and a love of sports, Makris ended up on a more straight and narrow path.

He played baseball and football at Washington and Lee University in Virginia in the 1970s and then transferred closer to home, to Rhodes College in Memphis. He took over running his family’s Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship, which has several parallels to banking. For one, they’re both sensitive to interest rates. Makris says that when interest rates rise, people tend to move from Budweiser to Busch.

While it may seem odd to go from beer to banking, Makris did so gradually. He joined the board of Worthen National Bank, a small bank, in the 1980s. Through consolidation, that bank eventually became a part of Bank of America Corp. He joined Simmons’ board in 1997. Years later, Simmons’ longtime CEO Tommy May had to step down because of illness. 

The board asked Makris to take the top job. Close to a decade later, the bank has grown from under $4 billion in assets to more than $27 billion in assets, mostly through strategic acquisitions. 

He talks in this episode of The Slant Podcast about market share and how lessons from sports can help navigate life and career. Due to technical difficulties, this conversation has been abbreviated.

This episode, and all past episodes of The Slant Podcast, are available on Bank DirectorSpotify and Apple Music.

Becoming a CEO

The chief executive officer is usually the single most important person in any organization, but it’s a job that most individuals grow into over time. The transition is often filled with challenges and difficult learning experiences.

Such was the case for Ira Robbins, the chairman and CEO at Valley National Bancorp, a $54 billion regional bank headquartered in Wayne, New Jersey. The 48-year-old Robbins was just 43 when he succeeded long-time CEO Gerald Lipkin in 2018. Lipkin, on the other hand, was closing in on his 77th birthday when he passed the baton to Robbins after running the bank for 42 years.

Robbins is deeply respectful of Lipkin but shares that one immediate challenge he faced was changing a culture that hadn’t kept pace with the bank’s growth over the years. He said Valley National was a $20 billion bank that operated as if it was still a $5 billion bank. Changing that culture was not easy, and he had to make some very difficult personnel decisions along the way.

Robbins is thoughtful, introspective and candid about his growth into the CEO role at Valley National. His reflections should be of great interest to any banker who hopes to someday become a CEO.

This episode, and all past episodes of The Slant Podcast, are available on Bank DirectorSpotify and Apple Music.

Tales From Bank Boardrooms

If anyone in banking has seen it all, it’s Jim McAlpin. 

He’s sat in on countless board deliberations since he got his start under the late Walt Moeling, a fellow Alabamian who served as his mentor at Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy, which later merged with Bryan Cave in 2009. 

“That’s how I started in the banking world, literally carrying Walt’s briefcase to board meetings. Which sometimes was a very heavy briefcase,” quips McAlpin. Moeling made sure that the young McAlpin worked with different attorneys at the firm, learning various ways to practice law and negotiate on behalf of clients. “He was my home base, but I also did lending work, I did securities work, I did some real estate work. I did a lot of M&A work” in the 1990s, including deals for private equity firms and other companies outside the banking sector.

But it’s his keen interest in interpersonal dynamics and his experience in corporate boardrooms, fueled by almost four decades attending board meetings as an attorney and board member himself, that has made McAlpin a go-to resource on corporate governance matters. Today, he’s a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, and he recently joined the board of DirectorCorps, Bank Director’s parent company. 

“I’ve gone to hundreds of meetings, and each board is different. You can have the same set of circumstances more or less, be doing the same kind of deal, facing the same type of issue or regulatory situation,” he says. “But each set of people approaches it differently. And that fascinates me.”  

McAlpin’s a consummate storyteller with ample anecdotes that he easily ties to lessons learned about corporate governance. Take the time he broke up a physical fight during the financial crisis. 

“During that time period, I saw a lot of people subjected to stress,” he says. “There are certain people who, under stress, really rise to the occasion, and it’s not always the people you think are going to do so. And then there are others who just fall apart, who crumble. Collectively as a board, it matters.”

Boards function based on the collection of individual personalities, and whether or not those directors are on the same page about their organization’s mission, goals and values. McAlpin’s intrigued by it, saying that for good boards, the culture “permeates the room.”

McAlpin experienced the 1990s M&A boom and the industry’s struggles through the financial crisis. On the precipice of uncertainty, as interest rates rise and banks weather technological disruption, he remains bullish on banking. “This is a good time to be in banking,” he says. “It’s harder to get an M&A deal done this year. So, I think it’s caused a lot of people to step back and say, ‘OK, what are we going to do over the next few years to improve the profitability of our bank, to grow our bank, to promote organic growth?’. … [That’s] the subject of a lot of focus within bank boardrooms.”

McAlpin was interviewed for The Slant podcast ahead of Bank Director’s Bank Board Training Forum, where he spoke about the practices that build stronger boards and weighed in on the results of the 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey, which is sponsored by Bryan Cave. In the podcast, McAlpin shares his stories from bank boardrooms, his views on corporate culture and M&A, and why he’s optimistic about the state of the industry. 

“People Who Look Like Me.”

In this podcast, Ebony Thomas, who oversees Bank of America Corp.’s $1.25 billion, five-year program to drive racial equality and economic opportunity for people and communities of color, talks about the work she does, her personal journey from secondary education to banking, and why it’s empowering for women and people of color to see role models in the workplace who look like them.

Additional episodes of The Slant Podcast are now available on Spotify and Apple Music!

 

The Road Ahead

In this podcast, John Asbury, president and CEO of Atlantic Union Bankshares, is both very analytical and someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the future and how that will impact his $20 billion asset regional bank. In this conversation, he describes the bank’s approach to strategic planning, the rise of inflation, and whether the Atlantic Union would pay a ransom if hit with a ransomware attack.

Additional episodes of The Slant Podcast are now available on Spotify and Apple Music!

 

Deep in the Heart of Texas

In this podcast, First Financial Bankshares Chairman and CEO F. Scott Dueser talks about some of the factors behind the institution’s long-term success, his views on Covid-19 vaccine mandates — and an ill-fated cover shoot for Bank Director magazine in 2014.

Additional episodes of The Slant Podcast are now available on Spotify and Apple Music!