William Brewer intended to make his fortune in the gasoline industry, but history butted in, and he found his fame in banking instead.
Brewer’s family had owned gasoline and propane distributorships in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas as well as Searcy and Pine Bluff for years, and it was a natural procession for Brewer to enter into the business.
But the United States was mired in an oil embargo in 1974 when Brewer graduated Arkansas State University with a sociology degree and an original intent to enter law school. The embargo, proclaimed by Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), caused gas prices to skyrocket.
Then President Richard M. Nixon urged consumers to curtail fuel purchases with many gasoline stations banning weekend sales and cities across the country demanding cutbacks in energy consumption.
“It was a turbulent time to be in the gas business,” Brewer said.
His father, Larry Brewer, disenchanted by the embargoes, began dissolving his gasoline business and retired in Heber Springs. Brewer sold the remaining gasoline distributors but kept the family’s propane business. He also began working at First National Bank in Paragould, where his father had served on the bank board for many years.
Brewer saw the banking business was taking most of his time, and he gradually focused all his attention on his bank. In 1988, he succeeded his father as bank chairman.
Now, nearly half a century after the embargo, Brewer, 69, has seen his success grow in banking. He’s the CEO of a $2.3 billion financial institution that owns 24 banks in northeast Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas and, most recently, Nashville, Tenn.
Brewer was born in Paragould and grew up in the Greene County town of 29,000. He jokes when asked if he’s lived his entire life in the town.
“Not yet,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ve got a few more years left.”
The bank began in March 1889 as the Bank of Paragould. It was granted a national charter in 1903, eventually changing its name to First National Bank and opening three offices in Paragould. In 1984, the bank expanded to Corning.
Then, under Brewer’s leadership, the bank grew rapidly. The first Jonesboro bank opened in 1998, and there are now three offices in the Craighead County town, including the 60,000-square-foot First National Financial Park in the thriving Hilltop area of northeast Jonesboro, which opened in January 2019.
The bank expanded west, opening centers in Heber Springs and Rogers in 2014, and in four locations a year later, in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Springdale and Johnson. In 2018, the institution opened banks in Little Rock and North Little Rock. Earlier this year, First National Bank bought the former Citizens Banks in Hartsville, Gallatin and Hendersonville, Tenn., all suburbs of Nashville.
“There’s a dynamic economy in Nashville,” Brewer said. “We thought it was a real good opportunity for us. A lot of [Arkansas] banks were going into the Dallas area. But Nashville is more dynamic, and it’s closer to us than even Fayetteville.”
He downplayed the strategy of buying the three Tennessee banks, crediting “luck” over his business savvy.
“It was one of those things,” he said. “Somebody you know knows somebody else who knows someone else. We saw that Nashville was a natural fit for us.”
While admitting to reading business books, including Jim Collins’ Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, Brewer remains grounded on his reading fare.
His favorite book is David Hill’s The Vapors, a historical look at the rise and fall of Hot Springs gambling from the 1930s to 1960s.
Brewer also took a lesson from Wallace Fowler, another banking pioneer from Jonesboro. Fowler, who owned Liberty Bank in Jonesboro, bought the naming rights for Arkansas State University’s football stadium in 2012. It was named Centennial Bank Stadium a year later after Liberty Bank was bought by Centennial Bank.
“He did a wise thing,” Brewer said of Fowler’s marketing decision. “We kicked it around and contacted ASU to see if they were interested in [more naming rights].”
The university announced on Oct. 19, 2017, that the Convocation Center, ASU’s facility for basketball games, graduations and other events, would be named First National Bank Arena in recognition of a $5 million donation to the Red Wolves Foundation. The rights went into effect Jan. 1, 2018, and will extend to Dec. 31, 2029.
“The fact that a strong business leader in our region chose to co-brand with our university speaks volumes about our emerging brand,” former ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir said in a news release announcing the name change.
Brewer said of the naming rights, “We’re happy with the money we spent. We got a lot of bang for our buck on that.”
Brewer said he learned while on the job at the bank.
“I had to work through my mistakes,” he said. “I didn’t go to school for banking. But banking is like any other business. I learned from our employees and went to peer-to-peer group meetings to learn.”
He said he made sure to hire “quality people” and gave them a chance to do their jobs.
“I didn’t want to make the mistake of micromanaging them,” he said. “I used talent like the old day farmers. They got the best horses and mules and paired them with the best wagons and plows.”
His business plans have worked, propelling him and Paragould into the banking spotlight in the Mid-South.
“Mr. Brewer and his family have contributed for many years to the betterment of our community,” said Paragould Mayor Josh Agee. “They set the gold standard as to what makes a great community member and corporate partner.”
Paragould Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Allison Hestand credits Brewer with making Paragould “one of the best communities in the state.”
“[Brewer] is as humble as they come, but his contribution to our community and the state of Arkansas deserves much recognition,” Hestand said. “We are proud and fortunate he calls Paragould home.”
The chamber awarded Brewer with its Lifetime Achievement Award in October.
Like his father, Brewer has brought his son into the banking business. Will Brewer serves as vice chairman for the First National Bank.
“Good things are happening in Paragould,” Brewer said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of things coming here faster. We’re proud of our area.
“I don’t think Central Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas necessarily snubbed their noses at northeast Arkansas, but I don’t think they thought of us newsworthy. I sure think we are now.”