by Caleb Talley | Photo by Rett Peek
The office of Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, III, near the top of the Simmons Tower in downtown Little Rock, could just as easily serve as an exhibit in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In it are framed letters from presidents, photographs of dignitaries and a leather chair with a gold plate that reads “Counselor to the President,” turned to face his desk so that visitors may have the opportunity to sit where he once sat and advised the leader of the free world.
But he’s not really interested in hashing through all that. McLarty would much rather talk about his service to the community through his volunteer work for Junior Achievement of Arkansas, an organization dedicated to educating students on the value of economic literacy and entrepreneurship, which he helped friend and colleague Sheffield Nelson bring to Arkansas some 30 years ago. Their work has touched the lives of thousands of Arkansas children, most of whom are now thriving adults.
“When I talk about my time in government – when I had the privilege to serve in the White House with President Clinton – people ask you what was the most important or what do you remember,” McLarty says. “You certainly remember achievements and moments in foreign policy or crises or whatever.
“But what really resonates the most is when you see a person whose life has been affected or impacted positively by something that you tried to put forward. And I think, when you see these young people in Junior Achievement, they stand up and talk about what it’s meant to them and their understanding of our democratic system, our free market system of business.”
Had you asked McLarty when he was a kid if he planned to own a group of automotive dealerships, work for the leader of the free world or create an international consulting firm with one of the nation’s most recognized secretaries of state, he would have almost certainly said no. As a boy growing up in Hope, he had other plans.
“I have a picture of Harry Caray, the legendary announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals,” McLarty says. “When I was growing up in Hope, there was a local radio station owner, Haskell Jones, who used to let me announce baseball games and football games when I was 10 or 11 or 12 years old. I was fairly good at it at that point in time, but I think my accent may have caught up with me later on.
“I got to do two innings of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game when I was 10 years old with Harry Caray. That’s what I had to dream of doing. That was the highlight of my career. I think it’s been downhill ever since,” he adds with a laugh.
It was when McLarty went to college, at the University of Arkansas, that he began to realize his potential in business. His father owned and operated an automobile dealership that had been founded by his father. McLarty would get his education and come home to tend to the family business.
“My parents had just been absolutely wonderful parents when I was growing up, and they were always loving and supportive. They never pushed me,” he says. “It became clear to me that our family business endeavors were the logical thing for me to get into. I enjoyed working there during the summers. I enjoyed working with the people. I enjoyed building organizations and serving customers and getting things done and so forth. I was very fortunate to have that opportunity.”
But beneath the surface of this budding young businessman was the heart of a public servant. McLarty may have been born into an incredible family business, but he was also born for politics. In school back in Hope, in addition to being an all-state high school quarterback, McLarty was chosen to attend Arkansas Boys State, where he would be elected governor. In college, he was elected student body president and was instrumental in initiating the university’s first mass transit system. After graduation, while leading the family auto business, he ran for and won a bid for state representative at the age of 23.
“I had been involved in student council in Hope, the student government at the University of Arkansas and had been really fortunate to be a Hearst Fellow, which allowed me to spend three months in Washington, D.C. when I was a senior in high school,” McLarty says. “We came back to Hope, Donna and I, my wife, and it was just expected that I might seek office.
“We ran for state representative…We worked hard, and we won. It was a great honor to serve. It was Dale Bumpers’ first term as governor. So, it was a really interesting, dynamic, action-oriented time.”
Political aspirations soon took a back seat to family and the family business. But McLarty’s rising star couldn’t be kept away from politics entirely.
“When we had our first child, I kind of pulled back,” he says. “David Pryor, who I’d known since I was 10, was governor, and he asked me to serve as chairman of the Democratic Party. I agreed to do it, though I had some reservations because our business was growing.
“Politics has long been one of my endeavors. But it’s always a balance,” McLarty adds. “I’ve tried to do my best to balance public service and the business… I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in public service in the legislature and later with Gov. Pryor and working with such outstanding people, on both sides of the aisle. I’m a strong believer in bipartisanship.”
When he wasn’t in the political spotlight, McLarty was growing his family automotive business, McLarty Companies. In 1983, he took over for friend and colleague Sheffield Nelson as chief executive of Arkla, Inc., a Fortune 500 natural gas company.
And then, in the early 1990s, another old friend came calling. Gov. Bill Clinton, whom McLarty had known since kindergarten, was elected president of the United States. He wanted McLarty to serve as his chief of staff. Up to this point in his life, McLarty had wanted to focus on his family and business, despite having also served in appointed roles for George H.W. Bush. But he couldn’t turn Clinton down.
“When President-elect Bill Clinton asked me to serve as chief of staff, it was pretty hard not to respond to a friend of longstanding, governor of your home state with whom you share a political philosophy, who’s asking for your help and support,” McLarty says. “It’s a call to service. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. So, I was privileged to do that.”
McLarty went right to work, championing the 1993 deficit reduction package that led to the first federal surplus since 1969. He also played a major role in the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and welfare reform legislation.
“There was a real focus on the economy. ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ was kind of the 1992 campaign’s memorable phrase. I think the policies that we and President Clinton were able to support and put forward were sound. It helped balance the budget for the first time in many years. He supported job creation and a real increase in incomes across sectors. We were very fortunate…I enjoyed it.”
When asked which accomplishment was most rewarding during his White House tenure, McLarty is quick to recall the work he and Clinton put into balancing the federal budget. Seeing legislation have a positive impact on people, too, he says, was incredibly rewarding.
“I think balancing the budget was a major achievement,” McLarty says. “I really did not think we could balance a budget. I thought we could slow the growth of the deficit, but once the economy got rolling, we had momentum going and the confidence of the American people. I take real pride in that.
