Tracy M. French
Chairman (Centennial Bank), President and CEO
Centennial Bank (the Bank)
Home BancShares, Inc. (the Holding Company)
Interview conducted by:
Bud Wayne, Editorial Executive
Published – March 6, 2023
CEOCFO: Mr. French, you have been with Centennial Bank for over 20 years. Would you tell us about your background and how it developed to where named Chairman, President and CEO, January 2015?
Mr. French: I was raised in the southeastern part of Arkansas. I was raised on a farm so I consider myself a farm boy. My family raised cotton, rice, soybeans, corn and wheat as I was a young boy growing up so I thought that is what I would be, a farmer someday. I went and got an agricultural business degree at the University of Arkansas and then I went home and was farming. After the second year of harvesting, we were harvesting cotton, my father stopped the machinery I was driving and said “Son how would you like to try banking?” I said to myself, all they do is sit behind a desk and don’t do an awful lot. He knew I would do anything and was entrepreneurial at the time, so I went and bought a couple shirts and ties and went to work at Pine Bluff, Arkansas and started work as teller. I worked my way through several departments and got an opportunity to move to another bank in the southeastern part of the state.
I then got an opportunity to go to another bank in Lonoke, Arkansas. The former governor for the State of Arkansas Frank White was the Arkansas bank commissioner and he gave me a call and told me there was a bank in Cabot, Arkansas that would give me a call and that I would need to take the job. I told him I liked what I was doing and he said “take the job.” So that was where I got my first opportunity to work as CEO. This is about a $310 million-
Johnny had a history of working in banks, and in the past was on the board of directors of one of the largest banks in Arkansas. That bank ended up selling and he started another operation in his hometown of Conway, Arkansas. He got that build up to a $350 million bank and ended up hooking up with Community Bank. The two combined was about $700 million and then soon after Johnny merged another bank Twin City Bank out of North Little Rock Arkansas that put the company over $1 Billion in assets. When I came across Home BancShares, they gave me the role of a regional president. We had three regions in Arkansas, so I continued to really manage the area of the bank where I worked. We ran these three regions for a while and then we ended up doing more acquisitions. Along the way I kept involved in all the acquisitions and thereafter. I was the first and then we have done 25 to date. There were probably two or three smaller institutions that came along that I probably did not participate in as much but I oversaw all of the acquisitions that we brought in over the years.
CEOCFO: Centennial Bank is a subsidiary of Home BancShares, Inc. (NYSE: HOMB). Would you give us a little background and history of the bank? Tell us about the relationship between the two?
Mr. French: At that time we were running about six different institutions and we kept then under their same identity. In other words, there was a First State Bank, there was a Community Bank, a Twin City Bank, and Marine Bank. We were operating them as six different institutions. We were working on the efficiency side and our company has some of the top performance in the country, so the efficiency side of it is where we begin to put that together. One of the acquisitions that we bought was called Centennial Bank and it did not have a tie to specific markets that some of the other banks had, so we kept that name along the way and that was back in 2008. We branded the bank as Centennial Bank thereafter. Before we had the same logo if you pull up Home BancShares or Centennial Bank. In the wording they would have said Community Bank or Twin City Bank or Marine Bank or Bank of Mountain View, but the logo is the same so that when we combine them all into Centennial Bank it had the same logo, so it went across really well.
CEOCFO: So is everything under the same branding now?
Mr. French: We operate all under Centennial Bank except our Texas banks. We kept the original name of Happy Bank, a division of Centennial Bank.
CEOCFO: What year did you become Centennial Bank?
Mr. French: Somewhere around 2009.
CEOCFO: Would you tell us about your role as Chairman, President and CEO? You are in three states. Do you oversee all operations?
Mr. French: Yes we do. I was the Regional President in a lot of the markets, but back in 2015, Johnny Allison our founder, a dynamic man, came and gave be the opportunity to be the President and CEO. I do oversee all of the operations of the entire company. We still operate as regions and have a community bank focus. Even though we are a $22 + billion bank, it is definitely a community bank run institution. We have regional boards in those areas. Each person runs the show in their own markets. We have eleven or twelve regions now that report to the board, just like our company reports to the world.
CEOCFO: How often do you meet as a management team?
