Arkansas Money & Politics March 2024

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MARCH 2024/ $10 USD INSIDE: C-Suite | Economic development | Finance WARREN STEPHENS NOT RESTING ON FAMILY LAURELS TOP TEN x amp Arkansas Money Politics CELEBRATING 10 YEARS LEGACY

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”My dad, Jack Stephens, once famously said about our business, he did not have a 10-year plan but a 100-year plan. With each new year, all of us at Stephens renew our commitment to serve our clients and communities today, and for decades to come.”

Center Street
Little Rock, AR Building
Since 1933
5 ARMONEYANDPOLITICS.COM MARCH 2024 STEPHENS In Arkansas, there are only a couple of family names — Walton, Tyson — that carry as much weight as the one that identifies the private investment firm run by Warren Stephens. FEATURES MARCH 2024 ART AND BASKETBALL Little Rock Trojans basketball coach Darrell Walker, the former Razorback, knows his way around an art gallery as much as a gymnasium. GOOD NEWS BREWING New Province Brewing in Rogers has grown to become one of the senior members of the state’s brewing community, and now has partnered with another state brewer. 14 144 154 TOP TEN x amp Arkansas Money Politics CELEBRATING 10 YEARS

March 2024

Momentum is on Arkansas’ side when it comes to economic development. Northwest Arkansas continues to flourish, while steel and lithium futures are up.


Heather Baker |


Dwain Hebda |


Mark Carter |


Sarah Coleman |

Mak Millard |


Darlene Hebda |


John Callahan |

Sarah DeClerk |


Kellie McAnulty |


Kilee Hall |


Mike Bedgood |


Lora Puls |

Jenna Kelley |


Greg Churan |


Mary Funderburg |

Karen Holderfield |

Jona Parker |

Dana Rodriquez |

Bethany Yeager |


Jessica Everson |


Angela-Maria Jones |



CEO | Vicki Vowell

TO ADVERTISE call 501-244-9700 email hbaker@



Megan Godfrey, Leigh Keener, Kenneth Heard, Jamison Mosley, Brian Sorensen, Todd Traub

6 ARMONEYANDPOLITICS.COM MARCH 2024 AMP magazine is published monthly, Volume VI, Issue 10 AMP magazine (ISSN 2162-7754) is published monthly by AY Media Group, 910 W. Second St., Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201. Periodicals postage paid at Little Rock, AR, and additional mailing offices. Postmaster: Send address changes to AMP, 910 W. Second St., Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201. Subscription Inquiries: Subscription rate is $28 for one year (12 issues). Single issues are available upon request for $5. For subscriptions, inquiries or address changes, call 501-244-9700. The contents of AMP are copyrighted, and material contained herein may not be copied or reproduced in any manner without the written permission of the publisher. Articles in AMP should not be considered specific advice, as individual circumstances vary. Products and services advertised in the magazine are not necessarily endorsed by AMP. Please recycle this magazine. AMP once again recognizes some of the state’s top C-suite executives, as voted by readers, and considers the mental toll that can come with such responsibility.
financial world is full of uncertainty including global conflict, the looming presidential election and the possibility of viral resurgence, all of which could cause waves. Comes with the job What if?
| Plugged In 9 | Publisher’s Letter 10 | Viewpoint 158 | Digs of the Deal 160 | The Last Word
58 52 8
Baseball season has begun for the collegians, and for the pros, first pitch is just around the corner. The state’s two minor league teams prepare to play on in a new era. Arkansas’ leading economists see slow growth ahead in 2024 with the state capitalizing on steel and lithium but continuing to deal with workforce issues. Arkansas is home to many companies, such as Westrock and Riceland, that began life as small ventures and grew to become household names.
Play ball Slow growth ahead Uncle Mo Organic growth Big wins 148 40 20 30 26 SPORTS FINANCES
From ammo to airplanes, central Arkansas has seen its share of manufacturing activity, including huge investments from the likes of Dassault and Sig Sauer.

(See story, page 14.)



Broadway Joe has been such a great friend to many. Not often that a person who is so public is also so hands on out in the community doing real work with young people. Appreciate all he does for LRSD and the support he gave me personally.

Michael Poore


Incredibly honored to call him my pastor! I’ve learned so much about Jesus and leadership through his actions!

Madaline Meatte


Feb. 6 — March 4

1 Edwards Food Giant to Open in Lakewood Village

2 Razorback Baseball Releases 2024 Season Schedule

3 2024 Arkansas Money & Politics Fifty Over 50

4 Master of Beats — The People’s DJ: Broadcasting Legend Broadway Joe Booker Still Telling It Like It Is

5 Arkansas Visionary: The Natural — For Greg Hatcher, Success lies in the Strength of Relationships

6 Moses Tucker Secures Two Largest Leases of 2023

7 Fifty Over 50: Witt Stephens Jr, CEO of the Stephens Group

8 Use of Medical Marijuana Up in Arkansas and Prices Down, But Not All Dispensaries Rolling in Green

9 Wet? Dry? Sunday Sales? A Look at Arkansas’ Disparate Alcohol Laws

10 Fifty Over 50: Diana Bratton, Owner, Taco Mama in Hot Springs


An outdated bio and photo were used for Dustin McDaniel’s listing in the Fifty Over 50 special section in the February issue of AMP. The correct versions follow:

Dustin McDaniel, Founding Partner, McDaniel Wolff

Dustin McDaniel is an attorney and founding partner of McDaniel Wolff PLLC in Little Rock. Dustin served two terms as Arkansas’s 55th Attorney General and today leads one of the nation’s most successful AG law practices. He represents some of the largest companies in the world as they navigate investigations, litigation and relationships with state AG’s. In 2023, he was named to “Best Lawyers in America” for Government Relations law. McDaniel currently serves as the national co-chair of the Society of Attorneys General Emeritus, on the board of trustees of the Central Arkansas Library System and as an adjunct professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.

J.B. Hunt Transportation Services in Lowell, one of the largest supplychain solutions providers in North America, today announced the appointment of Shelley Simpson as CEO and president. $10 USD INSIDE: C-Suite Economic development Finance
x amp
Jason Dudley was recently promoted to college unit director of the Northwestern Mutual Conway District Office. WARREN STEPHENS NOT
Warren Stephens, shown with his firm’s Little Rock headquarters in the background, leads the nation’s largest private investment bank.


Gracie the black Lab earned her nickname, the Mess, early on in life. Her first snow provided the opportunity to dig for frozen “treats” in the back yard. Let’s just pretend they were frozen Snickers bars... The Mess as moniker had probably already caught on by then, but Gracie figured it needed to be codified.

Gracie was a gifted athlete. Had we the inclination, she could’ve spent her Saturday mornings diving off piers on the Ocho, catching discs and air.

She often slept on her back, completely spread eagle and head cocked to one side. She loved chocolate and could get creative in her search for it. Percy Fawcett and the lost city of Z had nothing on Gracie and the hunt for chocolate. As tough as nails, the Mess never took to heart the message that chocolate is supposed to be bad for the fourlegged among us. Besides, once she consumed almost a whole box of Million Dollar bars — which we foolishly believed to be out of reach — and lived to tell about it. Sometimes I imagine her stomach as Gettysburg, July 1863. Or maybe Verdun circa 1916.

loved the occasional Reese’s too. She was a lady of refinement and taste, after all, taking after her dad.)

The Mess was a terrific passenger and loved hanging her head out of the window.

On nice days, I’d swear her tongue was dragging the pavement below.

hole on Jimerson Creek behind my in-laws’ house, my comfy leather recliner and, well, anywhere we were. If we waded into the River Styx to march on Hades, she would’ve been right by our side. Hers was the sweetest disposition. She never met another person or critter she didn’t like. She trusted us and gave our love back in spades. And though she was 13 years, eight months, when she left us, she was gone much too soon.

Why are we never quite ready for the things we see coming? I’m one of those folks who relates better to dogs than to people. Once you’ve proven trustworthy, unconditional love flows from dogs freely and in abundance, as if straight from the fountainhead. Can anyone really say that they’ve ever met a truly bad dog?

Mankind’s relationship with dogs, I’m convinced, is one of God’s greatest gifts. And I’ll always count the almost 14 years we got to share with Gracie the Mess as a beautiful gift.

She loved beer, Yuengling in particular, and, in her latter days, was partial to Campbell’s — double chicken noodle and Chunky sirloin burger. (Don’t tell anyone, but she


Rolling Frisbees were perhaps her favorite objects to chase, followed not too far behind by squirrels and chipmunks. Or one of us, should we advance too far down a trail or road against her better reconnaissance.

Her favorite places were the Allsopp Park trails in Little Rock, her little swimming

If I could only relate to people just as well. Perhaps I’ll adopt Gracie’s point of view. The world is its own mess these days, but there are too many holes to swim and trails to explore, too much wild blue yonder into which to stick one’s head — and too much for which to be grateful — not to do so.


It’s March, and that means Arkansas

Money & Politics takes another look at the C-suite by recognizing some of the state’s top executives as nominated by readers. We’re talking CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CIOs and their equivalents. These days, there are new additions to the C-suite — CMOs, CAOs, CPOs, you name it. However it’s phrased, these are the folks who help business move in Arkansas.

Ours isn’t a ranking — if it were up to us, every business owner, executive and worker would be tied at the top — but it’s a reflection of who our readers are thinking about when they think about leadership at the top level.

Also inside, you’ll find a section devoted to economic development and what to expect in 2024. We look at the state’s recent “big wins,” such as the steel industry expansion in Mississippi County, the potential for lithium development in south Arkansas, and the expansion at Dassault Falcon Jet and Sig Sauer.

We’re honored to have Warren Stephens on our March cover. He was gracious to sit down with Dwain Hebda and share parts of his story, about which you might not know. We’ll also feature this year’s Arkansas Business Hall of Fame inductees and visit with the Travelers and the Naturals about what it’s like to run a Minor League Baseball club these days.

As always, thanks for reading. We aim to keep growing and would love for you to join us on the journey. Hit me up with story ideas at

Heather Baker The late Gracie Carter



In today’s economy, Arkansas’s prosperity hinges on the collective potential of its people — all 3 million residents of the state’s 75 counties. While strides have been made in gender equity, a critical gap persists in wealth building for women. The Save10 initiative of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas intends to change this reality by addressing the disparity head-on and unleashing economic opportunity for Arkansas women.

Launched in 2019 with an ambitious goal of engaging 10,000 women to commit to saving 10 percent of their income for life and retirement, Save10 is not just a financial literacy program. It is a catalyst for economic transformation. By equipping women with the tools and knowledge to secure their financial futures, Save10 empowers them to feel more confident making financial decisions, build a secure tomorrow and actively contribute to the state’s economic engine.

The foundation fully believes in the life-changing power of financial independence for women. By paying themselves first, eliminating debt and building up savings, women set the stage for brighter, more secure futures. The impact of Save10 extends far beyond individual finances, however. When women gain financial independence, they become more empowered decision-makers within their families and communities. They are better equipped to weather financial storms, invest in their children’s education and actively participate in the local economy. This ripple effect creates a stronger, more resilient Arkansas where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Save10: Delivering Tangible Results

Save10’s success is not just theoretical. It is borne out of real-life stories of women transforming their lives. In addition to the program equipping Arkansas women with the tools to save for the future, one of the most significant achievements since the program’s inception has been in the realm of public service loan forgiveness. In partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education, Save10 works with educators across the state to empower women to get on track for loan forgiveness through PSLF. To date, these efforts have resulted in more than $1.2 million in reported debt relief. This lifechanging impact speaks volumes about the program’s ability to address immediate financial challenges and empower women to plan for a brighter future.

Save10 also underscores the importance of the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System and encourages educators to ensure they’re contributing to the program in order to save for retirement and get the most out of the system.

The Power of Community: Building a Culture of Financial Wellness

Recognizing that financial empowerment thrives in a supportive environment, the WFA and Save10 uplift initiatives that are designed to encourage collaboration and mutual support, including encouraging women to start their own women’s finance club. Similar to a book club, the women’s finance club brings women together to learn, share experiences and motivate each other on their financial journeys. This peer-to-peer support system breaks down barriers, fosters confidence and creates a safe space for women.

The WFA and Save10 created A Leader’s Guide for Save10 Women’s Finance Clubs to equip groups with the tools and ideas to establish their own clubs, multiplying the reach and impact of the program. This grassroots approach fosters a culture of financial wellness where women feel empowered to take charge of their finances and contribute meaningfully to the state’s economic landscape. The guide is available to download for free at

Investing in Women and the Future of Arkansas

Without a doubt, Save10 is an investment in Arkansas’s future. Empowering women to achieve financial security unlocks their full potential and unleashes a wave of economic growth and prosperity that benefits everyone.

Business leaders in Arkansas have a crucial role to play in supporting this key initiative. By advocating for Save10, sponsoring workshops or creating environments where women feel supported, they can contribute to building a stronger, more equitable Arkansas where women are not just empowered, but thriving.

Learn more about Save10 and its importance and access free financial education information and resources at

Megan Godfrey is an experienced educator, policymaker, researcher and team leader. She spent 14 years as a public school educator of immigrant students, has a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, and served two terms in the Arkansas legislature. She is the founder of Room 100, an educational and political consultancy built on her core values of excellence, engagement and empowerment.

Megan Godfrey


Arkansas’ economy is growing — and quickly. Over the past few years, the state has seen a steady stream of large-scale development projects, including advanced steel mills, manufacturing facilities, production plants and more. The state has also welcomed announcements from existing businesses ready to double down and expand their footprints. Nearly every investment has promised new jobs, and good-paying ones at that. In 2023 alone, economists at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business in Fayetteville said 15,000 new positions were created.

With that upward trajectory expected to continue into 2024, how does Arkansas expect to meet the growing demand for employees to staff new and existing businesses? Of course, workforce development will be crucial, but so will the need for the state or private sector to provide additional support, such as professional development that allows individuals to stay on the job. First and foremost is ensuring that Arkansas families have access to quality child care and early learning programs, no matter where they live in the state.

Arkansas is already ahead of the curve on workforce development. Under Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ leadership, the state has been laser focused on building its talent pipeline. Like its predecessors, the Sanders administration understands that equipping workers with in-demand technical and durable skills is vital to recruiting new companies and industries, but the administration also recognizes that the state must address its child care shortage to retain employees and businesses.

The Arkansas Department of Education recently announced, “Too few children and families have access to early care and education, let alone ones of high quality.” This absence of services can force parents, particularly women, to limit their workforce participation or leave their jobs altogether. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, about 10 percent of Arkansas parents voluntarily left a job due to child care issues. Simultaneously, children cannot gain the brain-building experiences needed for long-term academic or career success. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report emphasized the importance of early childhood education and how such experiences are “invaluable for preparing young learners for elementary school.”

Unfortunately, Arkansas’ scarcity of child care options is particularly notable in rural areas. Consider Jackson County as an example. According to a recent Newport Economic Development Commission assessment, nearly 70 percent of women in the county cannot participate in the workforce, and the unavailability of quality child care is the primary reason for that decision. The commission noted that well-paying jobs are available, and residents are interested in filling

them, but residents don’t have the child care needed to do so.

The LEARNS Act passed by the Arkansas General Assembly in 2023 intends to address the state’s lack of child care options by helping to create a “unified early childhood system.” The state is also seeing progress from targeted public-private partnerships in areas of great need like Jackson County. There, the Newport Economic Development Commission has partnered with Unity Health, the Newport School District and the Early Years Place in Newport to create an infusion of affordable, high-quality child care seats. With the support of Joyfully Engaged Learning, the Early Years Place is taking it one step further by pursuing accreditation from the National Association for Education of Young Children, the gold standard of early childhood education. Once achieved, the Early Years Place will receive an immediate six stars under Arkansas’ Better Beginnings Quality Rating Improvement System, the highest-quality tier.

Through the partnership, the hope is that the Early Years Place will add hundreds of early education seats in Jackson County. When children enroll, parents can put in more work hours, miss fewer work days, and pursue continuing education or credentials. At the same time, their children will benefit from experiencing a quality early education program. Evidence consistently shows that kids in NAEYC-accredited schools, which include developmentally appropriate activities, positive child-adult interactions, small student-to-teacher ratios and more, report greater kindergarten readiness and better long-term academic outcomes.

Many have heard the saying, “If you build it, they will come.” Arkansas has hit its stride in recruiting new industries and opportunities to the state. As a result of rigorous workforce development efforts, there is a pipeline of workers who are prepared and ready to thrive. However, individuals cannot enter or stay in the workforce without access to affordable, quality child care. Fortunately, public-private partnerships like those underway in Jackson County can help ease the burden. By expanding families’ access to quality early learning seats, the state can help workers take advantage of new opportunities and sustain Arkansas’s economic growth.

Leigh Keener is the executive director of Joyfully Engaged Learning, an Arkansas nonprofit committed to supporting early learning programs in their voluntary pursuit of NAEYC accreditation. She is a former classroom teacher and serves on the state board of education. Her email address is

Leigh Keener


Eagerness to learn key to Legends room chef’s culinary prowess

Chef De’Mon Strickland is no novice when it comes to cooking. As executive room chef at Legends Sports Bar at Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, he runs the kitchen, handling everything from food prep and ordering to scheduling and managing staff. However, he is always eager to learn more.

“Always stay humble,” he said. “You never know everything. That’s a part of cooking, and there’s always something new to learn every day.”

Originally from Chicago, Strickland visited his grandparents in Helena and ended up staying in Arkansas because he enjoyed the change of environment. His grandparents, along with his mother and father, laid a foundation for his love of cooking. While he was growing up, one of his favorite home-cooked meals was barbecue.

“My grandma did a lot of cooking, and my mom, so I picked up on the habit,” he said.

see how far he has come, and I am honored to have been a part of his culinary career.”

Strickland joined Saracen as sous chef before becoming executive chef. His knowledge of food and willingness to lead by example are a win for Legends. For his part, Strickland hopes to add new techniques and procedures to his repertoire, and Saracen is a great place for him to do it.

He graduated from the University of Arkansas - Pulaski Technical College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute in Little Rock. While there, he traveled to different states to compete in American Culinary Federation tournaments. He also developed a relationship with Todd Gold, who was dean of the institute at the time and gave Strickland the opportunity to come with him when he joined Saracen as director of food and beverage in 2020.

“Chef Strickland’s journey from our culinary school to our current workplace at Saracen Casino is a testament to his dedication, talent and passion for the culinary arts,” said Gold, now senior director of hospitality at Saracen. “It’s truly inspiring to

“It’s a great work atmosphere. Everyone’s like a big family here,” he said. “We have an excellent culinary team, and everyone’s very knowledgeable. Everybody has their own style, so you can always learn from the next chef.”

His favorite meals to make include soul food such as fried chicken and chicken and dressing, as well as Italian dishes, especially pasta. That said, he can cook most anything. To guests at Legends, he recommended weekly specials such as prime rib, as well as the blackened salmon sandwich and the grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup.

“We provide more than just bar food,” he said. “We’re well known for our steak sauce.”

Strickland has found a nice home at Saracen and does not plan on leaving anytime soon. To aspiring chefs, he said a culinary career is hard work that, for Strickland, is most rewarding when he sees the look on guests’ faces upon presenting them with their food.

“It’s not an easy road, but in the long run, it all pays off,” he said. “Just stay passionate, and stick with it.”




Warren Stephens’ success carries forth a family legacy

E“My dad used to say this to me, and I now understand what he meant: ‘Getting to work with your family is one of the great joys in life.’”

mbedded in Stephens’ downtown headquarters building — a soaring glass office tower that gives the Little Rock skyline its bling — are several elements that encapsulate the worth of Warren Stephens, chairman, president and CEO. The first and most priceless is a sturdy end table perched to one side of his wood-paneled office bearing a gallery of family photos. Clustered in mix-and-match frames, the menagerie includes stoic images of forbears captured in black and white, candid snapshots of the family on vacation, and grandkids grinning through missing baby teeth.

Stephens, a trim, soft-spoken figure, pauses at the collection with an expression that approaches wonder. Three of the faces smiling back at him — sons Miles and John and daughter, Laura — followed in their father’s footsteps and work or have worked at the family firm. They represent the third and, in Stephens’ assessment,

most promising generation yet of the family business.