“But when you meet a single, working mother who has been helped by a policy initiative you have put forward, that really means a lot,” he adds. “When she tells you her story and the impact that legislation, like Welfare to Work, had on her children, that’s what makes it makes it all worth it. That’s why you go into public service.”
McLarty went on to serve as counselor to the president, serving in Clinton’s cabinet and on the National Economic Council. Upon leaving the administration in 1998, McLarty and longtime statesman and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger founded an international strategic advisory firm, Kissinger McLarty Associates, now known as McLarty Associates.
Since 1998, the firm has advised more than 300 clients, including 20 Fortune 200 companies, on how to navigate the strategic and operational challenges across 112 countries.
“You make a lot of friends; you make a lot of relationships. And you don’t want to walk away from that,” McLarty says of his time in Washington, D.C. “So, we divide our time. I established an international strategic advisory firm, McLarty Associates.
“I had a partnership, Kissinger-McLarty Associates, with [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger, which was quite an experience and all positive. We advise companies around the world to help open markets or solve head splitting problems. We have a lot of very accomplished, very experienced diplomats who are very knowledgeable in each part of the world. It’s a joy and privilege to work with them.”
And while McLarty splits his time between Little Rock, Washington, D.C., and the family home in Hope, he still makes time to deal in the family’s longstanding automotive interests. His sons, Mark and Franklin, are also involved in the automotive industry. According to McLarty, they share a combined heritage of a fourth-generation family in transportation, each having their own endeavors.
“Mark, our older son, has business activities here in Arkansas,” McLarty says. “He has McLarty Automotive Group and other endeavors. Franklin, our younger son, lives and works in New York. He has a firmament group, which was formerly known as McLarty Capital Partners, which is a private equity mezzanine debt endeavor. And he’s got his own automotive endeavors, as well.
“I’m a partner with Bob Johnson, founder of BET, and we have 25 dealerships in eight states. Mark has his dealerships here in Little Rock and Missouri.”
With decades of experience in the automotive industry, McLarty recognizes a time of change in the sector. That change, he says, is driven largely by changes across a number of industries.
“It’s a time of change and transformation in many sectors. A lot of it is technology driven. The world is much more interconnected than it’s ever been before,” he says. “In my mind, you have to be just fully engaged and embrace change and see it for what it is. In the automotive sector, I think it will play out somewhat differently in the urban areas on the east and west coasts than it will in the heartland.
“But certainly, we’ve seen our business change over the last 25 years or more. I think you just have to keep the customer at the center of your activities, as well as your people. You’ve got to nurture the partnerships, relationships, that you have with your OEM partners. In our case, my grandfather started in the Ford business in 1921 in Hope, and we still have our dealerships in Hope.”
Radical changes, like autonomous driving vehicles, McLarty believes are much further down the line than some anticipate and face a litany of challenges before becoming the new normal. Electric vehicles, he says, are a trend that isn’t without their own set of challenges.
“I think autonomous vehicles are a little bit of down the road, and you’ve got a lot of issues there – safety, obviously, and insurance,” McLarty says. I think you have to be mindful of change and engaged, but don’t get so far ahead that you lose the basic and your touch with customers and your people.
“[Electric vehicles] have been much slower growing than what had been originally forecasted,” he adds. “Most of the OEMs have begun to spend some significant capital on electric vehicles. But, again, I think it will vary a little bit by sectors of the country.
“I see the environmental aspect, for sure, but the electric grid powers electric vehicles, and you’ve got some security issues with the grid dependability and reliability. Right now, even a good portion of our electric plants are driven by, not just coal and fuel, but certainly by natural gas, as well as nuclear. That, in and of itself, is the development of energy. It’s not just a simple equation.”
McLarty isn’t alone in his assessment of electric vehicles. Heather Healy, a vice president of the Arkansas Independent Automobile Dealers Association, says there is plenty of work left to do before Arkansans see autonomous cars on their highways.
“I don’t want to speculate,” she says, “But there will need to be laws in place for this feature…I believe that electric vehicles, within 10 years, will start to take a small bite into the industry. I do believe that, within 20 years, they will have around a third of the market share. I don’t think that the oil industry will make it easy for electric cars getting into the market. The oil industry will continue to look to make cleaner fuels and develop fuel that can burn slower to make vehicles more efficient.”
With all his successes across decades of hard work in business and public service, McLarty is most happy when he sees a young life changed for the better through Junior Achievement. He’s quick to encourage students to first understand themselves before chasing their dreams, whatever those dreams may be.
“I think the most important thing is to know who you are and be secure and comfortable with yourself, to have a set of core values that are your compass and guide you in your activities and your relationships,” McLarty says. “I think that’s the place to start. Then, follow your passion and your dreams and what interests you.
“There are a lot of ways to have a successful, meaningful, impactful, good life. There’s not just one road that leads to success. I think in terms of the entrepreneur, if that’s part of your DNA and your personality, then go for it. But don’t force it. Don’t feel like you have to do something that doesn’t quite feel like it’s the right fit for you.”
As someone who has spent years leading through public service, McLarty encourages students and young adults with a passion for politics to pursue those interests, as well.
“I think our politics have become far too partisan, far too divided,” he says. “I’m a strong believer in bipartisan and getting things done. And I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of Republicans over the years, both in politics and in business, as well as Democrats. I consider myself a centrist Democrat and had the good fortune to work with Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton and Mike Beebe. But, certainly, I think very highly of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
“I would strongly encourage any young person to be part of the political process. There’s a lot of ways to do that, starting with voting and just being informed on the issues. I think it’s realistic to say, ‘What do you believe in? Why do you want to get in this political process? What do you want to accomplish? Be sure it’s not just all about you.’ It should be about looking outward and serving others.”