Volume surged last week in shares of usually quiet Worthen Banking Corp. in Little Rock, Ark., as a local investor unloaded 1.2 million shares.

On Friday, Johnnie Bryan Hunt, chairman of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and one of the wealthiest individuals in the United States, sold his stake in the bank.

Worthen, with $2.7 billion in assets, is Arkansas' biggest banking company.

Another big block of Worthen shares traded in May, when an Arab investor, Hodullas Taha Bakhsh, sold 505,460 shares.

The sale reduced his stake, which was between 5% and 10%, to less than 5%, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Mr. Bakhsh was a long-time investor in the bank. "The stock had appreciated, and he decided to sell shares," said Paul C. Meyer of Rogers & Wells, his lawyer. Mr. Bakhsh retains some shares of the bank, Mr. Meyer said.

On Monday, the shares closed at $21.50, up 75 cents on the day and near the 52-week high of $21.875. Volume was heavy again Monday, with more than 1.3 million shares changing hands.

News Assimilated

That the shares did not drop sharply indicates that investors accepted the two big transactions as individual business decisions rather than unhappiness with Worthen.

The recent stock sales also have not soured analysts.

"The two sales are a coincidence," said Peter W. Tuz, an analyst at Morgan Keegan & Co., Memphis. "Bank stocks in general have done very well this year. A lot of people have taken profits."

Worthen's shares have risen about 8% this year.

"I'm not worried at all," said Frank Anderson, an analyst with Stephens Inc. in Little Rock. "In fact, I think the trades are good for the share price."

Stephens owns a third of Worthen's shares. Bank employees own another third. Of the 12 million shares outstanding, less than half are available for trading, Mr. Tuz said.

Worthen's concentration of ownership had hindered growth in its share price. The stock trades at about nine time estimated earnings per share for 1992.

For a bank that reported a 1.07% return on assets and a 17.3% return on equity in the first quarter, the shares represent a good value.

Fifteen institutional investors and individuals bought the Hunt shares, and the Arab shares were sold on the open market.

Mr. Anderson said the stock has been more liquid this year than last, when the shares sold for half the current price.

So why did Mr. Hunt sell out? He could not be reached for comment.

"It sounds like his interest in banking isn't what it used to be," said Mr. Anderson.

But Mr. Anderson said that banks would find it harder to make money in the future, making this a good time for investors to sell.

"There is a lot of interest in banks right now," said Mr. Anderson. "And the prices are nice - we see a lot of deals at two times book value."

Mr. Hunt owns One National Bankshares, which is liquidating itself. Recently, it sold eight branches in tiny North Little Rock to Worthen. Mr. Hunt's banking company probably has only about $60 million in assets left, said Mr. Anderson.

Worthen paid Mr. Hunt 1.2 million shares and $15.2 million in cash to acquire a unit of One National earlier this year.

The deal was an about-face for Mr. Hunt, who bought the Fayetteville unit from Worthen in 1985 for $22 million.

Worthen shares were trading for about $15 at the time of the deal. On Friday, Mr. Hunt sold his block for $19.50 a share, for a profit $5.4 million.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.