In Pursuit Of Perfection With Rush Harding

By: Talk Business

Rush Harding is chasing perfection.

The perfect deal. The perfect business. The perfect life. Perhaps most interestingly, a perfect attendance record.

Growing up in Clarendon, Arkansas, this son of the Delta had a perfect 18-year attendance record in Sunday school. In his professional life, Harding has never missed a day of work. Ever.

He’s showed up to his perch at Little Rock-based investment banking firm Crews and Associates with broken bones, in a wheelchair, and even timed gall bladder surgery for after work on Friday so he could return to work Monday morning.

“I would love to say I’ve worked 50 years and never missed a day for being sick. That’s a goal I’ve got and I’m going to accomplish it,” said Harding, a goal setter since childhood.

Why does that matter?

Perhaps it is his drive to set an example. It could be his overachieving Eagle Scout instincts.

It may also speak volumes for how this larger-than-life business icon wants to ensure that he never misses a moment of living.

Early Influences

Rush F. Harding, III, 59, is the son of two educators. His mother, Martha, taught Home Economics and was a guidance counselor and his father, Rush, Jr., was an English teacher and coach. They taught in the small Monroe County town of Clarendon for a combined 70 years.

“I know we have idealistic views of what our childhoods were like, but Clarendon was really a neat place to grow up in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s,” Harding recalls.

Driven by his father-coach, the young Harding played all sports, including football, basketball, and baseball. He excelled at scouting, was a straight-A student, and served as the captain of every team sport he played.

“My dad was the kind of guy who could motivate young people to get the most out of them,” he said. “From the time I knew what a valedictorian was, I knew I was expected to be it.”

And he was.

When Harding went to Boys State in 1971, his father told him that he expected him to come back Governor.

He did.

“I never disappointed my parents,” Harding said. “Never did. I was scared of the consequences.”

Harding shared valedictorian honors with his best friend, Gary Cook, a fellow athlete and scholar who lived in the neighboring community of Monroe.

Cook was committed to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point and he convinced Harding to follow. The two young men were too naïve to understand that one appointment to West Point for a Clarendon student was a major accomplishment. Two from the same class would be unheralded.

But through fate, divine intervention or happenstance, they both received appointments.

Two weeks before they were to leave for West Point, Cook drowned in a freak accident in a rice ditch on his family’s farm.

“It happened on a Sunday,” Harding remembers. “Gary didn’t know how to swim. To this day, they never told me what really happened.”

Harding was more interested in following Cook to West Point than he was interested in military service. However, he pressed on and attended the first year, quickly earning a reputation as a rebel.

“I went up there. They call it gray. If you’re kind of gray as a plebe and blend into the landscape you don’t get hazed very much. I got hazed a lot. I stuck out pretty bad,” Harding says.

He got demerits for his attitude, not his performance. He kept his shoes shined and his collar stiff, but he wasn’t about to let the nation’s military academy break his spirit. As a result, he spent a lot of time “walking hours,” a form of punishment where cadets march across the barracks courtyard for a period of hours, not laps.

“If you walk a hundred hours in your four years there, they call you a ‘Century Man.’ I walked a hundred hours in the first year,” Harding admits with a little bit of pride.

He returned for his sophomore year to give it a second chance, but without his best friend and owing to his interest in co-eds, Harding transferred to the University of Central Arkansas, a campus with which he was very familiar.

As a kid, Harding’s parents worked on advanced degrees during the summers at UCA, and Harding played baseball in the Conway area while living with his parents in campus housing.

His math foundation from two years at West Point coupled with his passion for literature led him to earn degrees in mathematics and English. The overachieving, accomplished businessman never took a business course in college.

The Career Path

Closing in on college graduation, Harding had already decided to follow his father’s footsteps and enter the teaching and coaching ranks. His dad had already lined up an $8,400 a year job as a coach in Forrest City, Arkansas.

However, the younger Harding was having reservations.

“I was working on my budget and I just couldn’t make the math work,” he said. “I needed to get a car, I needed to pay some student loans, I needed a place to live.”