“My dad used to say this to me, and I now understand what he meant: ‘Getting to work with your family is one of the great joys in life,’” he said “I now have a better understanding of what he meant by that. To work with your children and to have them interested in and understand what it is I do and what the risks and rewards and problems and pitfalls are in our business and industry, it’s really great. I don’t have to spend a lot of time telling them how we got where we are.

“I never had any pressure to come back and work at Stephens, and we certainly never put any pressure on our children to come back and work at Stephens. I think they’re here because they want to be here. I do think

Warren Stephens with his father, Jack (above); Stephens with his sons Miles, right, and John and daughter Laura. (Photos provided)

they’re infinitely more capable of stepping into this business at their age now than I was. It’s not even close. They’re so much better prepared and thoughtful. Frankly, they’re smart. I just couldn’t be prouder of them.”

A tribute video produced by the company that commemorates Stephens’ 30th anniversary as head of Stephens in 2016 starts with fuzzy, 1980s camcorder footage of Jack Stephens announcing from a hotel podium his son’s promotion to president and CEO while Jack’s brother and company co-founder Witt Stephens looks on approvingly. The announcement came on Warren’s 29th birthday, and he barely looks that old. One cannot help but wonder what went through his mind once the enormity of the moment finally sank in.

“I became head of the capital markets group, which was public finance, in 1983, and then three years later, I became CEO of the company. I do think they made me CEO so that if I messed it up, they would still be there and could get me going in the right direction,” Stephens said.

“I told myself early on that if I tried to be Witt or Jack Stephens, I was going to fail because there was only one of each one of those guys, and they were enormously successful. I didn’t need to try to compare myself to them or it would drive me crazy. I never even thought about being in Dad’s shadow. Hell, I loved being in Dad’s shadow. It was great. We always had a great relationship. I don’t mean he wouldn’t let me have it when he thought I’d messed up because he did, thankfully not too often. It didn’t have anything to do with our father-son relationship.”

Stephens’ drive to be his own man while borrowing liberally from the experience and expertise of generations both prior and after his has proven an incredibly potent strategy. One of Arkansas’ most spectacular business success stories, Stephens began in 1933, when W.R. “Witt” Stephens founded W. R. Stephens Investment Co. to sell Arkansas highway bonds and municipal bonds, bankrolled by $15,000 in borrowed money. In 1945, he diversified his holdings with the purchase of Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. in Fort Smith, and a year after that, Witt and younger brother Jackson T. “Jack” Stephens co-founded Stephens as equal partners, a relationship sealed by a handshake.

Today, massive painted portraits of the two great business minds each command their own space in the Stephens boardroom, as does Warren’s, but it is a small alcove just off the polished main room that provides a tangible reminder of the company’s influence and success over 90 years in business. That space, hardly bigger than a powder room, contains the leather-bound documents by which Stephens took companies public, altering the course of Arkansas history in the process.

J.B. Hunt’s initial public offering documents are there, as

are those for deals with Alltel, Arkansas Freightways, later American Freightways, and CCX Network, better known as Acxiom, among others. Also there is the prize of the collection, Walmart’s initial public offering, the magna carta for both the retailer and the financial house’s journey and the preamble to their respective legends.

“Walmart was the second IPO where we were a bookrunning manager,” Stephens said. “It’s no exaggeration to say that it really is like we launched ourselves into doing stock offerings that we had never done before with the greatest stock offering in a generation or even a century.”

Opening the book, Stephens points out various numbers: Walmart had but 32 stores at the time it went public in 1970 and generated a relatively paltry $33 million in sales. The IPO raised a modest amount by today’s standards, but was a major score for the investment bank that made it happen and provided the fuel by which Sam Walton would create the greatest retail empire the world had ever seen.

“We got a reputation of really understanding and knowing stocks, which we did,” Stephens said. “We realized that a very important element is to have that credibility of really understanding a company before you take them to the public marketplace. We’ve tried to maintain that knowledge and understanding when we’re asking people to put up either the money they’re responsible for or their own money into an investment. We’ve done our homework. We know what’s going on.

“We also knew the people. Dad knew Sam [Walton] personally, and when we did a public offering for Alltel, a regulation A, that began a relationship with the Fords that still goes on to this day. [Former Alltel Chairman] Joe Ford’s on our advisory board. These are really good people. I think any president, CEO or even senior manager of a company will tell you that it’s the people that are going to make the difference in a successful business or not.”

As much as anything else, the people Stephens has surrounded himself with have been the ultimate secret weapon in the firm’s sustained success. The executive leadership roster alone — comprised of Vice Chairman Curt Bradbury, Chief Operating Officer J. Bradford Eichler, Senior Managing Director Douglas H. Martin and Chief Financial Officer Mark Doramus — averages 41 years with the company. Together, this nucleus has grown the firm to 25 U.S. offices, an office in London, an office in Frankfurt and more than 1,300-plus employees, making Stephens one of the largest privately owned investment banks in the country and one of the largest investment banks, period, not based on Wall Street.

“I always felt like our team, even when it was a small team, could hold its own with anybody,” Stephens said. “There were times when I’d go in and introduce myself


and the firm, and they’d say to me, ‘Gosh, how do you find good people to work?’ I’d try not to be too flippant with a response, but it was clearly meant as, ‘Are we really that serious a player? Can we hold our own?’ just because we were from Arkansas.

“With the people we had working here, I mean, please underestimate us. Please. ‘People from Arkansas, do they even wear shoes?’ — you know, all that sort of stuff. We weren’t trying to embarrass anybody, but if you really think you’re going to outsmart us, no, you’re really not going to do that.”

Stephens silenced doubters the old-fashioned way, making one winning deal after another, punctuated by signature wins. One such reputation-sealing job was guiding Springdale-based Tyson Foods in its hostile takeover of Memphis-based Holly Farms in 1989. While it is largely unthinkable to cast Tyson as the underdog today, at the time, the company was second fiddle to Conagra, based in Omaha, Neb., in its bid to take over the company. Getting Tyson into the winner’s circle not only burnished the Stephens brand, but its reputation for steadfast relationships with clients behind the scenes that was the stuff of legend.

“The main thing was Don [Tyson] was under a lot of pressure to hire one of the big New York investment banks, maybe not to replace us but kind of replace us and be a ‘coadvisor,’ which probably meant be a junior advisor on the deal,” Stephens said. “Don just said no. He thought about it — I’m sure he thought about it — but he just said, ‘I’m not going to do it. I trust those guys.’”

At one critical juncture, Stephens said, Jack offered up $100 million should Tyson need it to submit the winning bid without diluting their stock. While that ultimately was not necessary, the gesture resonated.

“The deal was a hell of a deal,” Stephens said. “Tyson didn’t need it, but it was there, and all they had to do was pick up the phone and call us, and we’d have owed them $100 million, but they never did.”

Over time, Stephens — the man and the firm — has only solidified that stellar reputation, pulling off things even the most storied financial institutions could not do. Arguably, the firm’s finest hour came during the height of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, when widespread greed and malfeasance throughout the highest levels of the industry created chaos in the housing market and threatened to topple the nation’s financial infrastructure.

In the center of this maelstrom, Stephens penned a now-famous memo to staff, a story described in a 2009 article in Fortune.

“[Stephens] wrote … that while much of Wall Street was leveraged 30-to-one, Stephens Inc. is leveraged just 2-to-one, with more than half of its assets consisting of government se-

curities,” Christopher Helman wrote. “He wrote, ‘One thing I know for sure, this crisis will not affect Stephens Inc.’”

For the record, Stephens was only partially correct — the period did affect the firm by offering tremendous opportunity which the firm leveraged to its advantage, growing significantly — but the point was made. The greatest return any financial firm can deliver on relationships is by being a good steward of clients’ money, and the way to accomplish that, unsexy though it may be, is through a conservative mindset built on research and strategic thought.

Stephens’ difference, however, is once the due diligence is done, the company and its CEO have never been afraid to act boldly and move with purpose to capitalize on opportunities. Even its missteps, of which there are very few examples, are leveraged for their educational value to help inform the next deal.

“We’ve always run our firm conservatively from a financial leverage point of view so that if the unthinkable happens, like ’08 and ’09, that we’re here, and we survive. We’ve had the luxury of being able to do that and grow,” Stephens said. “At the same time, failure isn’t fatal. I think you could get this from, if not everyone in this firm, most of them, that we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. I learned this from, mainly, Dad, but also my uncle Witt.

“A lot of people start a business, and it fails, and there’s no shame in that. It’s hard to start a business. It’s hard to run a business. The fact that people are willing to do that and work the hours that it takes and take the financial risk, that’s something to be proud of. You never know what will come out of one business that failed or even a personal failure that you can learn from and do better and be a better person next time. That’s what we’re all here trying to do is be better tomorrow than we are today and better today than we were yesterday.”

At 67, Stephens has reached a level of success and affluence few individuals will ever experience. In doing so, he has launched countless careers among current and former employees, many of whom left to enrich other companies or establish firms of their own. When asked to define the “Stephens Way” — the skills and attributes that the company’s culture invests in its workforce — Stephens’ voice took on a note of pride.

“They obviously have a great analytical background in terms of analyzing numbers and whatnot,” he said. “I don’t give us all the credit for this, but they’re clearly good people, and they believe you can be straightforward and honest in your business dealings and not put yourself at a disadvantage. The reputation that will create for you as an individual or the firm you’re working for or the business you’re running is really, really important, and it’s doable.


You can achieve that.

“I do really think about how there are a lot of people around this city and state and elsewhere that have worked for us and gone on and done really good things in different industries. We rarely have anybody leave us from the investment banking business and go to another investment bank. It’s more like they leave and go to one of our clients. You take a lot of pride in that, even though you hate to lose them. I mean, you really, really hate to lose them.”

Stephens has also improved the lives of untold numbers of people through the major charitable contributions of the firm and those made from his own pocket. He does so with an understanding of how life works for ordinary people.

“It’s all relative. You say I’ve been around money all my life, and that’s certainly true, but you go back and look at our financial statements from the time I was born, and it wasn’t like we just were rolling in money the whole time,” he said. “My dad was the first to go to college in the family. They grew up on a farm in a pretty poor setting in Grant County. They knew what hard work was about, but they also knew the benefit of an education. I think, as a family, we’ve tried to continue that. We strongly believe education is critical to the well-being of a city, state, country. A lot of things we’ve done, we’ve tried to help in that area.

“Education, health care, cultural things — there’s a whole host of things that go into making a city and community and state desirable. We can’t take the lead on everything, but we certainly want to take the lead on what we can. We want to really be seen as promoting our home state, and we’re glad to do it.”

At that, Stephens leaned back in his chair and took a quick glance around his office. He is a man comfortable with the weight of his family name, one affiliated with enormous success and prosperity. He got that way by understanding the simple fact that everything he has achieved professionally has towed others in its wake, advancing careers, accelerating client companies, and building the wealth and reputation of the state he calls home.

“This was Dad’s office, and I would sit up here and visit

“Education, health care, cultural things — there’s a whole host of things that go into making a city and community and state desirable. We can’t take the lead on everything, but we certainly want to take the lead on what we can.”

with him,” he said. “We used to do that in the afternoons some. Day’s over. Come on over, and let’s just talk. Dad was pretty good friends with Sam Walton, and I remember once, I think, Sam had been named in the “Forbes 400” as the richest person in America. Dad looked at me, and he said, ‘You know? Sam never set out to be the richest person in America, but he did set out to be the very best retailer he could be.’ I think that’s indicative of what a lot of people come to work for. I know it’s true in this business.

“Money for money’s sake is not a very good goal. In fact, it’s really a pretty bad goal. I think what we’ve always been about is to make money to invest in and grow our business, and we enjoy the benefits of that, as well. There’s probably a whole lot of people around here that don’t need to come to work, but they like to come to work. They like the people they work with and figuring out a way to grow our business successfully and profitably over a long period of time. That’s what has motivated me over the years. I never felt obliged to do it; I did it to perpetuate the legacy of my uncle and dad.”

Stephens’ eyes gave the room one more brief sweep while the family photos listened in over his shoulder.

“We were 90 years old in 2023, and we’re set for the next 30, 40 years,” he said. “What happens after that? I don’t know, but it’ll be my children’s problem, not mine. I have no doubt they’ll deal with it in a great, thoughtful manner.”

Stephens at the Alotian Club.



Abird’s eye view of Arkansas economic development in 2024 would include some now-familiar landmarks — more growth in northwest Arkansas and in the state’s fast-rising steel industry, for starters — but also reveal new points of interest, in addition to challenges that continue to pose a threat to progress.

Those new points of interest begin with the amount of capital investment coming into the state from beyond its borders, and lately, there is much of it.

Manufacturers are choosing Arkansas and, better yet, companies that already have a presence in the state are choosing to double down on their initial investments, said Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas.

“You’re seeing a lot, and I mean an enormous amount, of capital

investment in Arkansas,” he said. “Most of that is being made by existing in-place businesses. We’ve got several billions of dollars of capital investment going on across the state, and that’s everything from refurbishing and remodeling sawmills in south Arkansas to the expansion of the Albemarle [chemical manufacturing] plants in Magnolia, which is a $550 million project on its own, to the Exxon investment in lithium development prospects, as well as Standard Lithium and Lanxess together. That whole industry, there’s probably $3 billion in play just in that industry alone down there already. It’s just beginning to kind of take off.”

The Amazon distribution center in Little Rock, shown under construction, opened last year. (Photos provided)

Then there is steel in Mississippi County, now recognized as the No. 1 steel-producing county in the nation. Nucor became the first to set up shop there in 1988. In 2017, Big River Steel opened a $1.3 billion mill and, the following year, announced a $1.2 billion expansion. U.S. Steel acquired Big River in 2021 and is building a second mill in the county that will employ 1,000 and require roughly 3,000 local construction workers to help build it.

Last fall, U.S. Steel introduced a new electrical steel line to accommodate electromagnetic devices such as the motors found in electric cars. The impact of this new line alone is expected to top $5.2 billion over four years. Majestic Steel is building a mill in the county, and a new player, Hybar, announced last year that it will build a $2 billion sustainable scrapmetal steel rebar mill in Osceola.

Mitch Parrish, chief operating officer of Missouri-based FHC Ready Mix –East, the parent company of Razorback Concrete, the firm pouring the concrete for the second Big River and Hybar mills, said Mississippi County currently is home to one of the largest concrete pours in the nation. He declined to say how much is being poured but said, “Arkansas has been very good to us.”

Parrish said his company’s work in Mississippi County should wrap this summer. FHC employs just under 400 people, Parrish said, including about 150 in Arkansas. Razorback Concrete, based in West Memphis with locations across the state, also worked on the Lowe’s distribution center in central Arkansas, another recent big win for Arkansas economic developers.

“It’s been challenging, but we’ve been very pleased with how things have gone in Arkansas,” Parrish said.

Zook said he would give the state a letter grade of A-minus for homegrown new business. As for pulling in new business from outside the state, “I’d say we’re a B-plus but getting better.”

In central Arkansas, he noted the Lowe’s project, Amazon distribution centers on both sides of the Arkansas River, Trex’s soon-to-goonline decking and railing manufacturing plant, Dollar General and Tractor Supply distribution centers, and major expansion from Little Rock-based Westrock Coffee Co. in Conway and Maumelle.

In Fort Smith, the Ebbing Air National Guard Base at Fort Smith Regional Airport is undergoing $800 million in new construction to accommodate its new status as the new home of the U.S. Air Force’s Foreign Military Sales program. Pilots from allied countries that purchase aircraft from the U.S. military should begin showing up in Fort Smith later this year to begin training.

Zook said the area should see a lot of growth tied to the program, which is expected to deliver an economic impact of more than $1 billion a year. He added that the expected growth will provide impetus for completion of the Interstate 49 extension and expansion from Alma across the Arkansas River to Barling, opening the east side of Sebastian County for future development.

“Around the rest of the state in lots of places, there’s capital investment, all we can keep up with,” Zook said. “The casinos are all building or expanding. West Memphis has got that big new events center coming up. Saracen’s got a big new facility coming out of the ground in Pine Bluff. It’s just amazing, and those are all existing companies. Those are not new move-ins. You’ve got the Hostess plant in Arkadelphia and 200 to 300 jobs. Hot Springs is doing great, and they’re about to get that big water project completed, which is going to open them up for new development and expansion.”

Northwest Arkansas, of course, is familiar with the kind of economic momentum starting to envelop the rest of the state. Thanks to the region’s big three — Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt — new residents continue to arrive from across the country.

Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit entity that works to advance economic development opportunities and quality of life in the region, said indications point to the area continuing to grow economically and in population throughout 2024 and beyond. Since the 1970 census, the region has experienced 10-year growth cycles of 35.8 percent, 38.4 percent, 17.1 percent, 46.2 percent (between 1990 and 2000), 35.3 percent

Nelson Peacock Mountain biking has helped place Arkansas on the national outdoor recreation radar.

and 24.2 percent. Over the first two years of the current decade, the three-county area has already seen 5.4 percent growth and boasts an estimated 2022 population of more than 576,000.

In the next few decades, northwest Arkansas is expected to surpass greater Little Rock as the state’s primary population center.

“The region continues to add around 36 people per day, and regional leaders will need to ensure there are policies in place to accommodate the growth while preserving the character of the communities that make NWA special,” Peacock said.

Growth is evident everywhere one looks. Two of the biggest construction projects in the state are ongoing in Bentonville with Walmart’s new, Google-like corporate campus and the holistic Alice L. Walton School of Medicine. Plus, Tyson is consolidating its corporate offices and bringing in workers to its Springdale headquarters from other states, and industry leaders like J.B. Hunt, Simmons Foods and George’s are experiencing growth.

the best and brightest students from around the world to Arkansas to learn how to practice medicine in a new way. The health care community is working hard right now to create the type of ecosystem that can retain those physicians in Arkansas after they graduate.”

Promoting growth has not been the issue in northwest Arkansas — accommodating it has. The only question surrounding regional growth is if the region can keep up with all the growth. Peacock said NWA needs significant investments in its infrastructure, both the physical and social kind.

“It’s hard to overstate the impact these projects will have on northwest Arkansas,” Peacock said. “Walmart’s investment in its new home office is demonstrating to the world that Bentonville will continue to be the center of the retail world for decades to come. The investment the company is making in the community is simply incredible. At the same time, the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine represents a potential generational change. The school will be able to recruit

“City officials will have to work closely together as their jurisdictions continue to grow together,” he said. “Leaders must continue to address housing affordability challenges, ensuring there is enough high-quality, attainable housing for the essential workforce in and around downtowns and employment centers. Investments are also needed to improve roads, trails and water infrastructure, and, with respect to social infrastructure, with the influx of new residents and demographic shifts, it’s important to ensure everyone who chooses to live here feels like they belong.”

Peacock said the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Walmart’s new corporate campus, depicted in the rendering at left, is modeled after Google.
The steel industry is keeping Razorback Concrete busy.

represents an important developing area and added that a supportive environment that drives and nurtures innovation could result in America’s “next great company” being launched.

“There is still a ton of momentum in northwest Arkansas,” he said. “The economy is strong, and communities continue to make the investments in amenities like trails and schools that improve quality of life for residents. As the region continues to grow, there is some anxiety about NWA losing what has made it special all these years. Maintaining that character and charm will require a concerted effort by our leaders to make smart, forward-looking decisions to grow the right way. The growth will continue, and the question is how do we use that to our advantage?”

Establishing a sufficiently trained workforce to meet the demands of the state’s recent economic growth remains the state’s biggest challenge, said Michael Pakko, chief economist and state economic forecaster for the Arkansas Economic Development Institute at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the Libertarian candidate for state treasurer

“Workforce development is always an issue with the state’s employers, particularly those in manufacturing,” he said. “Recent labor shortages have shown how the lack of available workers can impede business growth and expansion. As the baby-boom generation continues to retire, we need good training programs, apprenticeship programs, etc., to make sure we have an adequate supply of trained personnel in the pipeline. On the other hand, technological development continues to drive more automation in manufacturing, lessening the demand for some labor-intensive manufacturing processes and personnel than in the past.”

