After a nearly 27-year-career with Simmons First National Corporation, Chairman and CEO J. Thomas May will officially retire today.

After a nearly 27-year-career with Simmons First National Corporation, Chairman and CEO J. Thomas May will officially retire today.

May became president of Simmons First National Corporation and president and CEO of Simmons First National Bank on Feb. 1, 1987. The Simmons Board of Directors appointed him chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Corporation on March 25, 1996.

May is widely recognized as a force for good in Pine Bluff as well as the state of Arkansas and beyond. May has had the ability to touch numerous lives for the good through that preciously rare combination of a keen mind for business and a warm heart for his fellow man.

“I don’t know that I have spent a lot of time thinking about my legacy,” May said in a recent interview. “However, with only a few days remaining before my retirement, and now that you ask, I hope that I will be remembered as someone who was successful as a banker, meaning that we rewarded all of our stakeholders, which we define as our shareholders, associates, customers and our communities.

“Lastly, and more importantly, I especially want to be remembered as someone who finally got my life’s priorities in order, i.e. my faith, family and career,” May said. “I hope that I have made a difference in our community and in the lives of others.”

May has always done his best to put the tenets of his Christian faith into daily practice.

“Let me be the first to say that I have not always made the right decisions, nor have I always been proud of some of my actions,” May said. “It is obviously a maturing process. God has blessed me more than I deserve, and he has been very patient with me over the years. It is my faith that has helped me understand, whether as a leader or just as an individual, I have the responsibility to use the blessings I have been given to send the right message by doing the right thing. That applies to both the business decisions that we make and the examples we set for others.

“I have tried hard to allow my faith to guide my professional decisions,” May said. “For example, as a company we rely heavily on ‘The Do Right Rule.’ We tell our associates that just because something is legal, that it does not necessarily mean it is right. We will err on the side of being right. Our message to our leaders is to ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated,’ and to remember ‘as we lead, others will follow.’ The way we live our lives and the way others see us will influence the lives of others.”

May spoke at the conclusion of a retirement dinner held in his honor Dec. 6 at Pine Bluff Country Club.

May thanked his executive assistant, Randa Edwards, who has served with him for 27 years.

“She helped me raise my kids,” May said. “Once they were grown and in college they called Randa, to ask her for money. They got married and their wives called Randa, for money. Then I got married; you know the rest of the story.”

It was all trademark Tommy May humor, poking fun at his reputation for conservative money management and pinching pennies.

“Adam Robinson [owner of Ralph Robinson & Son Funeral Directors] asked me recently what it’s like to be chairman and CEO and about to retire,” May said. “I said it’s like being president of a cemetery: A lot of people are below me but nobody’s listening.”

May’s words then took a reflective tone.

“I have terribly mixed emotions about retirement but only because I haven’t tasted it yet,” May said. “I am reminded of what Lou Gehrig said to his fans, that despite his diagnosis he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth; and I feel that way today.”

Successor

CEO-Elect George A. Makris, who has been a member of the Simmons Board of Directors since 1997, was selected in August 2012 to assume the mantle of leadership from May. Makris had the opportunity to work with May during a transition period that lasted for a full year.

“I was a pretty lucky fellow,” Makris said in a recent interview. “Most people who come into a position of leadership don’t get any time to work with their predecessor, so working with Tommy for a full year has been invaluable. The first half of the year was spent on the road meeting with staff members, managers and others throughout our three-state network of banks. The management transition process was stepped up in the second half of the year and now I am at the point where I feel ready to begin my duties on Jan. 1.”

Makris said May will continue to support the work of Simmons even after his retirement becomes official.

“We are starting the Simmons First Foundation and Mr. May will be its first chairman,” Makris said. “As we have expanded our footprint and have a presence in multiple states, the way we handled financial contributions in our various communities needed to be more formalized.

“Within the foundation will be the Tommy May Make a Difference Grant; each year they will choose an organization within one of the communities that we serve and provide them with a grant to help them do their work,” Makris said. “There will be a committee who will make the decision on who gets the grants. We are in the process of defining the application process right now.

“It’s hard to imagine how important Tommy has been to this corporation for a long time,” Makris said. “A team effort will be necessary because no one person can replace what Tommy May did.”

May is optimistic about the future of SFNC under Makris.

“It was a great accomplishment to work with Dr. Harry Ryburn and the rest of the board of directors to name George Makris my successor as chairman and CEO of the Corporation, and to name Marty Casteel as chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Bank,” May said. “One of the most important decisions a board of directors makes is the selection of the CEO. George Makris is a great visionary and strategist. I am very proud that he is my successor, and I believe he will create new opportunities for growth.”

“George is a leader in Pine Bluff and I believe there are better days in front of our community and I truly know the best is yet to come for our bank and shareholders under his leadership,” May said. “He is a great team player, and he has put together a superior team that will lead our excellent associates. I am proud to have had a year of transition, which was probably as good for me as it was for George. I know that I leave the company in the hands of a great management team, and I see that as one of our Boards’ greater accomplishments.”