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2019 Economic Impact Awards Lifetime Achievement in Business: William “Bill” Turner

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Joining Great Southern Bancorp Inc. in the mid-1970s was a bit of a risk for William “Bill” Turner.

Seems odd to say, on this side of history. The Turner name today is synonymous with Great Southern, a publicly traded financial institution (Nasdaq: GSBC) with nearly $5 billion in assets.

But back then, he had not been in Springfield for too long, having moved down from Kansas City. He had worked for the U.S. Small Business Administration, making loans to small businesses in Missouri and Kansas. One of the banks he worked with, Citizens Bank, offered him a job in Springfield. He took that, the company later was purchased by Commerce Bank and then an unexpected thing happened. Great Southern’s president died.

Turner was approached for the job. The conversation at the Turner home came next.

“My kids were little then, 10, 11 years old. I told them I was thinking about leaving to go to Great Southern because it was a good opportunity,” he recalls, sitting in his original corner office at the Great Southern headquarters on Battlefield Road. “They cried and begged me not to do it. Great Southern was much smaller, a savings and loan association at the time. They thought I had a good, secure job.”

Turner slept on it.

“The next morning I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ So I did, and I’ve never been a bit sorry for it,” he says.

When Turner started in 1974, there was just a single bank. Now, there’s over 100 offices, spread across 11 states.

The bank held assets of $4.9 billion and deposits of $3.9 billion in second-quarter 2019, the most recent reporting period. Shares were trading around $58 at press time, slightly under a 52-week high of $61.65 per share.

Named Great Southern’s fifth president in 1974, Turner passed the baton in 1999 to his son, Joe, the sixth and current president.

In the excerpts that follow, Bill Turner reflects on his career in banking, taking the company public and the family legacy.

Going public
“We had wanted to go public for some time. We had the stock market crash, and it just wasn’t feasible to sell the stock. We decided to go public in 1989 and went around to branches in West Plains, Ava and presented the plan to people about our stock. A lot of people didn’t know anything about bank stock. They were hesitant. We did get our stock sold. I think it was $20 million worth. Of course, that increased our net worth and put us on better footing. The stock’s continued to appreciate in value.

“Right after we went public, our stock came out at $9 per share. It immediately dropped to about $7. People thought, oh boy, we’re in trouble here. But our company bought a lot of the stock back and it started going up.”

Growth strategy
“Most of those branches came as a result of our acquisitions of failed savings and loan associations. That’s worked out really well for us. It just became available. (Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.), the insurer, would put a list of failing thrifts, and we’d bid on those. I think we’ve acquired five groups, and every one of those have been very profitable for us.”

Personal stocks
“Most of my investment has been Great Southern stock. However, I do have O’Reilly [Automotive Inc.] – I’ve been an investor, still am. Some other bank stocks, which I’ve been in and out of.”

Turner legacy
“My son has done a lot. Of course, he runs the company now. He’s done a much better job than I did when I was running things.

“I think it’ll continue on. We’re hoping my grandson will come back someday. Right now, he’s liking New York. That may or may not happen, but we’re hoping it will.”

Semiretired
“Yeah. I stay active and I’m still chairman of the board. I stay involved in major things.

“I just work till noon, then go to lunch and go home. If I have any real problems, I refer them to Joe.”

Missed most
“Primarily dealing with people, customers. I love working with our employees. We’ve got 1,200. When I came, there were 12. I certainly didn’t envision this kind of growth.”

To your younger self
“It’s good in banking to be a little pessimistic. What may look good today, in a down market wouldn’t look so good. In Branson, for example, banks including ours made a lot of loans down there, depending on tourists to support theaters and all that – a lot of that’s dried up. … That was a learning curve for us and a lot of other banks.”

Unsung heroes
“I worked for a man, Jim Jeffries, he was president of Citizens, then Commerce. He was a wonderful mentor to me. The other person at Citizens Bank was Tom Watkins, who was chairman of the board. He’s the one who hired me.

“There was no training program. They just said, ‘Here’s your desk. Here’s your secretary. You don’t have any loan customers. You need to get some.’ So, we’d make $500 loans or $50,000 loans. They both did that, and I got to sit right between them and see how they did things. It was a good experience.”

First salary
“I remember my first year, in March, I think I had a salary of $13,500. (Watkins) called me back to his office in December and said, ‘We’re going to give you a raise. We’re going to raise you to $15,000.’ I said, ‘That’s great, Mr. Watkins.’ He said, ‘Well, is it enough?’ I said, ‘Yes sir. Whatever you think.’ He said, ‘By God, it’s not what I think, it’s what you think.’ So I left and he called me back later in the day and said, ‘We’re going to make that $16,000.’ So I agreed with him. Back then, banks didn’t pay the kind of money they do now. Jim Jeffries only made $19,000 and Tom was $20,000, I think. They got money from stock, too.”

Industry changes
“The (savings and loan) business has not been that good. There are very few left. The reason is during the 1980s when interest rates went too high – the prime rate was 21.5% – we were paying 16.5% on CDs and meanwhile we had all these fixed rate 30-year loans. They were at 9.5% interest. Our average cost of money was 11.5%, so obviously that doesn’t work. The S&L examiners would come in and look at how long you’d be able to survive. Fortunately, the interest rates came back down and they’ve been pretty low ever since.”

Community involvement
“I served on the school board for six years, was president of the board for three years. I was president of the chamber of commerce. Worked in the cancer society and numerous other voluntary things through the years.

“I was a board director at CoxHealth for 35 years. My son Joe’s on the board now. We donated a lot of money for one of the buildings at Cox. In my hometown, we’ve done a lot for the community down there. The community center in Mansfield is named for my wife. I think we’ve tried to share what wealth we’ve had with other community things.”

Remember this
“I really hope that our entire family will be remembered for things they’ve done civically and to help others. We have a family foundation that gives quite a bit of money to charities every year.”

Banking advice
“With all the technology, you get away from personal contact. In lending, you need to keep that, particularly. Maybe not so much in deposits. But lending still is a personal business. You talk to the people and evaluate them as being a good risk or a bad risk. I think Joe and his lending team have done a good job of that – not getting us into things that are going to be costly. Although, we occasionally do have loan problems, always will have. Banking is a business of risk – you have to evaluate the risk and hope you’re right.”

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