Zook said Arkansas is not unique in its workforce challenges, including those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every state has the same challenge. The U.S. is basically talent starved,” he said. “We need more people in the workforce. The labor force nationally continues to go down, not up. COVID, as it did everything, aggravated that situation. We have tens of thousands of high-wage, high-demand jobs across the state that we cannot fill because people willing to do the work and able to do the work are simply not presenting themselves in adequate quantity. The people who are working are incredibly talented and top-notch. It’s the ones who are not working or who are underemployed that are the challenge.”

sustainable long term.”

On the flip side, the state added 19,000 new residents last year, Zook said.

“We’ve had a really good growth in population faster across the state than in the prior decade, and that’s good. We added a little over 18,000 people just last year, which is much faster than the prior decade, and it’s more widespread across the state, not just concentrated in northwest Arkansas,” he said. “We’ve got population growth got population growth and growth in the gross domestic product of the state, which went up 11.1 percent last year, the ninthbest performance of all 50 states in terms of percentage of growth in our economy. We were a top-10 state last year. We’re not typically in that kind of ranking.”

Arkansans have long considered their home state to be a wellkept secret. With an influx of new residents and capital investments in Arkansas, the secret may be out. Zook attended the first-annual Arkansas Lithium Innovation Summit in Little Rock in February. The event drew industry officials and investors from across the globe to central Arkansas.

“It was an overwhelming success,” Zook said. “It was sold out with people screaming to get in who couldn’t get in and people trying to scalp tickets. It was crazy. People came from, literally, all over the world. We had people from both coasts, nearly every major finance center in the country and people from Africa here to investigate that possibility and figure out ways to participate in it.”

Policy matters, Zook said, and state leaders have figured out how to maneuver the landscape in terms of tax burdens and the “nuts and bolts of government and how it operates and affects business.”


Zook said the state needs more Arkansans graduating high school prepared to do entry-level kinds of jobs at which they can advance and build careers.

“We have companies that are willing to invest heavily in talent improvement and development and skills acquisition and will pay for it if you’re on their payroll, but you’ve got to be working, and you’ve got to be showing up,” he said. “We’ve just got a challenge in getting more young people to pursue these opportunities. First of all, we need more kids. We need more babies. Our birth rate nationally is below the replacement rate, and that’s not

The state’s regulatory environment is constructive and effective, and that attracts capital, he added.

Zook said the state’s message at the lithium summit was that it is open for business, and the message made an impact. He said one investor told him that capital goes where it’s wanted, and Arkansas made it clear that capital is wanted — capital, Zook added, that can trickle down.

“We’ve got a tax regimen that’s much more accommodating and much more attractive, and that’s what’s generating this economic activity,” he said. “That all adds up to a bigger pie, better opportunities and better employment opportunities for young people, as well as people in mid-career or nearing retirement. We’ve got a lot going on, and for the most part, it is incredibly effective and good.

“People are discovering Arkansas. That’s the only way to phrase it. All of the outdoor recreation activity emphasis is attracting people. Our tourism and hospitality businesses are all busier. State parks are packed. People are finding Arkansas as a heck of a nice place like we’ve always known, and a lot of it is driven by pressure from Texas. When Texas adds 400,000 to 500,000 people in a year, some of it pushes up on us, and that’s a good thing. We bask in their shadow.”

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Big Wins

Central Arkansas riding a manufacturing hot streak

In 2023, Dassault Falcon Jet announced a $100 million expansion of its Little Rock completion center.

(Photo provided)


From ammo to airplanes, central Arkansas is in business.

The arrival of new companies and the expansion of local mainstays has given economic development leaders and the state a series of victories in the past year.

Among its successes, the region can boast an expansion of global ammunition manufacturer Sig Sauer’s facility in Jacksonville, an expansion of Dassault Falcon Jet at Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, and expansions and new developments at the Port of Little Rock, including the news that Elopak, a Norwegian liquid-food packaging company, will build its first U.S. production plant in Arkansas.

Each announcement represents significant job creation and financial investment in Arkansas.

“It’s a big marketing effort of ours to just raise the brand of Arkansas,” said Clint O’Neal, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. “Just to get on the list for consideration is a heavy lift, and sometimes all of the pieces fall together.”

With a business-friendly climate that includes a slew of rebate programs and tax incentives, a number of ideal locations — especially at the Port of Little Rock — and harmonious communitycorporate relationships, Arkansas has proven to be an eye-catching location for companies looking for a place to grow.

“We work towards building a win-win partnership between the company and the state,” O’Neal said.


New-Hampshire-based Sig Sauer has had a presence in Jacksonville since 2016, when it located its ammunition manufacturing facility in the city and created 50 jobs. A maker of Elite Performance Ammunition, Sig Sauer currently employs 348 in Jacksonville, and the latest expansion is expected to add 625 jobs over the next five years.

‘That was huge,” Jacksonville Mayor Jeff Elmore said. “That does a lot for morale and the local economy. We’re anticipating and looking forward to that.”

Sig Sauer employs 3,200 worldwide and manufactures ammunition and components for the U.S. Department of Defense, global defense and law enforcement entities, as well as individual consumers. The Jacksonville plant makes pistol night sights, and with the expansion, Sig Sauer will invest in the manufacture of component hybrid cases, primer and load/pack operations.

AEDC had Sig Sauer on its list of companies to court at the outset of former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration,

and a personal call from Hutchinson to CEO Ron Cohen expressing the state’s interest in a future move helped put Arkansas on the map when the ammunition maker was looking to make a move. Cohen, O’Neal said, had never been approached by a sitting governor before Hutchinson’s outreach and was suitably impressed.

“You fast forward a year, and they had the need to find a spot to manufacture ammunition, and they put Arkansas on the list,” O’Neal said.

In addition to the economic boost, Jacksonville and Sig Sauer have enjoyed positive relations, Elmore said.

“It’s been great. There’s a really good relationship between the city and Sig Sauer,” he said. “They’ve been wonderful for our police department, aiding them, helping with training and donations of ammunition and sponsorship for different things that have taken place.”

Sig Sauer will invest $150 million in the expansion, which will include a new 250,000-square-foot building, the construction of which will create additional temporary jobs for local contractors.

“We have incentive programs that are built around the permanent full-time jobs, but we take into account the construction jobs that will be created by a project like that,” O’Neal said.

Such incentives are at least partially responsible for Little Rock mainstay Dassault Falcon Jet’s expansion at the airport.

Clint O’Neal Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and other state officials met with Dassault at the 2023 Paris Air Show. (Photos provided)


Late last year, Dassault, headquartered in France, announced a $100 million expansion of its Falcon 6X business jet completion center at the airport. The company employs 1,400 at its two facilities in the city, and the new project will add 800 jobs.

Dassault has had a location in Little Rock since 1975 and is part of the aerospace and aviation industry that is Arkansas’ leading export, the AEDC states.

The deal was reached after state and local leaders, including Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., met with Dassault officials at the 2023 Paris Air Show. The company employs 12,700 worldwide, and in the past 100 years, it has delivered more than 10,000 military and civil aircraft in more than 90 countries.

The expansion will receive $12 million from an incentive fund

and $6 million from Arkansas Office of Skills Development customized training funds, as well as sales tax refunds and rebates based on new employee payrolls.

“Our expected demand for new Falcons, such as our Falcon 6X, which has just entered service, required that we evaluate our production needs, including our completion capacity,” said Eric Trappier, chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation, at the Dec. 12 announcement ceremonies. “The state of Arkansas has always been a vital part of our success in Little Rock, and we appreciate the leadership of Gov. Huckabee Sanders as we build a bigger presence.”

Dassault flies its unfinished aircraft to the completion center in Little Rock, where optional avionics and custom interiors are installed and exterior painting is completed. The company also operates its service center for customers in Little Rock.

In 2015, Dassault Falcon invested in a $60 million expansion of its completion center, adding 350,000 square feet of production space. In 2008, the company invested $20 million to add four paint bays and new production, design and warehouse space.


Since 2016, the Port of Little Rock has seen $466 million in total investments, 17 project commitments and the creation of

In Little Rock, Dassault puts the finishing touches on its Falcon jets, including custom interiors and exterior painting. (Photos provided)

2,388 new jobs. The port, operated by the Little Rock Port Authority, has continued to add to that total with the December announcement of the addition of Elopak, among other developments.

The food packaging company employs 2,600 overall and sells more than 14 billion cartons a year in 70 countries. Elopak had reached its production capacity at its other sites in North America, leading to its decision to expand production into the U.S. for the first time.

The company has locations in Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, along with one technical facility in Michigan.

Founded in Norway in 1957, Elopak makes Pure-Pak gable top cartons for milk, juices, plant-based products and liquid eggs and is the world’s leading maker of fresh-liquid carton fiber-based packaging.

The Little Rock project includes a $70 million, 300,000-square-foot factory that will employ about 80, including engineers, printers, operators, logistics specialists and more. Reinard Dreesmann, Elopak’s vice president of operations for the Americas, said the new building represents $44 million of the investment, and equipment will make up the rest.

Equipment is expected to arrive in close to a year, and a second phase includes an investment of between $40 million to $60 million in equipment.

The deal was made possible in part thanks to $1.25 million from Arkansas’ Tax Back, Create Rebate and Quick Action Closing Fund programs. Sig Sauer has also taken advantage of such programs for its relocation and expansion projects.

“It certainly helps us to be competitive,” O’Neal said, adding that over time, Arkansas’ personal income tax rate has fallen from seven percent to 4.4 percent, and the corporate rate has fallen from 6.5 percent to 4.8 percent.

“The baseline of business costs has become so much more favorable the last nine years,” he said.

Elopak’s search for a site began with 25 leads over five states, which were whittled down to four states and then two.

“This is their first foray into America,” said Bryan Day, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority. “The chief operating officer talked about how he looked all over the country. Even though Little Rock was the smallest community they looked at, we had the biggest heart, the biggest effort. He liked that.”

Elopak will become the ninth company to move to or expand at the port since 2020 and is the seventh international entity to set up shop there. While significant, Elopak is just a part of the port’s recent wins, which include Italian munitions maker Fiocchi (since sold to another interest), W&W | Afco Steel, composite decking materials maker Trex, multi-state metals producer Boyd Metals and Revolution Bag, maker of eco-friendly trash can liners.

All have either relocated to, committed to or undertaken expansions at the port.

Like Elopak, Day said companies are drawn to the port’s proximity to the interstate highway system, Clinton National Airport and the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. Additionally, Day said, the port offers the kind of greenfield sites — undeveloped land, typically agricultural, located within or outside cities — companies seek.

Day said data has shown people in Arkansas will typically drive 60 miles for a well-paying job, and the highway system and central location make the Port of Little Rock a reasonable commute for a ready-made workforce.

“I think that what we’ve learned is workforce is a critical issue for all communities,” Day said. “In Arkansas, miles still equal minutes, and I think the port is still strategically located on the map that people can drive to.”

The abundance of success stories has the port — whose business is land, Day said, a problem other cities might envy — trying to find room for yet more and more companies.

Day said Little Rock has 800 more acres under contract, and the port is negotiating with an owner for another 700. Additionally, all parties are anticipating the relocation of a very high frequency omni-directional range, or VOR, cone for aircraft navigation that, when complete later this year, will open up a potential 1,000-acre supersite unmatched anywhere in the state.

The site could potentially have the impact of the Ford BlueOval plant announced in Tennessee, a project that will include a $5.6 billion mega campus in Stanton.

“We’re never going to say no to something less than that, but our goal is to find that big billion-dollar-plus project,” Day said.

It is hoped a major tenant such as an electric vehicle battery maker or some other manufacturer, will draw in its wake some 20 to 30 manufacturers to the local community. Regardless, Day credited the AEDC, the Little Rock Regional Chamber, and city and state leaders for consistently venturing out to beat the drum for the 64-year-old port and the local area.

“They’re out there telling our story, and we couldn’t do it without them either,” Day said.

Bryan Day has overseen $466 million in investments at the Port of Little Rock. (Photo by Jamison Mosley)


Arkansas provides fertile soil in which homegrown companies take root


With ample real estate, lower-than-average costs and a business-friendly political climate, Arkansas is home to many companies that began life as relatively small ventures and grew to become household names. Two such companies — Westrock Coffee Co. in Little Rock and Riceland Foods in Stuttgart — have demonstrated plenty of growth since, to put it in Arkansas terms, they were each knee-high to a grasshopper.


Best known for his work as CEO of Alltel in Little Rock, Scott Ford founded Westrock Coffee Co. as a sabbatical occupation in 2009, after Alltel was acquired by Verizon in 2008. Headquartered in Little Rock, Westrock now includes operations across the U.S. and around the world, but the company began in Rwanda.

Ford said the company built a mill there so that small, independent farmers could access the free market in a way they were unable to at that point.

“The concept was to build a for-profit business,” he said. “I didn’t expect to make money out of it, but I know that you can’t run anything as a charity and have it survive long term, so I wanted it to fund itself, but the mission of the business was to make sure these farmers in Rwanda were able to access a fairmarket price.”

Ford’s philosophy is that people need access to the free market, rather than charity or guidance. The poorer people are, the more likely they are to remain poor, and the less likely they are to have access to the free market, he said, especially those who live in the coffee-producing regions close to the equator.

“Children suffer in poverty first,” he said. “My father was the only one of three children that survived the [Great] Depression here in Arkansas, so we know what that looks like up close and personal, and we had made a lot of money at Alltel, and I didn’t

want to go live on a boat and spend a lot of money; I wanted to take that money and help people get access to the free market for their goods and services in parts of the world where they didn’t have that, and this company grew out of that project.”

The company has expanded quickly in the past 15 years. In 2014, Westrock acquired Falcon Coffees in the United Kingdom. At the time, Falcon had about four employees, Ford said, adding that it now has 80 or 90. Westrock acquired S&D Coffee & Tea in North Carolina in 2020 and later bought Kohana, a ready-to-drink canned-coffee business in California, and built a facility in Malaysia.

There is still more to come from Westrock, which is slated to build what Ford believes will be the world’s largest factory that takes coffee from the roasting phase to being bottled or canned and ready to drink in Conway this year.

Despite the company’s success, Ford said there were plenty of times he thought he should have gotten on that boat for some well-deserved rest and relaxation, rather than opening the mill in Rwanda.

“Everything I made at Alltel, I had to put on the line,” he said. “I looked at the distinct possibility of going broke about three different times. We had customers that asked us to buy equipment for them that they didn’t send us the volume. We’ve had every kind of heartache and heartbreak. We’ve had customers we invested in walk away for a penny less for something, you know, for a product, but on the whole, we’ve had more customers that have stayed with us and done what they said they would do than not.”

A core group of customers from Westrock’s early days and the original S&D business provided the foundation for Westrock, as did a dedicated group of employees, he said. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck after he bought S&D, he had to furlow 85 percent of the employees three weeks after the acquisition, he added, but the employers, customers and shareholders all remained loyal to the company.

“We were able to access capital again and start regrowing,” he said. “I think we’re the fastest growing business in our sector in the country today, and that’s because a team refused to lose. That’s all there is.”

For those hoping to replicate Westrock’s success, Ford said it will take five times longer than they expect and be five times more expensive than they expect. Stick with it, he added, because most people quit.

Westrock Coffee Co., headquartered in Little Rock, grew from a single mill in Rwanda and is now in the process of opening a ready-to-drink coffee factory in Conway. (Photos provided) Scott Ford

“Don’t let other people limit your dreams is a big part of it,” he said. “Most people don’t think you can go that big that fast. Can’t be done. It’s never been done. No one does it that way. You know, that’s everywhere, and so you have to have really good boundaries about what you believe and what everybody else wants to tell you is possible.”

A good team that believes in the vision for the business is also essential, he added. Of course, the business climate in Arkansas has also been conducive to organic growth. Ford said the state’s corporate culture developed during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when many businesses failed to gain financing using traditional means and the Stephens brothers — Witt and Jack, founders of Little Rock investment bank Stephens — financed emerging businesses.

That created an environment in which the leaders of businesses such as Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt, Alltel and Systematics all knew each other and helped each other become successful, he said, adding that the culture has been handed down to a new generation of leadership at Stephens and Walmart.

In addition, legislators have worked hard for the past few decades to ensure legislation is conducive to business, he said.

“You’re seeing the benefit of 20 years of good policy coming to roost, and it takes that long to see policy manifest itself,” he said. “You’ve got a good corporate culture, and you’ve matched that with good, I would call, state policy issues that have attracted and made Arkansas an attractive place to hire people and put money to work.”


One of Arkansas’ best-known brands, Riceland Foods in Stuttgart, was founded as the Arkansas Rice Growers Cooperative Association in 1921 when farmers in southeast Arkansas pooled their rice crops to create better marketing opportunities during the economic recession after World War I.

“With over 100 years of history, the cooperative has grown significantly to serve its farmermembers by creating markets for crops, a network of drier locations for members to utilize during harvest and a business strategy that adds value to the raw commodities delivered,” said Kevin McGilton, CEO.

Riceland purchased its first rice mill in Stuttgart in 1928 and bought a mill in Jonesboro in 1939. The cooperative began packaging rice for consumers under the Riceland brand in 1946.

Riceland is the largest miller and marketer of rice in the U.S., McGilton said, and it serves 5,500 farmer-members in Arkansas and Missouri. As a farmer-owned cooperative, Riceland stores, transports, processes and markets more than 2.5 million metric tons of grain each year. Its products take up store shelves across the U.S. and in about 25 countries.

“Achieving 100 years in business is a major accomplishment,” McGilton said. “That small band of farmers who came together out of desperation in 1921 would be very proud of the billion-dollar farmer-owned cooperative we are today.”

In 1970, the cooperative changed its name to Riceland Foods and opened its headquarters building in Stuttgart. Riceland now provides about 1,750 jobs and had nearly $1.3 million in revenue last year.

Riceland rice can be found on store shelves and in restaurants, snack foods and breakfast cereals. Among products with the Riceland logo are white, brown and parboiled rice, along with rice bran oil, soybean meal, and oil and feed ingredients.

Riceland is also one of the mid-South’s largest soybean processors, McGilton said. In 1958, the farmer-members became interested in soybean, and the cooperative launched a soybean-processing plant in Stuttgart in 1961.

The cooperative has the only integrated soybean crush-and-refining facility in the state, McGilton said. As the soybeans go through the processing plant, they produce high-protein soybean meal and soybean hulls for animal feed. In addition to soybean oil, the facility processes rice bran oil, cottonseed oil and peanut oil.

Kevin McGilton
Riceland Foods in Stuttgart began life as the Arkansas Rice Growers Cooperative Association in 1921.

“Over the years, the cooperative has been able to grow by acquiring facilities across Arkansas and southeast Missouri to receive, store and dry our farmer-members’ grain,” McGilton said. “We have invested in our milling and bagging operations to serve our customers across multiple business lines, including retail, food service, ingredients and export, and we have invested in developing talent within our employee team to lead our organization throughout the decades.”

That is not to say that the industry is not without its challenges. McGilton said cropping patterns in Arkansas have changed in recent years. The state now grows more corn, soybeans that mature early are now harvested at the same time as rice, and rice production has shifted north of Interstate 40, he said. Riceland prepares an annual storage plan to ensure its assets are used efficiently, he added.

Sustainability is also a consideration, and McGilton said the Riceland Carbon Ready program has given farmer-members the opportunity to sell millions of dollars worth of environmental assets to some of the world’s largest consumer package-goods companies.

Riceland also helps combat food insecurity in Arkansas and Missouri by partnering with local food banks in September, during National Rice Month and Hunger Action Month.

In addition, the Riceland Foods Foundation works to improve the quality of life in the areas Riceland serves by supporting youth activities such as Future Farmers of America and 4-H, as well as volunteer fire departments, women’s shelters, organizations that advocate for children and people with special needs, and local museums and art institutions.

“As a farmer-owned cooperative, it is in our DNA to give back to the communities where we live and work,” McGilton said.

In 2022, Riceland was awarded the Agricultural Export Award as part of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Global Trade.

“Riceland Foods is a special place not because of the large concrete silos or large facilities,” McGilton said. “It is the people, our loyal member-farmers and our dedicated employees who make up the Riceland family are at the heart of this cooperative we love.”

Going forward, McGilton said the company plans to expand the Riceland Carbon Ready program

to increase revenue farmer-members can receive for being good stewards of the land while also providing detailed data to facilitate greater production potential on their farms.