Mr. French: As far as Johnny Allison and myself, we are together every day. Our committees meet regularly on a weekly basis. The presidents have meetings on a weekly basis, which we do by telephone now or using Webex Meeting. In the past when we were smaller, we would get together in person a lot more often, but as we have become larger, and as the pandemic hit, just like everyone else, we started using more phone conferencing solutions.
CEOCFO: It sounds like you have to go way beyond banker’s hours?
Mr. French: That reminds me of when my dad stopped that cotton picker one day and said, “How would you like to try banking?” I thought that was 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. Now its 2:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. I had it backwards. However, as it is with any business, to be successful it takes time.
When I was working as a smaller bank, I had to do a little of everything, but I am so grateful for that today, because I was able to touch all areas of the bank and come to understand it all. With agricultural loans, which are going on this time of the year, there have been many nights and weekends I have spent as the office, working with the product lines and getting them all ready.
I was doing that while I was raising a family, so I would leave the bank, go home, help my wife with dinner, get the kids to bed, then sneak back to the office for an hour or so. It would all start again at daybreak. My father taught me to get up and go to work every day, and it kept me out of trouble.
CEOCFO: Do you find your AG background made a difference in running the banks and dealing with loan officers?
Mr. French: Agriculture business is different from most commercial type businesses, in how things operate. I have been able to hire several people that have agriculture backgrounds also. The main thing and trait those people bring across is they have really good work habits. They generally have good business sense on what it takes to make a profit. If you were running your own agriculture program, you did a lot of analysis to determine what type of crop to raise. My dad made me work every day so work ethic was involved and I think to be successful in any business you have to have that.
CEOCFO: Do you do a lot of AG business or is it mostly commercial?
Mr. French: We do have agriculture business. It is probably in the 10% area or something like that. In Arkansas we carry some AG on the eastern part of the state. With our last acquisition in west Texas, we have a lot of agriculture.
CEOCFO: Would you tell us about the communities that you serve. Are they more rural or urban? What changes have you seen over the past two years?
Mr. French: We are a combination of all. We have banks in towns of less than a thousand people. We have banks in Miami, we have banks in Dallas, banks in Tampa and Orlando. We have small communities from a thousand people and a lot of great community offices with five to ten thousand people. We have those with twenty-
Back to the regional method of how we operate, you get the right people in the right place and let them do their thing. There is no doubt it is a different type of banking and a lot more customers go into the institution and branches in smaller communities compared to larger metropolitan places.
CEOCFO: What other types of businesses do you serve?
Mr. French: We serve all types of loans and all types of businesses and accounts. We are not concentrated on any one area. We are a real estate driven bank and do a lot of real estate loans, commercial real estate, residential real estate, and those types of things but there is not a business that we do not do. Our founder and chairman is very entrepreneurial and we are business people made into bankers so that is what we do.
CEOCFO: Has there been any significant changes to your team over the past few years?
Mr. French: No there has not. Johnny Allison stabilizes a good workforce. A lot of our people that work with the bank have grown within the bank and have been able to expand their wings throughout the process. We have been able to bring in newer and younger groups along the way so there is really a good core group that does things the Centennial Bank way. We were voted Forbes Best Bank in America for three out of the last four years.
CEOCFO: What role does wealth management play in your strategy? Is this more for customer relations?
Mr. French: We do have the wealth management programs around all of our footprint. It is for customer relations. I kind of look at it like an ATM, but they are very important and what you have to have for customers. Our wealth and trust services is a nice piece of our puzzle that certainly allows us to get the wallet share of our customers. I like to be able to provide a service for whatever our customers’ needs are.
CEOCFO: How many branches do you have and are you looking to grow that number in the near future?
Mr. French: We have 223 branches. We have 76 in Arkansas, 78 in Florida, 63 in Texas and 5 in Alabama. We actually have a branch in New York City. We are always looking for opportunities. We have de novo into places throughout this process but most of those have come along through an acquisition in some form.
CEOCFO: When you add branches is it through acquisition, de novo or a mix?
Mr. French: There are more acquisitions than de novo. It is primarily through acquisitions and relationships with bankers. With a lot of our acquisitions, we like it when it is a merger from the shareholders. In other words if we make an acquisition we gain their shareholder base, gain their customer base and their shareholder becomes one of our shareholders and makes it successful for all of us.
