There are some changes ahead in the leadership of Simmons First National Corp., an Arkansas financial giant that 109 years after its founding remains headquartered in Pine Bluff.

There are some changes ahead in the leadership of Simmons First National Corp., an Arkansas financial giant that 109 years after its founding remains headquartered in Pine Bluff.

Chairman and CEO J. Thomas May is expected to retire Dec. 31, 2013, and his successor will be George Makris, a longtime director on the board of Simmons First and president of MK Distributors.

The announcement was made Tuesday by Harry Ryburn, lead director of Simmons First.

Before taking over for May, Makris will serve in a transition capacity as CEO-elect effective Jan. 1, 2013.

In addition, the board announced that David Bartlett, corporate president and chief operating officer, has been named president and chief banking officer of Simmons First, effective Jan. 1, 2013, reporting to the chairman and CEO.

Makris will continue serving on the board of the corporation and Bartlett will be named to the board effective January 2013. Makris has served on the board for 15 years and is audit committee chairman.

Makris is a third generation businessman and has been a leader in many local organizations. He currently serves as chairman of the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County and vice-chairman of the Jefferson Hospital Association Board of Directors.

He is a director of the National Beer Wholesalers Association and served as a member of the Anheuser-Busch Wholesaler Advisory Panel. Makris also serves on the Board of Visitors of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ College of Medicine. He received his bachelor of arts degree from Rhodes College and his master of business administration degree from the University of Arkansas.

A lifelong resident of Pine Bluff, he and his wife Debbie, have three sons, George III, Nick, and John. He and his wife are members of Trinity Episcopal Church.

“George has a proven record of market development and combined with his experience from the perspective of a shareholder, director and consumer of financial services, is uniquely qualified to lead the strategic efforts of the corporation and its outstanding team of banking professionals,” Ryburn said.

May’s perspective

“I’ve known George for 26 years,” May told The Commercial Tuesday evening. “We’ve not only worked together on many special projects, but become very close friends. He’s an exceptional leader – in his business, which does so much to support our community, in his service to JRMC and The Alliance, and his efforts in trying to create new jobs as chairman of the Economic Development Corp.

“I’m so pleased that he’ll be succeeding me, because I know he’ll help take Simmons First National Corp. to another level,” May continued. “I couldn’t be prouder. George is uniquely qualified for this post. Obviously, he knows our company very well and understands out commitment. He’s a visionary.”

May believes Simmons First will acquire even more strength with the coupling of Makris’ abilities and the “talents” of the “team surrounding him.”

Makris spoke of May with similar respect.

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

Makris added that he’s pleased that he’ll be working alongside May for a year before May steps down.

“I want to know the way it is,” Makris said. “I want to know the facts, and with Tommy May, that’s exactly what I’m going to get.”

New leadership

In addition to serving as corporate president, Bartlett will become chief banking officer with direct oversight for eight banks with assets in excess of $3.2 billion, which will now include the lead bank, Simmons First National Bank.

“Bartlett has been in banking for 35 years and has been a part of Simmons First since the bank he organized in Hot Springs merged with Simmons First in 2004,” Ryburn said. “He presently has oversight responsibility of seven of our community banks ranging in asset size of $200 million to $350 million. He has exceptional leadership skills and understands the regulatory environment extremely well.”

Bartlett is on the Arkansas Bankers Association Board and serves as chairman-elect. He also is a board member of the Baptist Health Foundation, treasurer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and a UALR Fast Forward Steering Committee member. He and his wife Nancy, live in Little Rock, and are members of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church. They are the parents of Melissa, Chip, and the late Michelle.

Bob Fehlman, executive vice president, and chief financial officer, will become senior executive vice president and chief financial officer of Simmons First and will assume new responsibilities as corporate treasurer, reporting to the corporate chairman and CEO. Fehlman is a certified public accountant and worked as an accountant with BKD, before joining Simmons First 24 years ago.

Fehlman was named to the Arkansas Business “40 under 40,” and recognized in 2009 by Arkansas Business as the first recipient of the CFO Lifetime Achievement Award. He is a member of the Arkansas Executive Forum, serves on the board of the United Way of Arkansas and is a member of the Rotary International Club 99. He and his wife Debbie, live in Little Rock, and are members of Fellowship Bible Church. They have two daughters, Breanna and Katherine.

Marty Casteel, executive vice president of the corporation and Simmons First National Bank, will continue his administrative duties in the corporation reporting to the corporate CEO. Casteel will assume the additional title of chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Bank and in this role will report to the president and chief banking officer of the corporation. He will become a member of the bank’s board of directors. Casteel has more than 35 years of banking experience, of which 25 years have been with Simmons First.

Casteel is on the board of the Jefferson Hospital Association and the UAPB Board of Visitors. He also serves as vice-chairman and board member of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, board member of Pine Bluff Downtown Development, the United Way Board, a member of Fifty for the Future, and a member of the Rotary Club of Pine Bluff. He and his wife Ginger live in Pine Bluff and are members of First United Methodist Church. They have one daughter, Mary Robin.

Craig Hunt, executive vice president with the bank, has been promoted to president of the bank and assume new responsibilities as the corporate chief credit officer.

Hunt will report to the chairman and CEO of the bank and will become a member of the bank board of directors. Hunt has more than 41 years of banking experience with Simmons First. He serves on the boards of the Jefferson County 4-H Foundation, Jefferson County Industrial Foundation, and Fifty for the Future. He is a past president of Pine Bluff Downtown Development and a former board member of the South Arkansas Livestock Show Association. He lives in Pine Bluff and is a member of First United Methodist Church. He has two daughters, Ashley and Lauren.

Makris, Casteel and Hunt will continue to be located in Pine Bluff, with the corporate headquarters and the lead bank. Bartlett and Fehlman will continue to be located in Little Rock at the corporate office on Riverfront Drive.

“One of the most gratifying experiences I have had in recent times, is watching how our board of directors, under the leadership and guidance of Dr. Harry Ryburn, a 37 year member, with 10 years as lead director, worked on this succession plan for over two years,” May said.

“George Makris is known for his vision, strategic planning and ability to mold, motivate and lead a team. He is performance driven and understands banking better than many bankers. While it will be extremely difficult for me to say good-bye when I retire in December 2013, it will also be exciting to watch this new team, which has been a part of leading this company through one of the greatest recessions in history, take Simmons First to a new level in size, geographic footprint and creating shareholder value. It is a really strong team, and the process exemplifies a ‘best practice’ when it comes to corporate governance and succession planning. Our board of directors has excelled and this team will take our company to a new level of performance for all of our stakeholders,” May said.