The company also plans to embrace new technology, he said, adding that artificial intelligence is part of the future of inventory management, maintenance programs and even analysis of where rice should be on a grocery-store shelf to capture the best premium.

“Preparing Riceland for the next 100 years means creating the value proposition for the next generation of members,” he said. “Arkansas farms are changing, and the cooperative must continue to change to serve our farmer-members. Investments in technology are critical.”

Arkansas produces about half the rice in the U.S., he added. Rice is the state’s second-highest commodity by value and its top agricultural export, he said, adding that rice production contributes $6 billion to the state’s economy and supports 25,000 jobs.

He said he is proud of Riceland’s role in accommodating and marketing its farmer-members crops.

“Arkansas farmers grow more rice than any other rice-producing state, and Riceland’s facilities are uniquely positioned throughout the highest ricegrowing regions to serve its farmer-members,” McGilton said. “If you are in the rice industry, there is no better place to be than the Natural State.”

Riceland is now the largest miller and marketer of rice in the U.S.
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Canna-Business is Booming: Dark Horse Medicinals

As the state’s cannabis landscape continues to evolve, companies within the industry have to stay fleet of foot to keep up with regulations and stay ahead of the competition. Dark Horse Medicinals, as the state’s first cannabis processor, understands this delicate balance well. Founded by business partners Casey Flippo, CEO, and Sean Clarkson, chief strategy officer, the Little Rock-based company has been at the forefront of Arkansas’ growing industry. With a mission to be one of the most reputable cannabis brands coming out of the mid-South, Dark Horse is making its presence known at dispensaries across the state and beyond.

“Dark Horse’s strategy from the beginning was to fill gaps that were not being addressed by other companies in the industry,” Clarkson said. “When we received a license in 2021, other companies were far more established and well funded than we were.”

In order to stand out, Flippo and Clarkson went all-in on value-added cannabis products, or non-flower products that involve additional manufacturing such as vape cartridges, edibles and concentrates. By zeroing in on that segment of the market, Dark Horse has been able to prioritize quality over quantity and partner with national brands to bring a wider range of products to the state. The company is taking notes from the success of that approach and replicating it across the border in Missouri and, soon, Mississippi.

“At a fundamental level, cannabis products are simply consumer packaged goods,” Clarkson said. “As states and eventually the federal government begin to realize that the fears surrounding cannabis legalization are overstated, the industry will continue its evolution from a specialty industry to one that resembles more traditional CPG industries.”

The creation of a legal cannabis industry in the state has ushered in a wealth of entrepreneurial and investment activity, bringing tax revenue and jobs with it. A typical Dark Horse manufacturing facility, for example, employs between 20 and 30 people, from chemists to packagers. Additionally, revenue from the fourpercent sales tax assessed for cannabis transactions throughout the supply chain helps fund various state programs.

“At the end of last year, the industry exceeded one billion dollars in cannabis sales with over $120 million in sales and privilege tax revenue,” Clarkson said. “The industry also employed more than 3,000 individuals. These numbers are a great start but are still a fractional portion of the true economic impact of bringing the unregulated cannabis market within the confines of Arkansas law.”

That economic impact is only poised to grow as cannabis becomes more accessible, he said, adding that a similar trend has

occurred in every legalized market so far. While the competition from both in-state and out-of-state players is fierce, Clarkson also sees regulatory uncertainty as one of the largest obstacles for cannabis operators.

“It will continue to be a staple of the Arkansas economy forever. The demand is not going away,” he said. “The real question is whether our state government will embrace the state’s cannabis companies or inhibit their growth. Other states are looking into the future, to when cannabis is legal on the federal level. If Arkansas is not proactive, the opportunities for industry expansion will go to companies located in other states.”

A major upcoming test for the industry in Arkansas lies with an expanded-access initiative, which is still in the process of getting on the 2024 ballot. If it does so and Arkansas voters approve the measure in November, Clarkson said the industry expects the patient population to expand by at least 50 percent. If recreational cannabis becomes a reality later on, the increase in demand could be three or four times the medical market.

Clarkson, for his part, is a proponent of what he describes as “results-driven regulation.” There is widespread agreement on several issues facing the industry, such as preventing access by minors and standardized product testing. Many of the rules created to address those problems, however, do more to create administrative burdens and limit legitimate consumer access, which Clarkson said is to the advantage of the illicit market.

“My plea for Arkansas lawmakers and regulators is to embrace the conversion of cannabis into a legitimate industry,” he said. “Provide rules and oversight on the issues that truly matter. If the current rules aren’t impactful, be willing to reassess and adjust with input from the industry and consumers.”


Lithium, Steel and Tourism: ARKANSAS’ NEXT BOOM INDUSTRIES

In 1953, Arkansas lawmakers signed off on “The Land of Opportunity” as the official state nickname. Within a few years, future governor Winthrop Rockefeller became the first chair of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, now known as the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and helped attract industry to the state at a level never seen before, transforming the agriculture-based economy by a huge influx of new manufacturers.

Today, the future of Arkansas once again seems ripe with opportunity, thanks in large part to a few up-and-coming boom industries with that same level of transformational potential — lithium, steel and tourism.


For many, lithium might mean no more than an element on the periodic table, or some may recognize its association with batteries. While lithium is an essential ingredient to the batteries used by electric vehicles and many everyday devices, the material is also the central ingredient of what is already on its way to becoming the most significant boom industry Arkansas has seen in decades.

Much of southern Arkansas straddles the Smackover Formation, a rich collection of natural resources buried beneath the earth that has been utilized ever since Arkansas’ oil boom in the early 1920s. As such, the region has generations of experience and extensive infrastructure for resource extraction, not only drilling for oil but also for the brine extraction needed to produce bromine. Untouched until just recently, however, are some of North America’s largest deposits of highly-concentrated lithium, which are now attracting international attention as demand for lithium grows.

Already, Canada-based Standard Lithium has begun to make significant investments in El Dorado with its Phase 1A project, which will begin operation in 2026 and make use of existing brine wells to single-handedly double the current U.S. lithium production levels. Not long after those plans made headlines, ExxonMobil acquired the rights to 120,000 gross acres of land

in southern Arkansas and announced plans to drill new brine wells. Both companies plan to use direct lithium extraction, a process with far less environmental impact than traditional methods such as evaporation pools and strip mining. Those are only the first projects of what could be many more to come.

In light of the massive potential this formation holds, state, civil and business leaders gathered with industry figures from around the nation and beyond at the inaugural Arkansas Lithium Innovation Summit that took place February in Little Rock.

“I have to admit, for someone from [south Arkansas], the developments of the past few years have come as something of a shock,” said Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the summit’s opening remarks. “We all knew that towns like El Dorado and Smackover were built by oil and gas, but who knew that our quiet brine and bromine industry had the potential to change the world?”

As Andrew Miller, chief operating officer of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence and one of the summit’s keynote speakers said, lithium is a major piece of the global energy transition. As the world transitions from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and to possible future sources like nuclear fusion and fission, all of that new energy will need to be stored somewhere.

The International Energy Agency estimates that extraction of lithium will need to be multiplied by 10 by 2050 to meet the necessary storage capacity required to create a net-zero greenhouse gas economy.

“Arkansas has a massive opportunity to play a very strategic role to serve the battery industry but also build out its own links in the battery supply chain,” Miller said. “There are several linked components, [from] taking lithium out of the ground [to] getting lithium into an electric vehicle, and there’s a massive amount of skill, expertise and quality of assets here in Arkansas to really tap into that massive growth opportunity.

Seizing this golden opportunity, however, will not be quite as simple as just putting out an “open for business” sign.

“We urgently need to keep putting capital into these industries because the reality of raw material markets is that they

“The effects of this growth on Mississippi County are hard to overstate.”
— Clif Chitwood; president of the Great River Economic Development Foundation

move a hell of a lot slower than electric vehicle markets,” Miller said. “It takes years, if not decades, to bring these assets online.”

Miller estimated that the United States will need to invest some $50 billion into raw material extraction and a further $20 billion into battery processing by 2030 — even a fraction of which could have a huge impact on Arkansas’s economy. Once Arkansas becomes a leader in lithium extraction, it will be a natural location for other downstream processes.

China, meanwhile, is already at least a decade ahead of the U.S. in the lithium battery game, said Bob Gaylen, CEO of Galyen Energy. Gaylen worked for eight years in China to help build CATL, the world’s largest battery manufacturer. In doing so, he studied how China had been so successful and devised a basic strategy by which the U.S. could catch up.

China was able to advance in the field so quickly thanks to government support through tax incentives, extensive private investment, rapid development of technology and the training of a workforce that could meet the necessary levels of quality, he said. Just as the nation tries to mimic those successes, it is no stretch to imagine

that Arkansas could move in the same direction to present itself as a natural hub for battery production.

“As we look back in time, in 2023, we’re seeing here in the United States a roughly five to six percent adoption rate where people are buying electric vehicles,” Gaylen said. “Looking out into 2025, we’re more around 12 to 12.5 percent. Looking out further at 2030, we’re at 28 percent, and finally in the year 2040, we’re at 58 percent, so as the adoption of electric vehicles becomes a reality in our country, I think it’s important to understand that we’re just getting started.”


Steel production has a long and proud history in the United States. Steel helped build the nation into a global economic power, and America’s overwhelming steel production was a crucial factor in its victory of World War II. While this history is largely focused in old steel belt cities such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the glory days are well behind them. In recent years, Arkansas has taken to the stage as a rising star, centered on Mississippi County, which has achieved the distinction of the No. 1 steel producing county in the United States.

Steel is nothing new to Mississippi County. Nucor, the largest steel producer in the United States, set up its first steel mill in the county in 1988 and then a second mill a decade later, and the industry has been a staple there ever since. The last decade, however, and especially the past few years, have seen the industry rapidly expand with plenty of gas left in the tank.

In 2017, the $1.3 billion Big River Steel mill began operations in Osceola. Only a year later, another $1.2 billion expansion was

An aerial shot of Big River Steel in Mississippi County. (Photos provided)

announced, adding some 500 new jobs and doubling the plant’s production. Big River Steel was bought out by U.S. Steel in 2021, and in 2023, U.S. Steel entered a production agreement with General Motors, the largest automaker in the U.S. Many of the growing operations also extend beyond the mere production of raw steel or the recycling of scrap by going a step further to create products closer to their end use.

“Nucor has made some serious expansions,” said Clif Chitwood, president of the Great River Economic Development Foundation, which promotes economic development in the county. “They’ve gone into the roll coating business, which is where you take their steel, make it even thinner than it normally comes from the factory, and then paint or enamel it. It goes into the market for appliances, refrigerators, freezers, washing machines — that type of thing. That’s about 150 jobs. They put in a zinc mill, so they can now zinc their steel, which has huge downstream applications in agriculture.

“Companies associated with them have extended their capacities in specialty fabrication jobs. In all, I think Nucor has probably added 300 jobs in the downstream area. We’ve also had three distributors come in: Arkansas Steel, Ratner Steel and Majestic Steel, who all buy wholesale from both Nucor and U.S.

Steel. They each employ around 60 or 70 people, and those have been in the last three or four years.”

Both Nucor and U.S. Steel have made significant recent investments into electrical steel. U.S. Steel completed a $450 million non-grain-oriented electrical steel line just last October that has an expected economic impact of $5.2 billion over a four-year period. This specialized type of steel is crucial for many electromagnetic devices such as motors, making it particularly important to the burgeoning electric vehicle industry and therefore complementary to Arkansas’ future in lithium. Furthermore, its production in Mississippi County is providing for hundreds of jobs.

“U.S. Steel is building an entire new rolled steel mill, which will have additive capacities in both electric and other hightech steels,” Chitwood said. “That will employ about 1,000 people, and right now there are probably about 3,000 people in Osceola building it, and of course with every one of those expansions — say a steel mill hires 1,000 people — there’s going to be support businesses that hire 250 to 300 that will do everything from electricity to plumbing to working on the machines that make the steel.”

The effects of this growth on Mississippi County are hard to overstate. Despite successes in the steel industry, the closure of

Mountain biking as a tourism draw has helped place Arkansas on the outdoor recreation map.

many manufacturers and the Eaker Air Force Base in the 1980s and ’90s caused a loss of thousands of jobs and residents who left in search of greener pastures. Roughly 30 years later, the county has almost managed to return to those previous levels, while new housing developments have started to appear for the first time in a decade.

Graduates of Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville have the highest starting salaries of any higher education institution in the state, and the county has won awards for having one the nation’s most efficient workforce training initiatives.

Well managed growth begets growth and the area still has a great deal of potential, such as sites at the old airbase ripe for aerospace development. Chitwood recently met with a company interested in using waste products from the local steel mills to produce a new product.

“I think that will continue, like when an asteroid becomes a planetoid because it’s gotten big enough that it just starts drawing other chunks of rock,” he said. “I actually do believe that we’re right on the cusp of that starting to happen.”


Arkansas eventually moved on from the Land of Opportunity and these days is known as the Natural State. Opportunities abound for outdoor recreation throughout the state’s forests, mountains, rivers and lakes. Recent years have brought an exciting shift as more and more people from across the country have begun to realize just how much the state has to offer — a shift that the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism is eager to capitalize on.

The tourism boom began towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic; after long periods of quarantine and isolation, it should perhaps come as no surprise that so many people turned to a state known for its beautiful outdoors. Economic data from 2022, the first full year after the pandemic, shows the full scale of this influx, with the state experiencing an increase of 17 percent in visitors to a total of 48.3 million, topping 2019 numbers.

The total value of the Arkansas tourism industry was estimated at $9.2 billion in 2022, generating $536 million in state revenue and $216 million in revenue for local and county governments. Additionally, some $24.3 million was collected through the two-percent Tourism Reinvestment Tax, which as the name implies was reinvested directly back into the state’s tourism marketing efforts. In total, tourism tax revenues are equivalent to an additional $866 from every Arkansas household.

These numbers also represent an astounding return on investment; only $5.2 million was spent on media advertisement for the state for the spring and summer seasons in exchange for $424 million in ad-influenced spending over the same period, making for $82 brought in for every dollar spent. In addition to tax revenues, which boost the state and local economies, the tourism industry also supported 68,000 jobs, accounting for nearly four percent of Arkansas’ total employment numbers. Throughout 2023 and into 2024, the state government has been hard at work to keep that hot streak going, and it is not alone.

“Within the tourism industry, we work with a lot of partners,” said Shae Lewis, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. “We work with municipalities. We work with tourism destinations [and] with destination marketing areas, which are a region or a group that supports the tourism industry.

“We work closely with new attractions, like recently we’ve seen the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts come onboard with a multimillion-dollar renovation. We’ve seen the U.S. Marshals Museum open in Fort Smith, and those boosts to the tourism economy make a big difference out there. Of course, we’ve seen a large investment within Arkansas State Parks and other recreation areas in connection to the outdoor recreation industry, whether that’s mountain biking, paddling or hiking trails, and those investments have all had a huge impact too.”

The department has also been working closely with the governor’s office as part of the Natural State Initiative led by First Gentleman Bryan Sanders. In December, the group released a report with recommendations to help support the outdoor economy in a wide range of areas. To further promote tourism, these recommendations ranged from sweeping goals like continued brand developments to solidify Arkansas’ position as a premier destination for mountain biking and rock climbing to much simpler matters such as improving the user experience at

“That report really outlines goals for the division of state parks, as well as the division of tourism,” Lewis said. “For example, our goal within Arkansas State Parks is to really elevate the state park experience. We’re trying to take locations that are well known like Petit Jean, Pinnacle Mountain or Devil’s Den, locations that are already well loved, and looking at what we can do to elevate those experiences and emphasize the opportunities that are already there.”

Such enhancements include major trail expansions at locations like Mississippi River State Park and Queen Wilhelmina State Park, as well as improvements to facilities, particularly restaurants. The latter is a natural choice because, in 2022, food and beverage accounted for more than a quarter of visitor expenditures at 27 percent.

Nor are the outdoors the only draw in the state; the three counties which brought in the most from tourism in 2022 were Pulaski County at $1.9 billion, Benton County at $1 billion and Garland County at $840 million. Each area boasts strong outdoor recreation opportunities, but the municipalities of Little Rock, Bentonville and Hot Springs are significant attractions in their own rights. Here again, the state works closely with local governments to promote and enhance what Arkansas has to offer.

Lewis said what makes Arkansas special is the combination of natural, cultural and historic resources.

“When you combine the opportunity to start off your day on a great mountain bike ride but end your day at a great restaurant in downtown Little Rock, we just offer a complete experience and package for a great time in Arkansas,” Lewis said.




Steel, lithium industries promise economic impact

In a nutshell, more of the same is what Arkansans can expect of the state’s economy in 2024. The economic trends that emerged at the close of 2023 are likely to continue in the new calendar year, according to the state’s leading economists.

Michael Pakko, chief economist and state economic forecaster for the Arkansas Economic Development Institute at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said he believes the state will continue to see slower growth in employment but not enough to result in a sustained recession.

“The trends in key economic variables started to weaken toward the end of 2023 and into the beginning of this year,” he said. “This was not unexpected. The [Federal Reserve’s] move toward higher interest rates in 2022 was bound to have some impact on growth, and while that impact is observable in certain sectors, the effect on aggregate economic activity has been less than many economists feared.”

Inflation was down year over year to 3.1 percent in January following a 2022 peak of 9.1 percent. Pakko, however, forecasted only gradual progress toward the Federal Reserve’s target rate of 2 percent.

“I anticipate that the pace of interest rate reductions will accordingly be slower than many other economists seem to be expecting,” he said. “Meanwhile, the pace of employment growth has slowed. For the U.S., annual growth rates for nonfarm payrolls declined from a range of 3.5 percent to

A Standard Lithium bromine tower in El Dorado hints at big things to come in south Arkansas. (Photos provided)

4 percent in 2022 to less than 2 percent in the second half of 2023. The national unemployment rate edged higher over the second half of 2023, as well, rising from 3.4 percent to 3.7 percent.”

Pakko said he sees similar patterns in the data for employment and unemployment in Arkansas with employment growth slowing and unemployment rates edging higher in late 2023.

“The state data for 2023 will be revised in March, so that might give us a slightly different picture, but I expect the overall patterns to be similar to what we’re seeing now,” he said.

“The impact of the steel industry spreads well beyond Mississippi County, but it is nice to be able to say that Arkansas has the No. 1 steelproducing county in the nation.”

Despite a moderation of growth evident in the state’s labor markets, Arkansas remains in “relatively good shape,” he said. Pakko attributed weakening labor markets in Arkansas and across the U.S. to declines in the number of job openings, rather than the number of jobs.

job openings rate has consistently remained even higher than the national average,” he said. “In the state GDP and personal income reports, Arkansas registered relatively weak growth rates in the latter part of 2023, but much of the slowdown was in the volatile farm income components, which can be affected by fluctuations in commodity prices. More broadly, economic growth has continued.”

— Michael Pakko, Arkansas Economic Development Institute

“Vacancy rates remain elevated, so there is still room for that channel to continue to absorb potential job losses — that is, firms are cutting back on hiring plans, not workers. In Arkansas, the

Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the Sam W. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said he expects job growth in Arkansas to mostly mirror national growth but grow at a slower pace in 2024.

He forecasted continued job growth in the state’s two major metropolitan areas, central and northwest Arkansas, as well as modest growth in smaller markets such as Fort Smith, Jonesboro and Hot Springs.

Arkansas may soon be home to a pair of industry clusters, which Pakko described as regional economies of scale and

A galvanized steel roller at Big River Steel in Mississippi County represents the size of the industry’s economic impact.

agglomeration that drive the development of a primary industry, along with local growth in businesses that supply and support it. Mississippi County is now considered the largest steel-producing county in the country, according to state and U.S. steel officials, and the potential lithium play in south Arkansas has energy industry officials buzzing.

“The ongoing expansion of the steel industry in northeast Arkansas continues to be a source of growth, particularly in Mississippi County,” Pakko said. “The impact of the steel industry spreads well beyond Mississippi County, but it is nice to be able to say that Arkansas has the No. 1 steel-producing county in the nation.”

