Upon his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946, Jackson T. Stephens came to Little Rock and joined his brother Witt Stephens in the municipal bond business. The two formed the firm Stephens Inc. on a handshake partnership that lasted for over forty years, until Witt’s death in 1991. Witt was a gregarious and shrewd businessman and a great salesman. Jack was quiet, thoughtful, and equally astute. While Witt ventured into politics and running the local gas utility, Jack began to expand the investment business into the sales, trading and underwriting of corporate securities. He also began making direct investments in private companies for the firm’s account, predating by decades the private equity endeavors of Wall Street firms.
The expansion of the firm’s activities under Jack’s leadership in the 1950s and 1960s led to the firm becoming the largest investment banking firm in the country (measured by capital) located off Wall Street, and one of the top ten firms overall, along with the likes of Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs. Jack was instrumental in providing capital and investment banking services to an array of Arkansas companies that became large and successful enterprises: Wal-Mart Stores, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Trucking, Alltel Corporation. He also invested in a number of community banks around the state, culminating in the purchase of Little Rock’s Worthen Bank, ultimately sold to what is now Bank of America.
His private investments were spectacularly successful. Three of them generated more than one billion dollars each in profits: Stephens Production Company, Systematics, and Donrey Media. Jack Stephens can lay claim to being one of the finest investors of the 20th century. His acumen as an investor was combined in remarkable fashion with his ability to form enduring personal relationships with his partners. Several generations of Arkansas companies and business leaders came to know Jack as not only a smart investment banker but as a loyal and reliable friend as well. Jack’s influence grew well beyond Arkansas to the boardrooms of corporate America and to the halls of Washington D.C.; his opinions were constantly sought by investors, CEOs, and politicians. In 1991, Jack’s trustworthiness and love of the game led him to be selected as the fourth Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club.
In the decade prior to his death in 2005, Jack began to step up his charitable activities, and today there are ample reminders of his generosity, at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, in Little Rock, and at the Medical School; at the Arkansas Arts Center; and at public and private schools around the state.
The ongoing business activities and reputation of Stephens Inc., now run by his son Warren, are largely the result of Jack Stephens’ personal attributes: thoughtfulness, quietness, graciousness, and reliability.