CEOCFO: With the rise of online banking and mobile apps, is the personal touch still important for you and your customers or do you find with the newer generations that are in the workforce these things don’t matter as much?
Mr. French: I think in banking it is still the customer relationship and the personal touch, and being able to reach out and communicate. Be it the local teller, the local branch manager, the local lender or the vice president, I am a big believer that in the banking business it is still a personal touch for the services and needs. Now there are a lot of things that we do with the technology and the mobile banking, we have all of that and it is out there, it is like the electronic banking side working with our commercial customers. We get them introduced and make sure they understand how the process works but then again there are always times when they need to pick the phone up and talk to a person. We have to have that available and that is what we take pride in.
Johnny and I used to say we just about wanted to meet every customer we had; well we are so big it is hard to do that today but we still try to do that. We try to go meet and see and tagalong with our regional leaders. A lot of times you may not need to speak to an individual but when you need something or if you are in the commercial banking side, you will always have a challenge or two when you will need to speak with somebody and not get online and press 1 and press 7 and press 8.
As for our customer service, every customer that we have has a direct line to somebody to be able to communicate with. That is old-
CEOCFO: Do you have a marketing person or team? If so, what is their role? Is it community relations messaging, helping pitching your products and loan offering or a mix?
Mr. French: We have a marketing team that primarily is there to help in promoting our products, showing what we do and being able to communicate. You have to participate in some of the social media type things that goes on out there today. I always tell people that we do not spend a lot of time on television ads or radio ads because our bankers wear their shoes out communicating and seeing people. We do have a department that oversees a lot of things today in the marketing areas in different segments of the bank.
The marketing team works with our local markets for community involvement but we still count on the local market bankers to be participating in communities. The local community bankers help support all the communities around our company and then they will reach out to our marketing department to get the right information and help them, for that small city we were talking about or the larger city, so they are there to support and it is driven by each market.
CEOCFO: How often do you have to meet and get together to do all the planning?
Mr. French: As far as Johnny Allison and myself, we are together every day. Our committees meet pretty regularly on a weekly basis. The presidents of all the regions meet by telephone on a weekly basis, as well as WEBEX and things like that. In the past when it was a little bit smaller, we would get together in-
CEOCFO: You have a very cool website name, my100bank. Would you tell us about that and how it came about?
Mr. French: As we were separate banks, we used to have communitybank.net, twincitybank.com, and we had so many of those. The initial problem was that the Centennial Bank website address had probably already been taken up. Therefore, we came up with my100bank name. 100 is centennial, so we just called it my100bank. It was not a genius marketing idea, but we all got together and put it out. We thought it was great.
CEOCFO: As Chairman, President and CEO of the bank, are you involved at all shareholder support or outreach? Do you attend conferences?
Mr. French: Johnny Allison who is the Chairman of Home BancShares, and then there is Donna J. Townsell, who is SEVP and our Director of Investors Relations. We also have an investor relations department. They primarily do the investor relations work, but yes I also do some of the investor conferences. We have done some together and have done some separately. There is a bank conference in New Orleans next month and I will have my COO there for a day-
CEOCFO: In closing, what sets Centennial Bank apart from other local banks and why are you important to the fabric of the communities that you serve?
Mr. French: We are a large institution that is community bank driven. With our business mind we certainly understand, we have all run businesses, we have worked in it and understand what it takes. We pay the bills at home. We walk our talk, we are that banker, that person that is available. We are that person in the community to do it. A lot of people say that but we just want to make sure we continue to do that. I think that is what separates us from the rest.
When Johnny Allison and myself did some of these acquisitions, we would meet our new customers, get introduced and now they are some of our larger and best customers of the company. That part you have to earn, you have to earn the respect from the business that you do and that is what we take pride in.!
Centennial Bank (the Bank) | Tracy M. French, Chairman (Centennial Bank), President and CEO | Home BancShares, Inc. (the Holding Company) | A Management Team the Includes Johnny W. Allison and Tracy M. French have Grown Centennial Bank into a Large Regional Institution | CEO Interviews 2023 | Regional Banks | Banks in Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Alabama, New York City, Banks with branches in Banks in Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Alabama, New York City