The existing industry cluster in Mississippi County delivers on its potential for economic impact. Since acquiring Big River Steel in 2021, U.S. Steel has begun construction on a second mill. In fiscal year 2022 alone, the company’s Arkansas endeavors generated an estimated $383.2 million in total economic impact, supported roughly 1,750 jobs, contributed $16.3 million in state and local tax revenue, and worked with 187 Arkansas-

based suppliers, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission states.

The second mill is expected to provide a construction impact of $5.2 billion, and $3 billion in direct spending in the state is expected over four years. Last year, the newly formed Hybar announced plans to build a high-tech steel rebar mill on 1,300 acres in Mississippi County, creating 200 high-paying jobs.

Jebaraj said private and public officials are doing all they can to train and deliver the workforce required to meet the demands of the burgeoning steel industry, but Arkansas still has work to do.


Even the most dutiful shunners of social media must know by now that Arkansas sits in the direct path of the total solar eclipse expected to take place on April 8 — barring, of course, the moon being blown out of earth orbit, as was the premise of the underrated Space: 1999.

Runaway satellites roaming the heavens — never mind the devastating impact left behind on Earth — is a fun concept, but Arkansans might want to don their eclipse glasses the second Monday in April, nonetheless.

Arkansans should be prepared to welcome guests, as well. The eclipse is expected to draw thousands of tourists to Arkansas for the long weekend. April’s event will mark the first total solar eclipse since 1979 — there will not be another until 2045 — and there is real data to suggest the state is in for something of a mini economic boon.

Pakko, chief economist and state economic forecaster for the Arkansas Economic Development Institute at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, considered the experience of Wyoming, which sat in the direct path of the 2017 eclipse.

“Certainly, when we made the investment way back to provide the incentives to get the steel industry here, we couldn’t have expected this much growth,” he said, adding that many of the region’s steel workers still commute from the Memphis area or even the Missouri bootheel. “The key is getting them there and keeping them there, and it will require investments in communities that will help incentivize those commuting workers to want to live there too.”

In a blog post titled “Eclipse-onomics: On the Expected Economic Impact of the Great American Eclipse,” Michael

His research and blog posts can be found at In forecasting what might be ahead for Arkansas, he noted that the 2017 eclipse also fell on a Monday, transforming the event into a weekend-long celebration.

“An economic impact study for Wyoming found that 77 percent of out-ofstate visitors stayed overnight, with an average visit of 4.1 days and 3.5 nights,” he wrote. “A study for Nebraska found that about 87 percent of visitors were from out of state and estimated an average stay of three days.”

Eclipse tourists in Wyoming provided an economic impact of almost $60 million and, adjusting for inflation, each visitor is estimated to have spent just under $400 while in Wyoming for the event.

“Based on past experience, there are widespread expec-


Pakko said recent and planned expansions suggest strong growth in the steel industry and confidence from industry officials that the state will be able to supply the necessary workforce and meet its needs. In November 2022, ground was broken on a $30 million housing development in Osceola intended to help bolster local housing options for steel workers.

“It can be a powerful engine of economic growth for a region as long as it doesn’t outpace the availability of specialized labor and capital,” he said.

Jebaraj said the impact of the potential lithium play in south Arkansas holds promise but cannot yet be quantified.

“Given the scale of investment, I expect to see some positive impact down the line, but possibly up to four years out,” he said.

Pakko agreed that it is too early to forecast an economic impact but said the potential for lithium production in south Arkansas is big.

“All of the exploration and demonstration projects seem to be going exceptionally well, and I expect that we will begin seeing more rapid progress toward commercial-level production in

coming years,” he said. “The development of this new industry is likely to require large investments in infrastructure and production facilities, and the impact of construction projects alone is likely to have a notable impact on regional economic activity. A number of firms have expressed interest in developing lithium operations in the region, possibly foreshadowing the growth of an industry cluster in southwest Arkansas.”

tations that our state will experience an enormous influx of visitors to view the event,” Pakko wrote.

Several states recorded the 2017 eclipse as their largestever single tourist event, he added. Anticipating a similar event for Arkansas, Pakko used data from researcher Michael Zeiler at to help forecast what is in store in the Natural State. His conclusion was that Arkansas can expect the number of eclipse tourists to range from 210,000 to 460,000.

“Assuming that 75 percent of those total travelers are visiting from out of state (the Wyoming average), the total number of out-of-state visitors ranges from 160,000 to 350,000,” he wrote.

The projections are rough estimates but “convey the expected order-of-magnitude that the eclipse will have on the Arkansas economy,” he wrote.

The numbers should be big, but the event is temporary, and the impact will represent just a “miniscule fraction” of the state’s annual economic activity, he added.

“If we consider state GDP for the month, our estimates represent an increase of only 0.3 percent to 0.7 percent,” he wrote. “For the brief four-day period, however, the magnitudes are nontrivial. Relative to an average four-day period, the impact estimates presented here amount to about

2.5 percent to 5.5 percent of GDP with a 1.5 percent to 3.2 percent boost to personal incomes.”

Actual economic impact notwithstanding, state officials are looking at a branding opportunity worth its weight in moon rocks, regardless of how much each visitor spends.

In typical economist fashion, Pakko cut to the quick:

“There are many uncertainties and contingencies about actual outcomes, with one big uncertainty being the weather. Nevertheless, many travelers have already laid their plans and made their reservations, and this is certain to be a significant, albeit temporary, economic event.”


Market, tech and demographic trends bring new considerations for financial planners

The world of financial planning is hardly stagnant, and the rise of artificial intelligence and other technologies, along with baby boomers reaching retirement age and increasing wealth among women, have created new considerations for the industry to navigate, on top of more general industry trends.

Dale Colclasure Jr., president of wealth management at Retire Path in Little Rock, said his firm has expanded its services in response to client feedback that wirehouses and captive private equity firms are limiting their services and instead directing clients to accountants and attorneys to answer certain questions.

“We’re bringing in avenues to answer a lot of those questions


in house, even though we may not necessarily be providing the answer ourselves,” he said.

That shift toward providing holistic services has led his firm to be actively involved in the process for tax planning, estate planning and Medicare enrollment, he said. Taxes are an important consideration, considering the expiration of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which is set to increase tax brackets in 2025.

“There’s a lot more conversation about wealth conversions and what can be done in that avenue, whether it’s converting to a ROTH or converting to cash-value life insurance that’s being used for a long-term care need,” he said.

Kevin Daniel, president of Daniel Financial Group in Little Rock, said his firm has also begun incorporating Medicare considerations into financial planning.

“That’s one big service that I’ve added because with Medicare, there’s a lot of options, and a lot of times, people are bombarded with a lot of calls, and they get nervous,” he said. “Clients want to make sure they’re making the right choice.”

Providing advice about Medicare enrollment is a service he offers to all clients, he said, adding that choosing the correct plan can have a major impact on one’s finances.

“I just like to be there to help assist them if they need help,” he said. “That’s a big deal because if they don’t choose the right plan, their medicine and health care expenses could cost a lot more.”

As people seek to maintain their standards of living into retirement, such personalized, holistic planning will only become more important to the industry, he said.

“I find that that’s one of the big, big things that I find financial planning is moving toward is to have a more holistic approach to their own plan, not just where to invest their money,” he said. “There’s all kinds of aspects. You’ve got income planning, Social Security planning, life insurance planning, taxes, long-term care planning and estate planning. There’s a lot of different things that you need in your financial plan to be successful these days.”

Within the industry, there has been a rise of fiduciary advisors who work in their clients’ best interest at all times, Daniel said. In addition, many financial planners have shifted from commission-based to fee-based service models, he said, adding that both changes benefit consumers.

These days, he added, planners need more data from clients so that they can provide better recommendations.

“I find myself asking a lot more questions, getting to know the clients a lot more and gaining more insight into a client’s personal situation,” he said. “It customizes financial plans, and it doesn’t make it a cookie-cutter-type planning process. You never know where a client might take you with their needs.”

Because many baby boomers entering retirement age are taking care of their parents, their chief concerns include being able to support themselves so that their children do not have to care for them and being able to pay for their own long-term care, if needed, Colclasure said.

Daniel said ensuring adequate income into one’s golden years

has become of increased importance as people routinely live into their 80s and 90s. Guaranteed-income products and dividend-paying stocks are two ways to ensure adequate income is available, he said.

“People are living longer, and that’s one of the main goals as an advisor is to make sure clients don’t outlive their savings,” he said. “People are living way up into their 80s, and they have to make sure that their retirement income lasts a long time.”

There is more of a demand for guaranteed-income products such as annuities than there was in the past, Colclasure said, adding that many clients are concerned about running out of money.

“I’ve had a lot more people in the last two years, as opposed to the previous 10, with the concern of running out of money because of inflation,” he said. “You know, ‘My gosh, what if stuff keeps getting more expensive? What’s it going to cost me in a few years?’ where we came through a period previously that for 10 years, it was very little to no inflation, at least not what people felt.”

Guaranteed-income products cannot run out of money because insurance carriers are responsible for paying the income, rather than it being determined by the performance of the investment, he said, and some products offer enhanced benefits to those needing long-term care.

However, those who use guaranteed-income products have limited access to the investment’s principal, Colclasure said, adding that he offsets that by ensuring there are adequate liquid funds elsewhere.

Buffered index products that offer downside protection by guaranteeing the shareholder does not experience a loss unless the chosen index drops

“I’m hearing that AI in the investment world is a little slower to develop, simply because AI doesn’t necessarily understand history, and so much of what happens in the investment world is based on history.”
— Dale Colclasure Jr.

more than a certain percentage have also become popular, he said.

“Two years ago, when interest rates began to rise, it was the first time in 15 years that we’d seen the ability to make a reasonable rate of return on something without taking a lot of risk, and so the investment world had to get very creative during that period of time, and this is one of the answers they came up with,” he said. “The other is now I have the ability to protect, but I can also make above a reasonable rate of return if the index returns positively.”

Some such products provide a 20-percent downside and a 12-percent downside, which most people do not mind, he said, adding that the products are usually structured as exchange-traded funds, which often provide tax advantages compared to traditional investments.

There has also been a dramatic increase in women’s wealth, Daniel said, adding that the shift creates unprecedented challenges and opportunities for financial planners because women often have different investment styles, react differently to risk and have different goals than men.

“Women are now really starting to get a lot more wealth transferring to them,” he said. “They’re living a little bit longer, so a lot of times, they end up with the nest egg, and that’s definitely been a big change.”

He added that some advisors now gear their practices specifically toward women in response to the increase.

Colclasure also said more women are now involved in financial planning. Female clients tend to be more inquisitive and open to advice than their male counterparts, he said, adding that women tend to be more

“As people seek to maintain their standards of living into retirement, such personalized, holistic planning will only become more important to the industry.”
— Kevin Daniel

interested in the outcome than the process.

“Twenty years ago, there was a lot of, ‘Well, he takes care of that,’ and, ‘I know he will always do what’s in my best interest,’” he said. “My answer always was to them, ‘Well, he’s three years older. Statistics say he’s going to die four years sooner than you anyway, so what do you do for the seven to 10 years you’re on your own?’”

Colclasure said technology has had an astounding impact on forward-looking models, which evolved from net-present value calculations to the Monte Carlo simulation and now include simulators that allow for even more tweaking of parameters to determine how investors might fare given various situations.

However, the most marked impact of technology at Colclasure’s firm has been in marketing and communications, for which generative AI can develop marketing angles and materials, he said.

“I’m hearing that AI in the investment world is a little slower to develop, simply because AI doesn’t necessarily understand history, and so much of what happens in the investment world is based on history, but it’s learning as it goes along, and so they tell us it will continue to get better,” he added.

Daniel said technology has made financial planning tools more accessible to individuals.

“Today with smartphones, people can access financial planning apps, online budget tools and investment platforms anytime they want,” he said. “Automation has streamlined many aspects of financial planning, such as budgeting, saving, investing and tax preparation.”

He added that technology enables greater personalization in financial planning, as well. For example, robo-advisors use algorithms to tailor investment portfolios to individual goals, risk tolerance and time horizons, which can help individuals achieve their financial objectives more efficiently. Daniel said such tools are common among younger investors.

“These days, I imagine you’re noticing the stock market swing more rapidly than you have in the past, and that’s due to a lot of artificial intelligence and algorithms,” he said. “[Investors] just need to keep their eye on their time horizon and not make a bunch of changes based on short-term volatility. That’s very important.”

While there are risks associated with technology, Daniel said there are many advancements in cybersecurity that help protect sensitive financial data, including encryption, biometric authentication and multifactor authentication.

In addition, there has been an increase in remote meetings using platforms such as Zoom, which came about during the COVID-19 pandemic, Daniel said.

Scott Daniel, principal managing partner at Wealthpath Advisors in Little Rock, said shifts to digital and technology-driven solutions such the use of artificial intelligence for advice tools, along with hyper-personalized financial planning made possible by data analytics and abundant access to financial tools are among the top trends in the financial planning industry.

“AI framework is making a big difference in how we handle


financial planning, making it smarter and more personalized for everyone,” he said. “In the busy world of finance where stock prices and investments can change quickly, AI’s ability to predict and analyze data is a game changer.”

AI allows experts to sort through large amounts of information to spot trends and sense market movements, he said, and investors can receive advice and risk assessments specifically tailored to their needs.

“It’s like having a super-smart tool in your tool box to help guide your money moves and ensure you’re on track to meet your financial goals and objectives with confidence,” he said.

He added that he expects to see more robo-advisors in the future. Although AI-generated advice can be a good start when it comes to managing wealth, such technologies do not provide face-to-face interactions necessary to understanding the emotional components of a person’s financial outlook, he said.

Colclasure said he expects lower market returns and greater volatility in coming years.

“We all learned algebra. We all learned mean, median and mode,” he said. “We all learned that everything always reverts back to the mean, and my belief is that if the markets have overperformed for the last decade or two decades, it’s probably going to underperform for the next decade or next two decades to get back to the mean.”

He added that his philosophy is to follow logical market trends and act aggressively during years that the market will likely perform well and conservatively when he expects the market to perform poorly.

“That’s kind of how we do things, as opposed to simply reallocating based on some perfect asset-allocation model,” he said. “2022 proved to us that asset allocation doesn’t solve all things because almost every asset class was negative in that year — doesn’t happen often, but it happened big time in 2022.”

2022 was a game changer for investors that needed income in retirement, Kevin Daniel said, adding that the four-percent rule, which states that an investor can withdraw four percent of their holdings without running out of money, came into question as interest rates increased.

“As interest rates shoot up, bond prices fall,” he said. “Retirees that were using bonds for retirement income were having trouble, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

That led to the popularity of dividend-paying stocks and guaranteed-income products, which Kevin Daniel said allowed consumers to sleep better at night.

He said he expects interest rates and inflation to go down later this year, which will bring renewed confidence to the four-percent rule and benefit the housing market.

However, consumers are not out of the woods yet, and Scott Daniel said he expects higher costs and the relatively high interest rates of the past couple years to continue to impact businesses and consumers this year.

“I’m sure most of us have heard the saying, ‘Don’t fight the Fed,’” he said. “This point is driven by the fact that corporate revenue is hurt when higher costs are involved. We are currently

“In the busy world of finance where stock prices and investments can change quickly, AI’s ability to predict and analyze data is a game changer.”
— Scott Daniel

seeing inflation and interest rates affecting bottom-line returns for companies and individuals alike. This could cause a bumpy 2024.”

Colclasure said he expects financial planning to grow, even among those who had not previously sought it, such as people in lower income brackets.

“I see the need for the financial planning industry continuing to increase because our world and the products available and the options available and tax situations and law are just getting more complicated and convoluted every day,” he said. “Changes in Social Security, changes in Medicare, changes in estate laws, changes in tax laws, they’re just becoming more and more common. There’s more pieces to consider in that pie every day.”

Consumers should seek professional advice about anything they do not understand, he said, adding that they should seek more than one option and ensure the planners they work with are fiduciaries who match their personalities.

Those looking for an advisor should be sure they get to know the professional they plan on working with, Kevin Daniel said, adding that he recommends interviewing several fiduciary advisors.

“[Consumers] need to make sure that they’re working with someone that’s a good fit for their personal situation. They need to make sure that they have the same investment philosophy and that they feel comfortable in every recommendation that they make, and they need to take their time, not just jump into the fire, so to speak,” he said. “I always say, if you don’t have a plan for retirement, really, all you have is a wish.”

A good coach will educate & enlighten, creating clarity & confidence that can help lead to peace of mind.
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President and Financial Coach
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Retirement is often treated as a given, a basic stage of life just as expected as the years and education and work that precede it. Yet for many, reality is not quite so simple and the idea of retirement seems like an ever more distant dream rather than a certain reward. A plethora of factors, some far outside of what any individual can control, can throw retirement plans off the rails. When obstacles are inevitably encountered, what can be done to get back on track?

Any visit to the grocery store makes it easy to feel the sting of inflation. The bare necessities of life cost noticeably more than they used to, but that is not just concern when buying eggs — it can have serious ramifications for one’s retirement plan.

“There are two pools of people that [inflation] affects,” said Wade Partridge, senior wealth advisor at Mariner Wealth Advisors in Little Rock. “There’s the person in their 20s and 30s who is saving for retirement. While they may face inflation on a day-to-day basis at the grocery store, sometimes an inflating economy is good for the stock market, so if they’re saving for retirement and it’s a long way in the future, they’re probably not thinking about the spending power of those dollars.

“Now someone who is living in retirement, and perhaps Social Security is a part of their retirement income, then they have an entirely different set of issues because the dollars they saved and the income they’re able to generate off of those dollars has changed their spending power.”

This poses a particularly difficult problem for those who are on a fixed income. As retirement inherently means being unemployed, the retiree might not have a way to make up for that lost spending power.

“As an advisor, I work with my clients to make sure that we have a good, solid plan in place when it comes to cash flow,” said April Pollard, a financial advisor at Edward Jones in Little Rock. “How much do they need to take out, how much are they taking out, and what’s the budgeted cost for things like gas, travel, groceries and regular living expenses? Right now utilities are going through the roof, and so is insurance. As retirees and preretirees are looking at their cash flow and their budget, we have to consider that inflation is going to be, on average, two to three percent every year anyway, and periodically, it will go even higher, just depending on the current economic situation.”

In addition to this ever-increasing upwards pressure on the cost of living, the average lifespan is also increasing. Where

someone might have expected to be retired for 15 years, that number might now be closer to 25 or 30, and a typical retiree’s lifestyle tends to be more active. While a longer, healthier life is certainly a good thing, these also bring costs, multiplied by inflation, that must be accounted for.

While the average person cannot change inflation, there are also plenty of mistakes that an individual can make to cause setbacks in their retirement future. Ask any financial advisor, and they are likely to say the No. 1 mistake is not saving early enough.

“Fifty-one percent of retirees say that they wished they would have started saving earlier and saved more,” Pollard said. “We can all look at that and say, ‘Oh yeah, I totally hear you. I really should be saving more,’ or ‘I really should start right now,’ but what I see as a trend is it doesn’t really hit people until they have children or until they hit about 40 or 45. Those two milestones cause people to pause and reflect and say, ‘Uh oh, have I started doing this?’ I always say there’s only three ways you can affect your retirement: You can save more now, you can spend less in retirement, or you can work longer.”

Similarly, being too averse to risk can make it difficult to save enough, even if one starts saving early.

“Not realizing how inflation can affect investment returns or how to balance various types of risks can leave you vulnerable to a shortfall in your retirement savings or other financial goals,” said Beckie Comstock, financial advisor and president of Comstock Private Wealth Management/Raymond James in Hot Springs. “All investing involves risk, including the potential loss of principal, and there can be no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful, but the biggest risk of all could be not taking the steps needed to try to secure your financial future.”

At the same time, there are also entirely unnecessary risks that one can take, such as trying to game the market and waiting until the ideal moment to invest.

“The best time to invest is when you have the money,” Comstock said. “Volatility will happen; it’s a normal and healthy part of the market cycle. Have a game plan to keep yourself from panicking during volatile markets.”

“There are overwhelmingly more mistakes made by individuals attempting to time the market during downturns than by individuals that stay the course,” said Jay Gadberry, president and CEO of Gadberry Financial Group in Little Rock.

