Shepard eager to push growth priorities with new Arvest bank role

story by Michael Tilley
mtilley@thecitywire.com

Bicycling helps keep him fit and trim, but on the June afternoon of the interview Rodney Shepard appeared tired, possibly a result of trying to meet directly with the hundreds of Arvest employees at 25 banking locations that stretch from Fort Smith to Russellville.

Shepard has returned to Fort Smith as Arvest’s regional CEO after more than three years of being the CEO for Arvest’s relatively new banking region in Springfield, Mo. He follows in Fort Smith Craig Rivaldo, who was named the CEO of Arvest-Benton County when the former CEO there was removed after allegations of fraud.

“For the most part, it’s been good,” Shepard said when asked about his first few weeks of getting reacquainted with the Fort Smith-River Valley market. “I’ve been trying to get out and meet the team.”

Chances are a majority of the “the team” know Shepard. And vice versa. He’s from the area, and was employed in the regional banking sector almost 18 years before the move to Springfield. In July 1993 he joined what was then Superior Federal Bank as one of a number of loan makers. He moved up the ranks, and when Superior was acquired by Arvest in 2003, he was one of the young leaders in a Fort Smith metro market in which Arvest was still the newcomer. His star rose, and when Arvest needed new leadership in Springfield, he was given his first chance as a regional CEO for the banking company owned by Jim Walton, son of Wal-Mart Stores co-founders Helen and Sam Walton.

LEADERSHIP CHANGES
Shepard, active with various organizations in the Fort Smith region before his Springfield move, sat silent for a few seconds when asked about what has changed in the Fort Smith area during his more than three years in another market.

“There has been a change of leadership in a few key places,” Shepard said, listing Sparks Health System, Mercy-Fort Smith, and Carl Albert Junior College among entities with turnover at the top spot.

“And then there is the whole mission change at the 188th,” Shepard added, referring to the 188th Fighter Wing based in Fort Smith losing its manned mission for a mission involving operations tied to remotely piloted aircraft.

Shepard also admitted to being surprised by something that had not happened.

“In the three and a half years, I would have thought they (U.S. Marshals Museum) might have had the groundbreaking,” Shepard said, adding that he realized the groundbreaking is set for September. “That’s not good or bad, I should say, but I just thought that would have happened by now.”

NO MORE WHIRLPOOL
Yet another change resulted in a brief moment of reflection on Shepard’s younger days.

“That closed while I was gone, but I guess they were closing it down before I left.”

“That” is Whirlpool’s refrigerator manufacturing plant in Fort Smith. Whirlpool Corp. closed the doors on the plant in June 2012. At the height of employment, the Whirlpool plant employed more than 4,600 in what were considered some of the best paying jobs in the region. One of those jobs was held for 38 years by Bobby Shepard, Rodney’s father.

“It supported our family,” Shepard said of his father’s job with Whirlpool.

And Rodney, like thousands of area youth, would work there during the summer months to make money to pay for college. Rodney Shepard spent three summers inside the Whirlpool plant doing a variety of jobs.

“You would meet some really good folks there; some great, hard-working people,” Shepard said, his voice trailing off as he stared beyond the interviewer and into the memory of that experience.

NEW JOB PRIORITIES
But good people are hard to find, and finding and retaining them are one of several key goals Shepard mentioned when asked about his Arvest priorities now that he has returned to Fort Smith. This role is one of the reasons Shepard has spent time traveling the region.

“On the front end, I want to find out what is going on. … What is working? What is not working as well?”

The process of finding and keeping good people is conjoined with the effort to deliver the type of community service Shepard says is necessary to grow market share in the region for which he is responsible. Market share growth is another of his priorities.

“It’s hard to find good people. So when you find a good person, you have to do whatever you can to keep them,” Shepard said. He added later in the interview: “The heart of our business may be in Fort Smith, but are we doing all we can in these other communities” to grow market share?

Arvest Bank grew its marketshare in the Fort Smith market by 1.26% or $50 million from June 2012 to June 2013 – the most recent data period available through the FDIC. Arvest ranks No. 2 behind First National Bank Fort Smith in that metro area with 14.56% of the market or $590 million. First National has 18.31% of deposit market share.

Priorities related to growing market share include reviewing facilities in the region “to make sure we are as convenient” for the customer as possible. Another aspect of growing the business is to focus on “being smart” about giving back to the communities in which Arvest operates.

“It’s not just about giving a check. It’s also about volunteer time. … The company really wants us to help these communities be better places to live,” Shepard explained.

REGULATION RESPONSE
Like most community bankers, Shepard is concerned federal regulations related to the implementation of the controversial Dodd-Frank bank bill will make it difficult for community banks to remain an viable player the socio-economic development in their areas.

Dodd-Frank was approved by Congress following the near financial sector collapse of 2008. Proponents of Dodd-Frank say the rules are necessary to prevent actions of a few large financial institutions from dragging down the entire economy. Others say regulation was needed, but that Dodd-Frank goes too far and is resulting in industry consolidation and other unintended consequences that may limit the access to capital in rural areas.

Shepard is not a fan of Dodd-Frank.

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“While it may have been well-intended, the people they were trying to help will get hurt in the end,” Shepard said.

He said the rules coming from federal regulators are forcing banks to balance the costs of new regulations with providing customer service.

“I’m not optimistic. … I don’t think that (moderation of federal rules) will happen, and what we will see is these communities will get hurt by bank consolidations,” Shepard said.

A few days after the interview, Shepard was mowing the yard around his Springfield home and reflected on questions asked and answers given. He wanted to offer a few more thoughts, with one of them including what will be a tall order for himself and those around him.

“I want us to be great. Great is better than bigger and great will create all the other measureable attributes of being successful. Be it meeting customer needs or having efficient internal processes; we should and do continually look for improvements,” Shepard said in finishing his e-mail note.

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