Wilton Robert Stephens founded Stephens, Inc., which once was the largest brokerage firm off Wall Street. He was a prime mover in the development of the natural gas industry after World War II and exerted great influence on the political and economic fortunes of Arkansas during the second half of the twentieth century.
Witt Stephens was born on September 14, 1907, in Prattsville (Grant County), the second of six children of A. J. “Jack” Stephens and Ethel Pumphrey Stephens. His father was a farmer and politician who served two terms in the state House of Representatives from Grant County, as would Witt thirty years later.
In 1934, Stephens founded the W. R. Stephens Investment Company. After World War II, Stephens began to acquire extensive natural gas interests and, in a few years, controlled most of the gas production and distribution in the state. When Roosevelt tried to break up utility-holding companies in 1945, Stephens paid $1.2 million for the Fort Smith Gas Co. (now Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Co.). The company owned no gas reserves, so in 1953, Stephens bought the Oklahoma Producing Co. for $6.5 million and assigned its transmission property to his new gas company and the rest to Stephens Production Co., a new natural gas exploration company. Stephens developed vast reserves of natural gas in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as bituminous coal in Wyoming.
In 1954, Stephens acquired Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. (Arkla) from Cities Service Co. Arkla had one of the worst earnings records in the business. In 1956, Stephens became president and chairman of the board of Arkla, leaving the investment company in the hands of his brother, Jackson T. Stephens, who had joined the company in 1946. After Stephens’s retirement from Arkla, he returned to Stephens Inc. where he dabbled in bond trading and hosted locally famous “cornbread lunches,” at which former political and business adversaries, journalists, and judges shed their old grudges and swapped stories of election hijinks and crafty business deals.
Stephens died of complications from a stroke on December 2, 1991
In 1935, Stephens married Joy Summers, who had a daughter, Frances. His first wife died of cancer in 1954, and in August 1956, he married Bess Chisum. They had three children, Pamela Diane, Elizabeth, and Wilton R. Jr.