Another serious pitfall is lifestyle creep: Ideally, a person’s


income will grow as they age, whether thanks to gainful employment or successful investments, but it can be very easy to increase one’s lifestyle expenses with every rise of income until the amount of money left over at the end of the day is the same as it was before.

“The most common mistake I observe individuals make with their retirement planning is the absence of their personal ‘number’. By this, I mean that each person has a specific monthly income they feel comfortable living on,” Gadberry said. “For some, this figure may amount to $10,000 per month, while for others, it could be $40,000 per month. Everyone’s situation varies; nevertheless, it’s crucial for everyone to identify their own number. I advise individuals to monitor their personal cash flow. What are the sources and uses of your cash each month? By keeping tabs on your personal cash flows throughout your career, you can pinpoint your number.”

Debt, likewise, can be a black hole that swallows up interest payments that might have gone into savings instead.

A less obvious mistake, however, is failing to consider the major costs that can come from health care during retirement. If someone saves early and lives below their means to have a strong pool of savings, they might want to retire before they would be eligible for Medicare at 65.

educational materials such as books and magazine articles or even just asking for information about one’s workplace retirement plan. One might also seek out an investment club to explore investing in a social setting.

Financial advisors, by nature and purpose, are another great source of economic wisdom.

“I would say that in the past, our industry was more focused on transactions,” Pollard said, “so you had to have a financial advisor or broker to even buy stocks, and you don’t have to have that anymore. We’re moving more into that space of education and planning. You’re going to see more advisors become better licensed and better certified to give full financial advice instead of just transaction-based information. On our end, as a firm with Edward Jones, we have what’s called the financial fitness program, and it’s free to everyone. It’s very concise, very tailored.”

“A retirement plan is a living, breathing thing. It needs to be reviewed, and it needs to be adjusted ...”

“I’ve seen clients that went from having health insurance through an employer where they paid part of it to having to buy it on their own and pay $1,000, $1,200 a month for health insurance,” Partridge said. “That changes everything in your retirement plan because it becomes your No. 1 expense.”

Many of these mistakes can be simple to avoid but are all too common due to a severe lack of financial literacy and education across much of the American population.

“[Poor financial literacy] is far more common than I ever expected, but it is not the fault of an individual,” Gadberry said. “I believe there needs to be a dedicated focus on financial literacy and exposure to financial planning as part of a student’s high school curriculum. I have interacted with too many young adults that have missed this part of their education. As part of the Personal Finance and Job Readiness Act, the Arkansas Department of Education is directed to develop personal and family finance standards that can be incorporated into existing courses. This was a positive step, but I believe there is more work to be done.”

As beneficial as improved financial education programs in school might be, they would be too late to assist those who are already struggling with a lack of financial literacy. Luckily, there are still options for adults who have long since graduated.

On a personal front, Comstock recommended seeking out

All this is not to suggest that retirement has suddenly become an impossibility. Personal mistakes and economic factors can be setbacks, but with a solid plan, they can be overcome, and perhaps no one is better suited to helping create such a plan than a financial advisor.

“We start by clarifying the client’s goals,” Comstock said. “How much risk are they willing or able to take and what’s their time horizon? We make sure their expectations for a return on their money are both realistic and sufficient to give them the best chance at a comfortable retirement. We meet regularly to keep track of the progress the client is making toward their goals and identify if any changes in the strategy are needed.”

“A retirement plan is a living, breathing thing,” Partridge said. “It needs to be monitored, it needs to be reviewed, and it needs to be adjusted based on market conditions, economic conditions, life events. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it thing. My retirement plan when I was 25 was very different from my retirement plan today at 56. I think people need to talk to an expert in the field who can review where they are, review their goals and make certain that they’re on track, and if they’re not on track, how do we get there? I always use this as an example: Tiger Woods had a golf swing coach. Jack Nicklaus had a golf swing coach. It had nothing to do with intellect, success, acumen or ability. There are just some decisions in our lives where it helps to have counsel.”

To make the most of that counsel, there needs to be a relationship between financial advisor and client where both can speak candidly to get to the root of the situation. As such, Pollard recommended interviewing multiple financial advisors to ensure such a personal relationship is the right fit.




The financial world is full of uncertainty currently headlined by conflicts around the globe, a looming presidential election and the muted threat of a viral resurgence. Any one of these events can have a profound impact on the economic wellness of the state of Arkansas and its citizens. Arkansas Money & Politics reached out to experts for predictions of what might happen in the case of four unique scenarios.



In economic parlance, the state’s low unemployment is the very definition of too much of a good thing. On the one hand, being able to provide the vast majority of the workforce with gainful employment is a marker of prosperity. Over time, however, extremely low unemployment can cripple economic advancement as resident industry finds it hard to expand, building projects take longer and cost more, and outside companies show reluctance to relocate where they cannot staff their enterprise.

Arkansas is approaching a decade of such unprecedented low unemployment. In mid-2000, Arkansas reached four-percent unemployment for the first time on record, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures tracked by the Federal Reserve. It would be 16 years before the state hit that mark again, but the decade to follow would obliterate that number.

Slipping below four percent in September 2016, the unemployment rate has not risen above 3.8 percent since, not counting the COVID-19 pandemic year of 2020. In April of last year, Arkansas’ unemployment broke the three-percent barrier, bottoming out at an astonishing 2.6 percent last summer. The state finished the year at 3.4 percent.

Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said sustained unemployment at such low rates has already shown the lengths to which companies are forced to go to attract labor, and continued extremely low unemployment is likely to bring more of the same.

“You can’t hire people for minimum wage anymore in most of Arkansas,” he said. “Try to hire somebody

Randy Zook

for $11 an hour in Fort Smith or in Fayetteville or Jonesboro or Little Rock or even Pine Bluff. You’ve got to pay more. That’s what it takes.”

Basic economics says companies having to pay more for help makes things more expensive for everybody, but Zook also sees a silver lining emerging. He said higher wages, combined with quality of life and a still relatively low cost of living has started to move both Arkansas’ population and workforce needles in a meaningful way.

“We had over 18,000 people who moved into the state last year,” he said. “That’s a pretty incredible rate. It’s nowhere near what Texas had, but we’re still catching some of the splash off from Texas.

“Another thing is labor force participation, which is about 62 or 63 percent nationally. We’re below that in Arkansas. We have about 50,000 to 60,000 people in the prime working ages of their lives who are sitting on the sideline. As this goes along and these attractive job conditions persist, that’s improving. People are getting off the sideline and taking jobs because pay rates are incredibly attractive.”

Such migration will be key, Zook said, to meeting what he sees as boom times on the horizon for Arkansas’ business community.

“The steel industry, we need 1,500 people up there in northeast Arkansas over the next 12 months to fill the new jobs opening up. That’s a big deal,” he said. “You’ve got the same kind of demand down at the defense complex in south Arkansas.

“As we reshore parts of supply chains because of what we learned during the pandemic, that’s driving demand in other industries, as well. You’re also seeing money and capital come back to the U.S., and lots of it is reshoring. This is creating another level of demand that best be met by folks that are underemployed and trainable or unemployed and just on the sideline right now.”


“We had over 18,000 people who moved into the state last year.
That’s a pretty incredible rate.”

March 2020 will forever be remembered as COVID-19’s arrival in Arkansas, bringing the Natural State into a pandemic already entered into by the majority of the world. Almost overnight, every aspect of life was paused, eliminated or altered, from gathering in worship and dining out to the ability to operate a business and myriad debates over personal protective equipment, vaccines and other personal freedoms long taken for granted.

According to USAFacts, Arkansas has reported about 978,000 cases and just more than 13,000 deaths due to COVID-19, all-time. Like virtually everywhere else, the toll on patients only tells part of the story, however. Students continue to show the impact of lost time in school, from loss of learning to increased mental health issues. Business sectors from health care to hospitality and restaurants suffered greatly, as well, and many smaller, independent businesses closed forever after being shut down by the government because of health concerns.

In the time since, variants have all made their presence felt in


America, though nothing as widespread as the first iteration of COVID-19 and nothing recently. All of that begs the question — were a similar health crisis to break out tomorrow, what would be the reaction of the public? Would business owners and workers willingly comply with government shutdowns, and if they did, what would be the economic fallout? Would people comply with mask mandates and bow to vaccinations as a condition of employment, or, having lived through it once, would health warnings and guidance about a viral pandemic fall largely flat on a skeptical public?

“I think it really it is going to depend on people’s understanding of what their risk is. What’s my risk of maybe dying from this new threat, or what’s my risk for going into the hospital, or what’s my risk of having another complication to happen,” said Dr. Michelle Krause, CEO of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock and senior vice chancellor for UAMS Health. “If it was as great of a threat as when we started in March 2020, I think people would take it seriously.”

“It’s really hard to say across the nation or even here in central Arkansas how people would respond. My hope would be people would protect themselves and follow the medical guidance.”
Dr. Michelle Krause

times on a global scale, for centuries, wreaking human suffering, death and, in some cases, the disappearance of conquered nations to the footnotes of history altogether.

Krause said what she expected to be different this go-round would be that deployment of therapies and treatments would happen more quickly thanks to processes birthed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID was new, we didn’t have any immunity, didn’t have therapies at the beginning of the pandemic to be able to treat the effects, and we didn’t have vaccines available,” she said. “Once we partnered with pharmaceutical companies, we moved on those developments very, very quickly. I think that the barriers that we had in the initial pandemic may not be as protracted if we had a new threat.”

Krause acknowledged that the prolonged restrictions experienced previously and the passage of time dulling many people’s memories of 2020 could present challenges to getting the public’s attention in the event of a new virus.

“It’s really hard to say across the nation or even here in central Arkansas how people would respond,” she said. “One would hope that if there was a next go-round, it won’t take so long to get really good therapies or vaccinations or other things that would protect people, and then we would do everything we could to inform them and convince them. My hope would be people would protect themselves and follow the medical guidance.”


Of all the wild cards to disrupt otherwise stable political and economic environments, armed conflict is often the most unpredictable. Nations have been at war with one another, at

While not on the scale of human suffering, economies are also often the victims of war — post-World War I Germany, for example, sowing the seeds for World War II — but the effect is not always detrimental. In a perverse way, war can also resuscitate economies like it did in the United States during World War II, when defense industry manufacturing pulled America out of the remnants of the Great Depression and laid the groundwork for America as a manufacturing and economic power following the end of hostilities.

Another upshot of past wars has been the various alliances that have been formed, virtually guaranteeing that a battle anywhere on the planet would have far-reaching implications. Such has been the case with two major conflicts, the war between Ukraine and Russia and fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip.

Both wars have serious implications for the United States; Ukraine is seen as a buttress against the encroachment of Russia in an effort to reclaim the power and territory of its days as the USSR. The U.S. has also been a staunch supporter of Israel since the Jewish homeland state was formed in 1948. However, the response to these latest conflicts has been dissimilar.

The Biden administration has sent tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine to help, and while the U.S. is also honoring its agreement to support the Israeli military,

“Houthi rebels are firing upon shipping in the Red Sea. Ships are starting to avoid going through that passage because it’s so dangerous.”

the president’s rhetoric has been sharply different in tone. Biden has admonished Israel’s offensive tactics and pushed the two-state solution, which opponents say does little more than legitimize terrorist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Daniel Edquist-Whelan, chair of the department of politics at Hendrix College in Conway, said unrest in the Middle East is already having an economic impact on a global scale, a situation likely to get worse before it gets better.

“Houthi rebels are firing upon shipping in the Red Sea,” he said. “Ships are starting to avoid going through that passage because it’s so dangerous. I saw a graph the other day showing commercial vessels are starting to make that trek around the horn of Africa, adding days to the voyage.

“Significant trade between Europe and Asia and Africa goes through the Suez Canal, and when that gets interrupted, it adds significant cost to shipping and insurance. This is going to go on as long as the conflict goes on.”

Edquist-Whelan said in Eastern Europe, both sides appear to have developed work-arounds for the economic issues imposed earlier in the war. Russia has weathered sanctions applied from around the world and appears poised for the long haul, while Ukraine has developed ways to export grain to augment the tidal wave of aid it receives, primarily from the U.S.

“What the end game is, that’s a big question mark,” Edquist-Whelan said. “At present, it’s a stalemate that’s in favor of the Russians. I don’t think anyone sees Russia trying to do what it did two years ago, which is take the whole country. If most of Ukraine

can survive, it will be integrated into the west, integrated into NATO, integrated into the European Union some years down the line.”

Edquist-Whelan said presently direct substantial impact at home in the U.S. from either conflict is unlikely, save for one thing flying largely under the radar. Not unlike the 1940s, the American defense industry could benefit greatly from the aid being awarded and the munitions being expended in these conflicts. This includes Arkansas, where the defense industry plays a major role in the state’s economy.

“The lion’s share of [aid] money is going to be spent in the U.S.,” he said. “Part of the proposed aid package before Congress and the packages that preceded it from the U.S. to Ukraine goes to weapons, munitions and big-ticket items like F-16s and tanks. Therefore, most of the money is going to military equipment manufacturers.”


The U.S. presidential ballot is all but officially set with a rematch between former President Donald Trump and sitting President Joe Biden.

After stunning the political establishment in 2016, Trump embarked on a contentious four years in office that continuously saw him at odds with Congress and the mainstream media. Among his wins, per Business Insider, are reshaping the federal judiciary by appointing three seats on the U.S. Supreme Court and 226 judges on the federal bench; the establishment of Space Force; sweeping changes to the tax code; and reforms to the criminal justice system.

Joseph Wood, chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said should Trump win, two priorities are likely to emerge immediately.

“The most pressing thing, in my opinion and I think for most Americans, even in some Democratic areas, is border focus,” Wood said. “It’s just dominating everything. I’m an old Chicago guy; I’m seeing what’s happening in Chicago. I’m hearing from my family who are there who are living with this. I think should [Trump] go in, the very first thing is looking at some of the policies he had in place.

“Second, some of tax reductions he put in place expire in 2025, so I imagine he’ll be pushing to make those become permanent or at least extended so people can at least continue to plan and know what their taxes will look like.”

Trump’s shortcomings while in office include failure to deliver on promises to build a wall on the U.S. southern border and failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act despite Republicans controlling both houses of Congress for two of his four years in office, along with what many see as a lack of sound leadership during the onset of the pandemic. Since leaving of-

Daniel Edquist-Whelan

fice, he has been embroiled in multiple court cases, the impact of which on the upcoming election remains to be seen.

“What we’re looking at is an individual who has said I’m going to deregulate every aspect of American life that I possibly can and just see how it rolls,” said Grant Tennille, chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. “If things like the Project 2025 deal that he has signed on to are true, he’ll look to reduce the size of the federal government, which would put thousands and thousands of Americans on unemployment fairly quickly. What will happen as a result of that to the economy there’s no way of knowing, but my own personal prediction is it won’t be great.”

“The most pressing thing, in my opinion and I think for most Americans, even in some Democratic areas, is border focus.”

President Biden’s accomplishments, per the Washington Post, include successfully rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine, appointing the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, strengthened relationships with NATO, and passing legislation concerning COVID-19 relief, infrastructure spending, climate change, manufacturing and prescription drug prices.

“Biden’s been fairly consistent the whole time, telling us what he wanted to do and then doing it,” Tennille said. “Unemployment is at its lowest level in umpteen years. The economy, by traditional measures, appears to be humming along.

“I think one of the things that we’ve seen Biden do, and it’s the first time we’ve seen it from a Democratic president in many years, certainly to this level, is he has embraced the labor movement. I think everybody working, especially in households where you have two people working to try and keep four or five

Grant Tennille

people covered, knows how hard that is. [Biden] is beginning to talk about the fact that the flat wages that American workers have been living with for nearly 20 years have made it nearly impossible to exist.”

The president’s missteps — including a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, emboldened U.S. enemies around the world, high inflation and consumer prices at home, and the southern border crisis — have driven one historically low approval rating after another. That and questions of his age and capacity to handle the most pressure-packed job on earth have begun to lead even left-leaning media and those within his own party to openly question his ability to win and complete a second term.

“Unemployment is at its lowest level in umpteen years. The economy, by traditional measures, appears to be humming along.”

“If there is a Biden victory, you still have some of the gridlock in Washington because I don’t think [Democrats] get the House, and if they do, it will be by a very narrow margin,” Wood said. “When you start talking about inflation and the economy, yes, there is some movement in the stock market, and that’s great on one end. On the other end, what am I bringing home? Am I able to buy more, do more than I was able to four years prior under the Trump administration?

“Right now, I still don’t think when people go to the grocery store that they think they’re getting a bigger bang for their dollar, and that goes for gas or buying a home or whatever. I think it will be more of what we’re already having right now if there’s a reelection of President Biden.”

Joseph Wood


When it comes to health, being the boss ain’t all it’s cracked up to be

When asked how he has maintained balance in his career between his professional life and his personal life, Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber tried unsuccessfully to stifle his amusement.

“I’m laughing because you just outlined the one negative issue that’s been a part of every CEO review process I’ve been through since I’ve been in this role,” Chesshir said. “I’ve always said: I used to pride myself, early on in my career and midway through my career, in that I would say, ‘I’ve got X amount of vacation, and I never use it all.’ I used to use it as a badge of honor.”

Having been in the CEO role since 2006, he has had plenty of time to come to terms with the demands of the corner office, and he is quick to relate that for as much as things have changed in the workplace, some things remain the same.

“In many instances, [C-suite] positions are 24/7. Some folks say that, but a lot of folks recognize that it just is that,” he said. “You’re always on. You’re always on call. You’re always within touch from a technology standpoint. Unfortunately, the eight-to-five-type scenario just doesn’t exist in certain levels of management, and it’s not just at the CEO level.”

If the COVID-19 pandemic taught the business world anything, it is that a new era has dawned when it comes to workplace stress and how little tolerance the modern worker has for working in an environment that compromises their work-life balance.

According to a 2022 Deloitte Insights article, more than one in three workers reported problems with their physical well-being, and more than 40 percent were struggling with mental health. Worse, C-suite executives seemed out of touch with the scope of these issues since leadership in the study placed those same categorial numbers to be closer to 11 per-

Jay Chesshir

cent and 16 percent, respectively. The article called for better empathy by C-suite employers in recognizing issues in their workforce.

While no one would argue that the highest-placed leadership bears a good share of the responsibility for creating such an environment, the demands of doing so are having an increasingly negative effect on the C-suiters themselves. A recent survey by Deloitte revealed some startling data, beginning with 70 percent of the C-suite queried in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia are seriously considering quitting.

The stated reasons for that are simple: Deloitte’s study revealed one in three executives is chronically fatigued and most have difficulty finding the time for non-work activities — 65 percent struggling to make family time, 68 percent failing to get enough sleep, 74 percent not finding time to exercise and 76 percent finding it difficult to start or stop working at reasonable times.

More subtle are the unstated reasons for an increasing number C-suiters leaving their jobs over burnout issues — 650 CEOs in 2022 alone, Forbes states. Morgan Samuels Co. posted in a recent blog that as the face of the company and the leader of its employees, many C-suite executives feel the pressure to be bulletproof, possessed of all the right answers and constantly successful to justify their lofty position on the corporate organizational chart. That could explain why until recently, most articles on workplace burnout focused on the worker, but a study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence found C-suite executives actually struggled with mental health issues at a rate 10 percent higher than rankand-file employees.

Chesshir, 60, said many people his age formulated their work habits in a much different era than from millennials on down.

“I do come from an era where your family issues were for family time. Work was for work,” he said. “It wasn’t to talk about your kid’s third grade recital or to attend an event at two in the afternoon because that’s when they were having the student assembly.

“I regret being in a situation where sometimes people wondered if I actually had a family because they never saw them. I was always on call. I was always present for work while my wife, who is a saint, was the one doing the hardest work because she was at home raising the family because I wasn’t there. That bothers me still to this day.”

The demands of C-suite jobs are such that few executives actually get used to the hours and expectations, experts say, most just compartmentalize as best they can.

“I think you’re wired for it or you’re not,” said Christina Littlejohn, CEO of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. “I had a mentor that once summed it up this way. He said, ‘The CEO’s job is you’re the one that’s held accountable for the success or failure of the orchestra.’ As CEO, I work with the board. I

work with the staff. I think one of my biggest jobs is looking forward and setting the direction for the organization and keeping us moving in the right direction. I need to be looking ahead to get us where we need to go.