President of his fraternity at UCA, Harding led a group of friends to a bar party in Little Rock one weekend during his senior year. He met a bond daddy named Dick Moseley who worked for T.J. Rainey and Sons, a powerhouse investment group in the 1970’s.

The two men had a conversation about Harding’s future. Harding fudged the numbers a little and told Moseley that he was going to coach and teach in a job that paid about $12,000.

Moseley asked if that was an annual or monthly salary.

“I told him the President didn’t make $12,000 a month, but Dick said, ‘I do.’ And he gave me a business card,” Harding said.

Harding followed up with a visit to the sales manager at T.J. Rainey, a man named Adron Crews who would eventually become Harding’s mentor and business partner.

“Adron looked at my resume and said, ‘Rush, your entire life you’ve always functioned in the top one or two percent of anything you’ve ever done. If you get into this business and you can function in that top one or two percent, you’re going to have a really good future.’”

The lure of the almighty dollar and the thought that he could always fall back on teaching and coaching coaxed Harding to take the leap. He knew his mother would understand, but he dreaded the conversation that was sure to disappoint his father.

“It was the first time I ever said no to my dad,” Harding recalls.

His dad turned him down for a $300 start-up loan – he didn’t want to “prolong his mistake,” he said – so Harding worked a deal with a young banker from Clarendon to borrow money for some apartment furnishings.

The monthly note payment was $36 a month and Harding still takes great pride in paying that debt off so early that he received a $1.56 check back in overpaid interest.

Rough Start

Success in the bond business didn’t come easy.

Harding struggled for months to make a sale. He didn’t know much about the bond business and he definitely didn’t know how to sell its products.

At T.J. Rainey, Harding sat next to a co-worker named John Bailey, who was legally blind but a pretty good phone salesman. Bailey and Harding became fast friends, but none of Bailey’s coaching seemed to help Harding score a deal.

Four months into the gig, Harding had drawn $450 a month against his commissions and time was running out to produce.

His father had lined him up another teaching-coaching job, this time with an $11,000 salary. Harding asked Bailey for advice.

“Rush, I love you. You’re my friend, but you need to take that job. You’re the worst I’ve ever heard on the phone,” Bailey confessed.

Harding interviewed for the coaching job and learned that in addition to coaching football and basketball, he’d also be running a study hall and a driver’s education class. He wanted to teach math and English, but it wasn’t going to be part of the deal.

“I didn’t take the job. That just didn’t appeal to me,” Harding said.

With the “crutch” of a coaching job behind him, he set off to develop a sales pitch and prospects to make something of himself in the municipal bond business.

He was given the choice of territory in Alabama or West Virginia, and because he knew one person from West Point in West Virginia, he opted for the West Virginia prospect list.

Harding figured out that big general obligation bond projects were extremely competitive. Dozens of in-state and out-of-state groups would bid on the bonds and he knew he wouldn’t stand a chance with his untested youth and undeveloped relationships.

Instead, he targeted small communities in West Virginia – ones that resembled small towns like Clarendon, Arkansas – and he went after their municipal bond business. While the bonds were smaller, they were less competitive.

“I figured that out quick enough so that I started going to those lesser-traded credits,” he explained.

He also traveled the state and began establishing relationships with the bankers and local officials with whom he wanted to do business.

“My sales pitch became: ‘I come from a good family, I work at a good firm, I’ve been successful at everything I’ve ever done’ I’m going to figure this out. If you’ll give me the honor and privilege of competing for your business, I’ll never forget it,’” he recalls.

He hit a few home runs and established himself.

Harding also cultivated relationships with his primary competitors for the small-town business. One trader, who was 40 years Harding’s senior, was a bond seller in Pittsburgh. He was 65 and had a lot of the small town West Virginia business.

“I called him up and told him I want to catch some of the dust falling off your gold nuggets,” says Harding. The gregarious twenty-something’s charm offensive paid off and eventually he started getting referrals for bigger business outside of the scope of the other brokers against whom he was competing.

