Davis Lecture Brings Johnny Allison, Life Lessons to Students

Johnny Allison, Guest Speaker
Davis Family Lecture Series

Johnny Allison’s first lesson in business came the summer he and his brother pined for a Cushman Eagle motor scooter.

For brothers in a blue-collar family, work was the only option to obtaining it, so they spent their school break digging ditches in their father’s mobile home park. At the end of the summer, they had $250. Still $100 short of the money needed for a new scooter, they borrowed the rest from the local bank, making $8 a month payments on their loan.

The next summer, when Allison was 13, he worked in the office with his father, selling mobile homes. In 30 minutes, Allison sold a mobile home to a couple and netted nearly $1,000 in profit. Something clicked for him.

“I told my brother, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m going into this mobile home business,” he recalled. “We spent all summer last year digging ditches and made $250. I just made $1,000 in 30 minutes.”

Allison, now chairman of Home BancShares, the parent company of Centennial Bank, shared this story and more with UCA College of Business students Oct. 30 as the keynote speaker of the Davis Family Lecture Series.

Throughout his adolescence, Allison worked in the family business, taking credit applications, swapping and trading trailers, cashing contracts, making bank deposits and more.

“I was getting a Ph.D. in finance and didn’t know it,” he said.

When he finished college at Arkansas State University, Allison moved to Conway to work in the mobile home business. By his late 20s, he owned multiple mobile home factories and managed upwards of 1,000 employees.

His transition into banking wasn’t expected, but instead was an opportunity he saw promise in.

“You’ll have thousands of opportunities go by in front of you, and smart people will say no to most,” he said. “There are six or seven real opportunities and it’s the smart person that can decide which ones are the good ones and pass on the others. It’s the difference between getting ahead and not.”

Allison was on the board of First National Bank of Conway when at his second meeting he learned of a possible acquisition from a bank out of Little Rock. Before that acquisition could happen, Allison decided to purchase the bank himself.

“I went from the smallest shareholder to the biggest and chairman of the board,” said Allison.

Allison said his years in the retail mobile home business prepared him to be a banker. Fifteen years later, he sold the bank for $2.7 billion.

In 1998, Allison re-entered the industry, purchasing the Bank of Holly Grove with Robert “Bunny” Adcock Jr., co-founder of Home BancShares and UCA Board of Trustees member.

“They say Johnny started with the $5 million purchase of the Bank of Holly Grove and a bunny,” Allison quipped.

Now, Home BancShares has nearly $15 billion in assets and is the top-ranked bank in Forbes’ 2018 Best Banks in America list. Its wholly owned subsidiary Centennial Bank has locations in Arkansas, Florida, Alabama, and New York.

Allison said he was humbled to be speaking with students, and hoped his talk would inspire someone in attendance the way a similar talk from Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn, had while he was in college.

“I’m here because he was there,” said Allison. “It’s a relay race, and he handed the baton to me and I’m going to hand it to someone else, and I’m looking for someone to hand it to.”

(l-r) UCA President Houston Davis, Jan and Granger Davis, Johnny Allison and UCA College of Business Dean Michael Hargis

The Davis Family Lecture Series was established in 2010 through a gift from Granger and Jan Davis, and Milton and Claudia Davis. The series features prominent business leaders who have made a significant impact in an industry. Past speakers include John W. Bachmann, Steve Williams, Hank Henderson, Reynie Rutledge, Marcy Doderer, and Millie Ward.

UCA College of Business Dean Michael B. Hargis, Ph.D., thanked Granger and Jan Davis, who were in attendance for their generosity.

“The Davis Family had the grand vision of exactly what we’re doing today — bringing a prominent business leader who has impacted his or her field and community to an auditorium filled with students,” said Hargis. “We want to provide an inspiration and allow you to learn from a seasoned professional. We thank the Davis family for their gracious gift.”

UCA President Houston Davis thanked Centennial Bank, Home BancShares and the Allison family for being longtime partners of the university.

“It is one of the entities that has been wind in our sails, and it is impossible to think about moving forward without them,” said Davis. “The fact we can have Mr. Allison come here to inspire us and you, the students, as you’re setting off into your careers, is really a treat.”