“One of the jobs that I take very seriously is the care of the board of directors. How are they engaged? Are we utilizing their talents appropriately? Are they engaged in governance work? In order for them to do their best job in governance, the professional staff that I lead has to do our job too. We have to show up and get our work done as well as we can so that the board can focus on governance.”

Littlejohn has built a career out of the CEO role. Prior to her 14-plus years at the helm of ASO, she served in similar positions with orchestras in Pensacola, Fla., and Mobile, Ala. Over that time she’s developed coping strategies for dealing with stress and demands, starting with leveraging her team.

“A huge help is surrounding yourself with really smart, wonderful people that can carry things for you so you don’t have to carry it all alone,” she said. “That was a watershed moment for me in my career. It’s not about you; it’s just about getting the work done and how well you let other people help you.”

Old habits are hard to break, however. Even as she described her coping and delegation strategies, Littlejohn was at a loss when asked how many hours she worked in a typical week.

“A lot,” she said. “When you work for a performing arts company, there’s a lot of night and weekend work. Tonight we have a concert at the Clinton Library. We had a concert Saturday and Sunday, so I was there Saturday and Sunday. We have this great board of directors, but they’re volunteers so some of that work is not eight to five.

“The other thing is — and I love this part about my job and I’m not complaining about it at all — but when I leave the house, I represent the symphony. I am the CEO of the Arkansas Symphony when I go to the grocery store. I go to church, and most of our church members are subscribers. It’s a job where you really have to leave town when you want to go on vacation.”

In her own career, Littlejohn said the perspective granted her by time has helped her evaluate her own coping skills or lack thereof and take remedial steps accordingly.

“There have been some years, like when I first got here, that were extremely challenging,” she said. “When I first got here, it was bad. We were about to go under. We were about bankrupt. Those were some really hard years for all of us. The cool part is I’m still working a lot, but as another mentor of mine said, ‘The better you get, the better your challenges are.’

“I’ve done a much better job in the last five to seven years of exercising. I do boxing, and it’s awesome because I can just hit things and yell, and it’s totally OK. It’s a very safe space for me, and I can role model that for my team, making sure that they’re

Christina Littlejohn

taking time to take care of their body or do what they need to for stress.”

One popular way for companies to provide for the health and wellness for employees across the board is through an employee assistance program. Originally rolled out to connect employees with help dealing with substance abuse, such programs have diversified in the type of help that is available.

“In the very beginning, EAP programs were basically focused on alcohol and drug issues. They have evolved far beyond that traditional focus,” said Maggie Young, president of SWEAP Connections based in Little Rock. “Today, these programs include all types of counseling and really have become productivity programs. They cover counseling, coaching, work-life services, crisis intervention, supervisor development, training programs, consultation. We even do company surveys, in-depth department evaluations and supervisor development programs.”

going to be a ball dropped here and there, and prioritizing self-care are aspects that have to be maintained and given attention to.”

Young said a misnomer about EAP programs is that they are only affordable to very large organizations when in fact they can be scaled to any size company. This is good news for firms not only to serve the full spectrum of employees and management but in the ongoing battle to attract and retain the best help.

“These programs are actually becoming business critical,” Young said. “There was a healthy workplace study that indicated a key retention factor moving forward is going to be do you have a healthy workplace? Do you have employee support in place? Fifty percent of people have left a job for mental health reasons. When they further broke these statistics down generationally, it is 68 percent who have left for mental health reasons, and Gen Z is 81 percent.

Young agreed that the stigma related to seeking help is often higher for C-suite employees, which is why the ability to access resources through work is often a popular option for high-ranking personnel.

“The different stressors that a CEO has as opposed to office employees are the high stakes of the decisions they’re making and often the work-life balance, working after hours,” she said. “Oftentimes, particularly if they don’t have a large leadership group, there’s some isolation that they may feel. Having a relationship with an EAP and being able to reach out for consultation and for your own needs can be a huge support in finding ways to relax and prioritize self-care and set some expectations for yourself.”

As the head of a company, Young said her professional experience did not exempt her from dealing with the same pressures and stress as her colleagues in other fields felt.

“I think work-life balance is a struggle regardless of where you fall in the chain of command,” she said. “I think one aspect of coping with it is just setting realistic expectations. We’re told we can have it all, and I think that’s true; I just don’t think you can have it all at the same time. One of the things that I have to be realistic about with myself is something is not going to get my full attention. Sometimes that’s a relationship. Sometimes that’s work. Sometimes that’s my employees.

“I’ve learned how to set realistic expectations of what one person can do and then not let the same area in my life lose more than one week in a row. Being present on a consistent basis in all the places, realizing that there is

“These types of supports in the workplace are going to be a key factor in retention. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine did a study, and it reported that organizations with EAP experienced a 20 to 25 percent reduction in turnover. I think we’re going to see that number go higher.”

For his part, Chesshir has learned to lead people in different ways than he was led.

“What I have tried to encourage with my folks, and this goes back to personal experience, is recognizing the frazzled frustration or when you’re in a meeting with someone and they start to get a bit glassy-eyed, and you recognize that they’re probably not getting enough rest,” he said. “I also have learned to recognize that people deal with things differently. For some, time away is great; for others, time away sometimes makes it worse.

“What I try to do with our folks when we had a really early morning and we had a really late last night, I’ll walk in and say, ‘At 3 o’clock, we’re declaring a holiday, and everybody’s going home. Start your weekend.’ Something else I like to do when we have unexpected situations where folks are having to work hours that they don’t normally do is say, ‘We’re going to decree a half-day of paid leave time as a reward,’ and let them choose that moment in time.”

Most importantly, Chesshir has made progress on how he models healthier behaviors for his troops.

“I’m built this way, but what I have learned is I’m here for a reason, and it’s not to kill myself by being known as a workaholic,” he said. “It’s to be here to do the work with the team that I have to make a difference in others’ lives. That puts a buffer on the stress side of it because in the end it’s not about me; it’s about them. With that, I get peace.”

Maggie Young
61 ARMONEYANDPOLITICS.COM MARCH 2024 Keeping People Productive at home…at work…at life. 800-777-1797 | Supporting Arkansas businesses for over 45 years. A high-touch employee assistance program enables you to address employee problems proactively, saving time, money and energy for your leadership and management teams. Our EAP offers: • Employee Counseling and Coaching • Leadership and Management Coaching • Management Consultations • Customized Training Programs • Crisis Response Services • Organizational Consultations and Development

Johnny Allison is CEO and president of Home BancShares. As a businessman turned banker, he first began his career in the financial industry after being invited to serve on the board of his local bank and is a manufacturing magnate by trade. A few months later, Allison became chairman at that institution. Allison grew his knowledge of banking as the bank grew and merged with other banks. At the helm of one of the top performing banks in the nation, Allison uses his wealth of knowledge to help others succeed.


Dennis Anderson is chief strategy officer at ArcBest in Fort Smith. With more than 20 years of experience in logistics, he leads the company’s critical strategy management efforts, which include organic and external initiatives to create value. He and his team also focus on sharing the ArcBest story to build positive brand awareness and deep, trusted relationships with external stakeholders. Anderson was named CSO in 2023, after serving as chief customer officer since 2020, chief customer experience officer from 2017 to 2020 and vice president of strategy from 2014 to 2016. Prior to that, he served as director of strategic planning and held positions as pricing manager and pricing analyst at ABF Freight. He joined the company in 2003, after beginning his career at Walmart Logistics. He has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Tempus Realty Partners

Dan Andrews is the CEO and managing partner of Tempus Realty Partners in Little Rock and has been with Tempus since its founding in 2016. Andrews has also served as portfolio manager and investment committee member at Promus Realty Partners and CEO at CapRocq Core Real Estate Fund I and CapRocq Core II. He has managed portfolios that total nearly $2 billion in property value and represent more than $750 million in investor capital. Prior to Tempus, Andrews served as CEO at Dale Capital Partners in Little Rock and had direct oversight of a broad investment portfolio with a concentration in commercial real estate. He also serves as lead independent director for Greenwoods Financial Group. Andrews previously served as vice president at USA Drug, the fourth-largest drugstore chain in the U.S., where he was responsible for the company’s finance, account and reporting functions, as well as leading initiatives in loss prevention, marketing and acquisitions. He was an assurance professional at Deloitte prior to his tenure at USA Drug.

Curtis Barnett CEO and President

Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield

Curtis Barnett serves as CEO and president of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Little Rock, which serves nearly 2 million members nationwide. As president and CEO, Barnett leads Arkansas Blue Cross’ efforts to help transform health care by striving to make it a more affordable and compassionate system. He has a distinct passion for improving awareness, access and outcomes in behavioral health and has spoken locally and nationally on such subjects as the importance of changing how health care services are reimbursed, the role of health plans in addressing the social determinants of health and the need for a whole-person approach to health care. Prior to his election as president and CEO in 2017, Barnett served as senior vice president of internal operations for Arkansas Blue Cross and as president and CEO of its wholly owned subsidiary company, USAble Life.

Matt Beasley CFO ArcBest

Matt Beasley is the chief financial officer at ArcBest in Fort Smith. Bringing more than two decades of public company finance experience to his role, Beasley shapes ArcBest’s financial strategy to align with longterm company objectives. Under his leadership, the ArcBest finance team is committed to financial excellence, including building on the company’s robust financial position while navigating the path towards sustainable growth. Since joining the company in 2022, Beasley has worked closely with the leadership team to achieve important milestones, including improving financing terms to reflect the company’s strong credit profile. Prior to joining ArcBest, Beasley spent nearly 15 years at Enable Midstream Partners, a large, publicly traded energy infrastructure company headquartered in Oklahoma City. He has a bachelor’s degree in finance and management information systems from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and a Master of Business Administration in entrepreneurship from St. Edward’s University in Austin. Additionally, Beasley is a CFA charterholder — one of the highest distinctions in the investment management profession.

Courtney Bishop CEO

Pinnacle Pointe Behavioral Healthcare System

Courtney Bishop is CEO of Pinnacle Pointe Behavioral Healthcare System, which includes Pinnacle Pointe Hospital in Little Rock. She has served in this role since September. She previously served as chief operating officer for Pinnacle Pointe. Bishop joined the health care system in 2017 and was named to Arkansas Money & Politics’ C-Suite list in 2023. Pinnacle Pointe offers a full continuum of psychiatric services to children and teens ages 5 to 17 who are suffering from emotional and behavioral issues, including depression, anxiety, mood swings, grief or loss, attempts to harm self or others and other high-risk behaviors.

Johnny Allison CEO and President
63 ARMONEYANDPOLITICS.COM MARCH 2024 He remembers their families, their stories… because he cares. No matter how busy his schedule may be, Curtis finds time to take good care of Arkansas. 01182.01.01-0324 Arkansas Capital partners with commercial banks, small businesses, and others from the private and public sectors to create and preserve employment opportunities and stimulate economic development in Arkansas and its bordering states. Since its creation, Arkansas Capital and its partners have deployed more than $2.34 billion to small businesses and economic development projects. Congratulations to ACC's CEO Sam Walls III on being named to Arkansas Money & Politics' 2024 C-Suite! Sam Walls III speaking at the Arkansas Governor’s Cup in the Spring of 2023.

Tammie Neal

Hard Work Pays Off

Sarah Coleman // Photo provided

For Tammie Neal, chief human resources officer at Signature Bank of Arkansas in Fayetteville, being successful in any role boils down to one thing: hard work.

Neal, who celebrated 19 years at the bank in December, has a background in farming, and she graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. Prior to joining Signature Bank, she worked for the University of Arkansas in secretarial and administrative assistant positions. In her time with the bank, Neal has served in several positions, including as executive vice president of human resources and executive services.

Though she has learned many lessons both in and outside of HR, she said the most important lesson she learned was how to be a hard worker.

“I was raised by my parents to be a hard worker. I learned that if you work hard, you will be successful. I was also taught to find something you love to do and something that makes you happy,” Neal said.

when employees have things to take care of outside of the job they have. When an employee needs to take leave, we jump in and help take care of the duties they have,” Neal said. “We have several people that have been here for as long as I have, and I think a major reason for that is because of the way we take care of each other.”

Neal said CEO Gary Head often tells new employees that Signature Bank only has one rule: We get along, or we get along.

“We are all a team together, and we all work together. We also make our environment a fun place to work. We do not want our employees to dread coming to work,” Neal said.

“For me, being a CHRO is about helping people and seeing people grow in their careers with us.”

In her professional life, Neal has been able to build a career based on serving employees, which she looks forward to doing every day.

“For me, being a CHRO is about helping people and seeing people grow in their careers with us. We have had several people come into the bank in the teller line and watch them work their way up. About four of our folks that came in and started primarily at the bottom are now in our C-suite,” Neal said. “Seeing people grow and work in various positions throughout the years and learn all about banking is rewarding.”

While watching individuals succeed in their career is a big part of what Neal loves about working for Signature Bank, a close second is the work environment.

“We truly are a family around here. We take care of each other, we look out for each other, and we understand

Though the CHRO role entails many duties, from employee benefits to raises and payroll, Neal rarely has a typical day in the office. Neal encouraged employees to get to know their HR departments because HR professionals are meant to serve as an open door for employees.

“There really aren’t any typical days. There are so many things that my team and I do throughout the week. Sometimes it is answering questions about benefits or retirement plans, and sometimes it is counseling an employee,” Neal said. “This past Friday, it was all about passing out goodies to all of our offices to celebrate Employee Appreciation Day.”

Job duties in human resources careers are vast, and because of this, there are a lot of necessary skills HR professionals should possess. Neal said the biggest soft skill boils down to having empathy for others.

“You have to be able to sit back and see where that person is coming from. If they are asking you for a raise or if they need additional time off, you just need to be able to connect with others,” Neal said. “Having a good judge of character and having patience are two other soft skills that are helpful.”


Beau Blair COO and President

McLarty Diversified Holdings

Beau Blair is the chief operating officer and president at McLarty Diversified Holdings. Blair is a founding general partner of McLarty Capital Partners’ Small Business Fund 1 and served on the investment committee. He was a co-founder and director of GDV Imports Mexico. He is also a co-founder of CapRocq. Previously, he served as executive director of global investment banking at J.P. Morgan in New York, where he worked on mergers and acquisitions, debt and equity financings. He began his professional career as an investment banker at Stephens in Little Rock. He is a past chairman of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences board of advisors, a director and executive committee member of the University of Arkansas Foundation Board, a trustee at Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, and a trustee of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tennessee and an Master of Business Administration from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.

Charley Boyce CEO

Paschal Air, Plumbing & Electric

Charley Boyce, CEO of Paschal Air, Plumbing & Electric, has been the driving force behind the company’s remarkable growth over the past decade. After earning a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business and a notable tenure as team captain and four-year letterman for the Razorback baseball team, Boyce began his career as general manager for an HVAC distributor before joining Paschal in 2010. Since acquiring Paschal in 2012, Boyce has propelled the company through exponential growth by expanding from one location with 25 employees to eight locations with 350 employees across 3 states. Boyce’s people-first, servant-leadership style coupled with his unwavering commitment to long-term growth has solidified Paschal’s position as a prominent player in the home services sector.

Buckley Bridges COO

WACO Title Co.

Buckley Bridges is the chief operating officer at WACO Title Co., which is headquartered in Springdale. He is originally from Jonesboro and earned an English degree from Lyon College in Batesville in 2005. After helping his wife, Emily, study for her law school exams in property law, he decided to attend the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. After a few years of litigation, primarily in insurance and personal injury defense, he transitioned into the title insurance and closing industry. He joined WACO Title Co. in 2015 in the commercial division. Today, as COO, he supports associates across a four-state region who facilitate more than 20,000 title insurance and closing transactions annually in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. In 2017, Bridges was named Arkansas’ Young Title Person of the Year, and in 2019, he was named one of the year’s Forty Under 40 by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

Aaron Burkes CEO

Northwest Arkansas National Airport

Aaron Burkes joined the Northwest Arkansas National Airport in 2018 as CEO. During his tenure, XNA has added two new airlines and eight new direct destinations, added new amenities, and expanded and renovated numerous facilities. He currently serves as a member of the Transportation Industry Council for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and serves on the board for Arvest Bank of Benton County. He previously served as president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. Prior to joining state government, Burkes held senior leadership roles in college administration, regional planning, finance and real estate development. He is also a former elected state representative to the Arkansas General Assembly. He has a Bachelor of Science in natural science from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, a Master of Art in economics from Clemson University in South Carolina and a juris doctor from Baylor University School of Law in Texas. He is a licensed attorney and licensed contractor.

Paul Byrd CEO

Paul Byrd Law Firm

Paul Byrd has represented deserving injury victims for 30 years. After serving as a clerk for a trial court, Byrd went into private practice in 1988. Byrd’s practice has focused on civil litigation with an emphasis on representing consumers in product liability actions and personal injury cases. He is a past chair of the American Association for Justice Products Liability Section and on the board of governors of AAJ. He has spoken on how to talk to conservatives all over the United States and has a current video on the topic published by Trial Guides. Byrd has represented farmers in agricultural litigation regarding genetically modified crop contamination that had global, as well as national and local implications. He works on product-failure cases, tractortrailer truck crashes, industrial injuries and automobile crashes. He is a past president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association. In 2012, Byrd was a co-recipient of the Outstanding Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association.

Kristi Casey CEO

Rock Dental Brands

Kristi Casey, CEO of Rock Dental Brands, oversees 850 employees and 109 dental clinics in five states. Since 2019, she has expanded the company into three additional states, nearly tripling revenue while maintaining high patient satisfaction. Previously, Casey spent 17 years at Verizon, where she held executive positions that included president of the south central region. She is known for operational excellence and growth strategies. Rock Dental Brands offers centralized management for clinics, focusing on patient care under brands like Westrock Orthodontics and Leap Kids Dental. Based in Little Rock, the company serves more than 175,000 patients annually. Casey, a North Little Rock native, has a bachelor’s in biology from Hendrix College and is a mother of twin boys.


Congratulations, Dennis Anderson and Matt Beasley, for being named 2024 C-Suite Executives

Your dedication to our core values, exceptional leadership and unwavering focus on growth have been instrumental to our success and have made ArcBest an even better place to work and do business — for our employees, customers and stakeholders. Thank you for your commitment to excellence, working towards our mission of connecting and positively impacting the world through solving logistics challenges.

ArcBest ® is a multibillion-dollar integrated logistics company that leverages our full suite of solutions to meet our customers’ supply chain needs. Using our technology, expertise and power of scale, we connect shippers with the solutions they need — from ground, air and ocean transportation to fully managed supply chains — serving as a single logistics resource. We have a long history of innovation that is enriched by deep customer relationships. With a commitment to helping customers navigate supply chain challenges now and in the future, we’re developing ground-breaking technology like Vaux™, one of TIME’s Best Inventions of 2023.

© 2023 TIME USA LLC. All rights reserved. Used under license.

Lenore Trammell

Iron Sharpens Iron

Lenore Trammell was just 4 years old when she took her first dance class, an experience that taught her how to be comfortable in the spotlight. Little did anyone know how important that skill would be during her future career as chief administrative, chief compliance officer and general counsel for Big River Steel in Osceola.

“Dance did give me a comfortability with being in front of people, it got me very comfortable being on stage,” she said. “In my position recently, we had a meeting with the Arkansas Department of Transportation to talk about traffic congestion. I sat down, and we started talking, and I thought, ‘I can’t believe that I am sitting here, running this meeting with all of these people here.’ Then I was like, ‘Yeah, I kind of can,’ because now my stage is a boardroom.”

Trammell has not only spent the majority of her life in front of people, but often under the social spotlight of being the youngest in the room, the only woman, the only person of color or some combination of the three. Yet rather than be cowed by this reality, she used these surface differences to blaze a trail or find her voice.

“I’ve always appreciated the fact that being different doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Different is just different,” she said. “What you really want is for people to just see you as someone who is capable of doing the work that they need done regardless of what you look like or anything else.

“Have I dealt with people who are racist? Of course I have. There are jerks everywhere, but I would tell you that my experience, by and large, has been very positive in terms of my ability to both interact with and really engage with people of all races, all backgrounds. People are people and at the end of the day they just want to be people.”