“Once I figured it out, my learning curve was at an accelerated pace,” Harding said.

Turning Points

The death of Bob Rainey, Sr. in 1979 proved to be a fork in the road for Harding’s career.

There was a Rainey family tussle for control of the investment firm after his death, but Harding stuck with his mentor, Adron Crews, during the transition. Crews had decided to found his own investment group, which he did in October 1979.

Harding and six others left T.J. Rainey and joined the new venture, Crews and Associates.

“We capitalized this firm on $300,000,” he recalls, but Harding couldn’t have predicted the storm that was coming in 1980 when interest rates soared high into the double-digits, threatening the ability to secure low-interest financing for projects.

His production went to a “whole new level,” in large part due to fear of failure.

At the age of 61, Adron Crews died of natural causes in 1996 on a business trip in New Orleans. Four years later, the firm bearing his name sold to Reynie Rutledge’s First Security Bancorp and Harding says it has been a perfect partnership.

Harding’s work ethic still exists today, as does the competitor spirit in his DNA. The former sports captain is the captain of Crews and Associates not only in title, but in productivity.

“I’m still the top producer at this firm. Nobody has ever beaten me, nobody has ever grossed more than me here in a month,” he says proudly.

Perseverance is a trait that sports instills in young men and women. In business, it is the necessary ingredient for any entrepreneur’s success.

“I tell these guys I’ve been through divorces, I’ve been through crazy kids. I’ve been through bad markets. I’ve been through good markets. I’ve been through whatever challenges you’ve got. It’s a matter of discipline and perseverance and tenacity to plow through that and get your business done and stay focused,” he said.

Harding has displayed that lesson, which he learned from his father, in the most dramatic of ways.

“When my dad died, the way I honored my dad was I worked until 10:45 the day we buried my dad. Then I walked down to First Methodist Church six blocks from here and I did the eulogy at his funeral,” Harding said.

Harding hugged everybody, shook hands, had lunch, then came back to work.

“That’s what my dad would have wanted me to do.”

The Family Chapter

“Nothing is more important to me than my family. I mean I love work and I think work is what I think defines us, but work is how we take care of our families,” Harding philosophizes.

Like his father, work equals success. Hard work pays off in championships and it pays off in business triumphs.

Harding’s older son, Rush IV, also known as “Buddy,” is now working at Crews and Associates. Just five years in the business, he’s the only other employee besides his father with a perfect attendance record at work.

Father Harding says his son is “doing well” and understands the mechanics of the business. His son has also made Harding a grandfather again. His daughter Shaylea, who is his oldest child, lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband and kids.

Payne, his youngest child, has been learning the restaurant business at 1620, which Harding owns.

They are about to launch an ubber-upscale fine dining establishment called Cache in the heart of Little Rock’s River Market. Harding is an investor in the restaurant and the spectacular three-story building that will house it.

Harding has jitters about the endeavor, which is a far different undertaking than the risky bond and securities business and his real estate holdings around the Conway area.

“I’m in the riskiest, most perilous business activities on the planet, but I haven’t seen anything like the restaurant business,” he laughs.

Harding’s business acumen has made him immensely wealthy and led to his ability to invest in other interests, such as golf courses, fancy restaurants, and high-end real estate.

There’s no shortage of generosity to his charitable efforts, either. Despite his brash and confident personality, he and his wife, Linda, are low-key and humble about their philanthropy.

The Hardings have contributed to college scholarships and athletic programs, given money to Rush’s hometown of Clarendon, and anonymously donated to numerous causes that he won’t reveal.

Harding has worked with a variety of non-profits, including the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Arts Center, and the University of Central Arkansas’ board of trustees.

As he says, work “defines us,” and for Harding, his business success has defined him well beyond the bond business.

His life is a great story that reminds us all to be aware of the forks in the road that come your way.

Harding – a guy who thought he’d coach and teach for a living meets a bond dealer in a bar. They strike up a conversation and 35 years later… well, it’s a script for a perfect career, a perfect business, a perfect life.

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