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With more than 140 financial institutions closing across the United States in 2009, Arkansas banks — for the most part — avoided the spotlight … that’s a good thing.

“As far as the people out there putting their money in banks, in terms of deposits, it creates an atmosphere that banks in Arkansas do not have the problems that we read about in the paper everyday,” said Garland Binns, an attorney with Dover Dixon & Horne in Little Rock, who specializes in banking legal issues. The bursting bubble from the residential real estate market did not torpedo our state like it did California, Florida or Arizona. However, there were plenty of in-state subdivision developers, construction-related companies, and owners of high-priced homes who would argue differently, empathizing with their counterparts in those economically-troubled states. Arkansas’ conservative business culture and our relative isolation from the sub-prime mortgage crisis largely kept state banks out of trouble, but risks in the commercial real estate sector still pose a serious threat. “There will be more pain and more losses in commercial real estate loans going forward,” said Tim Yeager, the Arkansas Bankers Association Chair in Banking at the University of Arkansas Walton College of Business. He predicts that northwest Arkansas will remain sluggish with an excess supply of commercial properties, but the real pain will take place out of state in major metropolitan areas that are suffering from extremely high vacancy rates. Yeager and Binns contend that ranking Arkansas banks on strength is both objective and subjective, because it involves measurable statistics like capital-to-asset ratios and profitability, but it also includes intangibles like leadership and management structure. With that background, which Arkansas-rooted banks stand out as superior in their field? I’ll offer my assessment based on what’s happening in the market and what’s looming on the horizon. Keep your eyes on these high-profile banks and the moves they make in 2010:

Arvest Bank
Arvest Bank posted the highest profits of any Arkansas-based bank for the first nine months of 2009 with net income of $40.1 million. The Fayetteville-based financial institution, guided by the Walton family, has been in an acquisition mode lately, gobbling up troubled banks in the Kansas City area and its appetite doesn’t appear likely to slow down soon.

Bank of the Ozarks
Little Rock-based Bank of the Ozarks also was highly profitable in 2009, ranking second behind Arvest. However, a string of record quarterly profits was broken in 2009, and Bank of the Ozarks seems determined to get back to setting records. Company officials have been candid in addressing the few blemishes in its portfolio, and its handling of problem loans has resulted in very modest losses.

First Security Bank
This privately-held bank, which originated in Searcy, has been a player in the bigger Arkansas markets for years. It is a diversified banking interest and is well-capitalized. Don’t be surprised to see First Security acquire a smaller bank in an opportunistic region in the next year.

Centennial Bank (Home Bancshares)
Conway-based Centennial Bank, whose parent company, Home Bancshares, is headed by one of Arkansas’ most colorful entrepreneurs John Allison. He vacated his CEO seat in 2009 to focus his efforts on long-term strategies for the bank. Recently, Home Bancshares secured more than $100 million in new capital through a public offering with a stated purpose of buying banks in or out of Arkansas.

Simmons First
This Pine Bluff bank has been a steady, conservative leader throughout Arkansas for decades. It has one of the biggest footprints in the state with locations in 47 communities. In late 2009, Simmons First raised $70 million for potential acquisitions.

Southern Bancorp
Based out of Arkadelphia, Southern Bancorp serves a wide swath of clients across the Delta, and it has a very different mission than some banks. It targets lower income and historically-impoverished areas of the Delta region. Many of its loans are aimed at transforming communities.

Delta Trust
Delta Trust has its roots in three distinct areas of the state: southeast, central and northwest Arkansas. That diversity cushions Delta Trust’s business as it is spread across agricultural, old-line and fast growth companies. It had one of the most profitable years in its 100-year history in 2009.

IberiaBank made a name for itself when it became the first bank in the country to return borrowed funds to the federal government. The Louisiana-based bank has established a large footprint in state through acquisitions in central, northeast and northwest Arkansas in the last few years. It has also raised significant capital to buy banks, purchasing two south Florida banks in late 2009.

BancorpSouth may seem like an Arkansas-based bank with its proliferation of branches across the state. In fact, it is based out of Tupelo, Miss., but is run by a former El Dorado banker. At a recent shareholders’ meeting, management said it had been asked to review all of the possible bank buyouts in its territories. The bank’s financial condition has it in the top tier of banks its size as ranked by the FDIC.

Roby Brock is the editor and host of Talk Business, a weekly business television and radio program airing statewide in Arkansas.