Trammell learned these lessons while growing up in

suburban Detroit, where she attended schools that were predominantly white all the way through high school. She said race was not a major issue during her upbringing, in fact, the ability to not only get along with but lead people different from her was great training for the adult world.

“I can vividly remember when I was in grade school and we were riding a bus — and this was in Michigan,” she said. “We rode through a neighborhood, and there were kids on the street who could see me, and they were yelling racial epithets at me. I remember the other students on the bus covering me up to make sure that I was OK. I mean, this is elementary school. It wasn’t, like, high school. These are just kids who were like, ‘Wait a minute. They’re picking on my friend.’ They stood up for me.

“I had a really great group of friends that were both African American and white. I’ve got a girlfriend who works with us now at Big River. She’s white, and we’ve been friends since we were 14 years old. One of our other good girlfriends grew up in a rural area of Michigan. When we went to high school together, it was an all-girls Catholic high school, and you’d get people from anywhere on the east side of Michigan’s metro area. I remember her telling me that I was her first Black friend because she’d grown up in this very rural area, and it kind of helped shape what she and her family thought about people who didn’t look like that. I was glad that I was able to do that in a really positive way.”

Trammell graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., with the intention of entering law school. Hesitant to go into the kind of debt it would take to attend full time, she took a year off and worked a sales job with Rouge Steel in Michigan.

Months later, when she informed her bosses she was


leaving to attend law school, the company offered to pay for her education in order to keep her on payroll. She accepted and worked during the day and attended law school at Wayne State University in Detroit at night. By the time she earned her law degree, the seed for her career path had taken root.

“Even though I grew up in Detroit and I knew we had a deep history in manufacturing, I never really looked at manufacturing as something that was for me. I was going to go be an attorney. I wasn’t going to be assembling cars,” she said. “There’s so much more to the manufacturing industry than just being on the floor, actually doing the work. That really opened my eyes to what you can do with a law degree.

“I knew I didn’t want to litigate. That was clear not because I was afraid to speak in front of people, but because I’ve got a very strong sense of right and wrong, and I don’t know that I could have defended people that I thought were guilty. Having had the opportunity to work in the steel industry, it literally got into my blood. I love everything about what we do. I love that we take things and turn them into different things. I love the different applications of steel. I am a steel girl.”

Trammell may have been surprised at the turn her career plans had taken at the time, but that was nothing compared to what lay ahead. Steel industry maverick, the late John Correnti, was undertaking the audacious task of building a mill in northeast Arkansas, a project that captured Trammell’s imagination.

“John Correnti was a legend in the steel industry, and the opportunity to get to work for him was a hard opportunity to pass up,” she said. “I’d never done a startup before, and it was the right time in the life of my family for a change, so the stars had really kind of aligned in the life of our family that if we were going to make a move, now is not the worst time to do it.”

So smitten was she by the forthcoming Big River Steel plant that Trammell accepted the job without so much as a site visit to Arkansas, a state she had never previously seen. Her first day on the ground revealed she had joined a venture that was little more than markings on a Mississippi County soybean field.

Many self-described “city girls” might have beaten a path back to Detroit, but Trammell is not one to back down from a challenge, as she had demonstrated throughout her career to that point. She likes to tell the story of one of her high school teachers, who told her she would never achieve an A in her economics class; not only did Trammell earn an A, but she would go on to major in economics in college.

Today, she draws upon such stories in mentoring other young people looking to climb the corporate ladder the way she has.

“I think the biggest thing is take the risk,” she said. “I am not a risk taker by nature, and you wouldn’t know that by the

fact that I literally moved to Osceola, Ark., and had never been down here before I flew down to start the project. You have to take the risk because life is short and you will miss every opportunity that you don’t take.

“I also say be prepared. Be more than prepared. Don’t use your minority status or your being the only as an excuse; use it as a launch pad to prove that you are as good as or better than the person sitting next to you, not in a comparison way, but just in a validation way. You are capable. You just need to show up. I think it’s just really important for people to realize that just because everybody


you’re any less capable. You just need to give it your best and just do it.”

The Big River Steel plant not only got built but was an early tentpole for an industrial revolution in northeast Arkansas that has yet to show signs of slowing down. Now home to multiple multinational companies that have poured billions of dollars into the latest, most technologically-advanced mills on the planet, the state’s steel industry directly employs thousands and has spawned hundreds of related vendors and supply companies in the region.

Along the way of her career, Trammell has sought ways to develop as a leader to better handle the challenges of today and mitigate the uncertainties of tomorrow.

“A couple years ago, I took a training class that was a leadership program, and it kind of focused on your personality type,” she said. “My work team at the time was all male. We did have one Asian, but everybody else was white male. I noticed when we’d have discussions, I would be the only one that would have this particular opinion. At the time, I kind of felt like they’re just not listening to me because I’m a woman.

“When I took this class and had to assess what my core personality values were, I realized my values were different from [my workgroup]. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was the only woman in the room; it had to do with the fact that I cared about people and process and they cared about performance. I have had to change my conversation so that my conversation was more focused on what their values were and less on what mine were. Then I was able to be more effective.”

of people with the same title that you have, but they may not do the same job that you do, so understand that what you do is uniquely important, and keep doing that, and keep showing up. Don’t let your insecurities get the better of you.”

As one who was on hand to lay the first brick of Big River Steel, Trammell said even she had to struggle with her corporate identity when the sale went through. She attacked those insecurities from her customary posture of head-on.

“When we got acquired by U.S. Steel, I’m like, their general counsel has 30 attorneys. If he wanted another attorney, he would have hired one. He doesn’t need me,” she said. “We had to have a very frank conversation where I’m like, ‘Dude, you don’t need to stroke my ego. If you don’t need me, you can let me go. I’m going to be fine,’ and he’s like, ‘No, if you want to stay, we want you here. Unless you want to leave, you don’t have to leave.’

“Hopefully, I’m opening doors for other young women to come and join the steel industry and not shy away from it based on what they’ve heard and read about steel.”

Big River Steel was eventually purchased by the legendary U.S. Steel, a transition process that continues today and a development which exercised Trammell’s skills in leading through change.

“One of the most important things that I’ve found when leading through change is it’s going to be uncomfortable, but you can’t allow it to cause you to question your worth or how important you are to the organization, both the new organization and the old one,” she said.

“I think sometimes, especially when you get absorbed into a larger company, you’re worried that they’ve got X number of people that do the same job. Well, they might have X number

“That’s why I think it’s important to keep doing what it is that you do and keep doing it at your best. Don’t worry about comparing yourself to the people that are at the existing company. If someone wants you to do something different, they will tell you. Otherwise, you keep running the course, keep doing what you do, keep making the decisions for the company. Just keep doing it.”

At 50, Trammell still loves the steel industry as much as ever and can look at her job and her career as having paved the way for others to follow. She regards her time as the “only” in the room all those years less for the difficulty it presented then, but for how it has made things easier for others now.

“If I had it to do all over again, I’d absolutely do it because I learned a lot,” she said. “It can’t be emphasized enough how much an organization learns and benefits from seeing people who are not what they typically see performing and working in the team environment. I think that the work that I do within the organization and within the community at large gives a positive view of what it’s like to work with people that are like me that they may not have had before.

“Hopefully, I’m opening doors for other young women to come and join the steel industry and not shy away from it based on what they’ve heard and read about steel. I hope I’ve helped change the way people think about and view this industry.”

BYRD 415 N. McKinley St., Suite 210 | Little Rock 501.420.3050 |

Larry Casey CIO and Senior Vice President

First Arkansas Bank & Trust

Larry Casey is chief information officer and senior vice president at First Arkansas Bank & Trust, a $1 billion bank headquartered in Jacksonville and celebrating its 75th year of outstanding service to its customers. With 21 locations in central and north central Arkansas, as well as a credit card division based in the Atlanta metro area, FAB&T provides bestin-class online, mobile and, more importantly, personalized service to its banking customers, as well as providing a credit card program for 200-plus community banks across the nation. Casey has more than 40 years of technical and management experience with high-profile companies that include Systematics, Alltel Information Services, Alltel Communications, Acxiom, Winrock International, and First Arkansas Bank & Trust.

Shana Chaplin CPO

Winthrop Rockefeller Institute

As chief program officer, Shana Chaplin develops and leads impactful programs and education services that fulfill the strategic vision of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute in Morrilton. The institute team believes valuing diversity of opinion, practicing collaborative problem solving and engaging in respectful dialogue combine to create transformational change using the Rockefeller Ethic. Chaplin will lead the launch of Civic Arkansas, a timely initiative to amply civic engagement. Chaplin served most recently as director of Engage Arkansas in Little Rock, where she led the office through simultaneous federal and state transformation, launched the first statewide volunteer portal, and almost tripled the award of grant funds. She served as the co-founder and director of the Arkansas State Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, is an elected member of the Pulaski County Special School District Board and serves on the Refuge Village Board. She is an alumnus of Leadership AR Class XIV and patron member of the Policy Circle.

Jay Chesshir CEO and President Little Rock Regional Chamber

Jay Chesshir, CEO and president, of the Little Rock Regional Chamber, is well-known for his involvement in the capital city’s development. In 2006, the native of Nashville in Howard County became the 15th president and CEO in the 143-year history of the chamber. Chesshir began his career at the chamber in 2005 as economic development vice president. He also served as senior staff executive for Fifty for the Future and executive director of the Metro Little Rock Alliance, an 11-county marketing coalition dedicated to promoting central Arkansas. In 2016, Chessir was elected national board chair of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), which represents more than 7,500 chamber professionals from more than 1,300 chambers of commerce across the United States and Canada. The next year, he became the only person in ACCE’s 103-year history elected to serve a second term as board

chair. Chesshir and his team have worked to help secure economic development projects accounting for more than $2.6 billion in new and expanded capital investment, more than 17,500 jobs and $636 million in new annual payroll for the metro Little Rock region.

Clif Chitwood CEO/President Mississippi County Economic Development

Clif Chitwood, president of Mississippi County Economic Development, has been on the county’s economic development team for decades. During that time, the county has recovered from 19,000 jobs lost in the 1990s. The recovery includes two Nucor steel mills, two U.S. Steel mills, a new Hybar steel mill, further expansions by both Nucor and U.S. Steel, and downstream users that include Tenaris, Atlas Steel, Lexicon and others. The county has also recruited companies involved in the automotive industry, food and beverage companies, and many smaller companies that have expanded to meet the needs of the growing local economy. The development was made possible by the people of Mississippi County’s willingness to invest in their future, which has been proven during three elections over a 30-year period.

Steve Clark is an entrepreneur and startup investor and advisor. He was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business in April. In 1999, Clark founded Propak, a transportation and supply-chain management company in Fort Smith. In the Arkansas business community, he is well known for co-founding Rockfish, an award-winning digital innovation firm. In 2014, Rockfish was recognized by Hubspot as one of the top ten fastest growing mobile marketing agencies in the U.S. In 2015, he founded 64.6 Downtown in Fort Smith, a nonprofit creating vibrant spaces through creative place-making, arts and community development through programs like Propelling Downtown Forward Master Plan, the Unexpected, and the Levitt Amp Music Series in Fort Smith. In 2016, he founded Future School of Fort Smith, a public and tuition-free charter high school that offers diverse education and learning models, the first of its kind in Fort Smith.

Greg Cockmon CEO Cromwell Architects Engineers

Greg Cockmon is a seasoned architect and CEO who is working to lead Cromwell Architects Engineers in Little Rock to success with visionary leadership. A graduate of Southern Arkansas University Tech in East Camden and the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture, he joined Cromwell as an intern architect in 1989, and his career spans more than three decades. Cockmon’s professional experience includes master planning, corporate headquarters, educational facilities, medical structures and residential projects. Having served as president for four years, Cockmon’s transformative leadership at Cromwell contributed significantly to its growth. Appointed CEO in 2020,

73 ARMONEYANDPOLITICS.COM MARCH 2024 11501 Financial Centre Parkway Little Rock, AR 72211 Toll-Free Phone: 800-880-3322 Local Phone: 501-223-3322 CONGRATULATIONS to Courtney Bishop, CEO, and Nicki Simpkins, CFO, on their recognition in Arkansas Money & Politics’ 2024 C-Suite Providing compassionate behavioral health care to children and teens ages 5 to17.

Road to CFO Paved by Experience

By Sarah Coleman // Photo provided

The road to Alison Wynne’s January promotion to chief financial officer at Crafton Tull, the architecture and engineering firm based in Rogers, was paved by experience. She replaced Jim Tull, who transitioned into the chief strategy officer role and whose father, Lem Tull, co-founded the firm in 1963.

Wynne joined the firm in 2022 as vice president of finance and brought with her experience from a 16-year career in public accounting, during which she supervised multiple audit teams and worked closely with numerous clients in various industries on their annual financial statement audits.

Wynne graduated from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and later returned to the institution for her master’s in accounting.

Accounting is Wynne’s expertise, and prior to joining Crafton Tull, over a 16-year career with HoganTaylor and Ernst & Young, she gained technical experience in financial reporting, generally accepted accounting principles and internal controls, as well as invaluable knowledge of accounting for employee benefit plans and employee stock ownership plans, also known as ESOPs.

Crafton Tull became 100 percent employee owned in 2019.

As CFO, Wynne’s focus is overseeing and managing the company’s financial activities including cash management, the preparation and reporting of the company’s financial statements, and the supervision of personnel that perform various accounting functions within each of Crafton Tull’s offices. The firm has offices in Rogers, Fayetteville, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Conway, Russellville, Jonesboro and Oklahoma City.

Wynne also works directly with management and key executives to prepare strategic financial plans and monitor key performance metrics for the company and its various business divisions.

As a licensed certified public accountant, Wynne is also an active member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Arkansas Society of Certified Public Accountants. After graduating college in 2005, Wynne joined the local office of Ernst & Young as an auditor and, two years later, moved over to the Fayetteville office of Tulsa-based accounting firm HoganTaylor as assurance senior manager.

Both of those career experiences helped prepare her for her current role as CFO of one of the state’s largest architecture and engineering firms.

“Public accounting provided the experience of working with a host of clients and industries, from local nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies, as well as the ability to see how those clients operated from within, which gave me an insight that no other job can offer,” Wynne said. “I am incredibly grateful for that experience and the people I was able to work with and learn from during those years.

It was at HoganTaylor that Wynne oversaw Crafton Tull’s annual audits for 13 years, assisting with their transition from a

C-corporation to an employee-owned company.

“Having historical knowledge and a long-standing relationship with the company allowed me to be well-positioned for this role,” Wynne said. “Even being considered for this position within such a well-respected company is my biggest accomplishment.”

Wynne said Crafton Tull’s company culture has been one of the best aspects of working with her team.

“Being 100 percent employee-owned, management has created this open-book environment where everyone is on the same team, always encouraging people to think outside of the box and continuously sharing and celebrating each other’s successes. We feel like family,” Wynne said.

While the responsibilities of running a financial division are vast and can seem overwhelming to the untrained eye, Wynne seems to lead with ease. She is in charge of the oversight of accounting processes and oversees multiple compliance audits, strategic planning, risk management, litigation and real estate activities, as well as mergers and acquisitions.

“I am so lucky to have an incredible accounting team along with a mentor in Jim Tull here to help with my transition into this role and teach all the things,” Wynne said. “I still learn something new every day, so it is important for us to maintain that curious and innovative mindset so that we can continuously evolve to meet the needs of our ultimate clients and greatest assets, our employee-owners.”

While Crafton Tull has multiple projects on the horizon, Wynne, whose daughter plays soccer, is extremely excited about the company’s involvement in Arkansas’ first professional soccer stadium, which will be located just down the street from her office in the Pinnacle Hills district. Wynne’s son is a baseball player, so she is also looking forward to experiencing the newly designed Northwest Park in Rogers, which will have eight baseball fields, as well as Phillips Park in Bentonville, which has seven fields and three planned for the future.

Other recent Crafton Tull projects include renovation of the historic Majestic Park baseball complex in Hot Springs, aerial mapping in Bella Vista, the redesign of the busy Interstate 49/U.S. 71B, or Walton Boulevard, interchange in Bentonville and the regional headquarters for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Springdale.

“Our architects have also been directly involved in the design of the Conway Aquatics Center and the Jonesboro Sportsplex, which have also been fun and exciting projects to follow,” Wynne said.

Outside of work, Wynne is kept on her toes by her two children, who are both involved in multiple competitive sports. Having been involved with various community organizations in the past, she is looking forward to serving in some capacity in the future when the time and opportunity is right.


his forward-thinking approach and insightful direction continue to drive innovation and excellence. Beyond architecture, Cockmon is dedicated to community service, having held leadership roles with the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and his church.

Covington CFO

Arkansas Surgical Hospital

Andrew Covington is chief financial officer at Arkansas Surgical Hospital in North Little Rock. He grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and became interested in accounting as a student at Harding University in Searcy. After earning his accounting degree in 2006, he worked for BKD in Little Rock, as well as Baptist Health in Little Rock. He joined Arkansas Surgical Hospital as director of financial services in 2017. In addition to developing an automated cost accounting system that tracks profitability by service lines, he built productivity tools to manage labor. One of his primary responsibilities is managing the hospital’s budget.

Josh Davenport CEO and Co-founder Seal Solar

Josh Davenport, CEO and co-founder at Seal Solar in North Little Rock, helped launch the firm with Heather Nelson in 2013. A serial entrepreneur, Davenport is a partner in Evolve Auto and Premier Pile Driver. He graduated with an accounting degree from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia from 2002 to 2006 and earned an MBA and construction management degree at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Brad Davis, chief financial officer at VCC, left public accounting to begin working for the company as assistant controller in 1994. He continued to work in project management and was promoted to CFO in 2003. Since 2010, he has been an active member of the Baptist Health Foundation Board of Trustees, where he has served as chairman. He earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He enjoys cycling, fly-fishing and duck hunting.

Ross DeVol CEO

Heartland Forward

Ross DeVol departed as chief research officer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., after 20 years in 2019 to embark on a remarkable journey to create a new kind of think tank as president and CEO of Heartland Forward. Heartland Forward celebrates being a policy “think and do” tank that uses applied research to ignite programmatic action at the bootstraps level with a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, human capital and workforce development, health and wellness, and regional competitiveness. Since being enlisted to start this organiza-

tion, DeVol has raised the profile of Heartland Forward through its robust research and by programs being recognized by national media such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Axios, Bloomberg and others.

John Earney CHRO Pinnacle Advisors

John Earney leads human resources for Little Rock’s Pinnacle Advisors, where he has worked since 2022. He previously worked as a human resources business partner for Arkansas Children’s, as human resources manager for Replacement Auto Parts and as regional recruiter for American Republic Insurance. He graduated from Lyon College in Batesville with a bachelor’s degree in the English language and literature and letters. He recently earned his senior certified professional and senior professional in human resources certifications.

Victor Esposito CTO Ritter Communications

Victor Esposito, chief technology officer, joined Ritter Communications in May. Esposito leads all technology-related areas and teams, leveraging his vast knowledge of industry processes and deep technology insights to further solidify the Jonesboro firm’s position as a leader in telecommunications. He joined the company as senior vice president of engineering and network operations, bringing with him more than 24 years of tech industry experience. Prior to joining the Ritter Communications team, Esposito served as the vice president of engineering and architecture for GCI Liberty, the largest telecommunications provider in the state of Alaska. He brings a wealth of expertise in developing and managing complex engineering projects, as well as optimizing network operations for large-scale, global organizations. Esposito has a Master of Information Systems degree and a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix.

Bob Fehlman CEO

Simmons First National Corporation and Simmons Bank

Bob Fehlman was named CEO of Simmons First National Corporation and Simmons Bank in 2023. Fehlman previously served as president and chief operating officer. With more than 30 years of experience, he also served as chief financial officer and treasurer, with responsibility for Simmons’ overall financial management and operations. In this role, his oversight included accounting, financial planning, investments, tax, bank operations, IT and risk. He also provided critical support for Simmons’ M&A activity, analyst and investor meetings and led the company’s capital management. Fehlman is a certified public accountant and a member of the American Institute of CPAs and the Arkansas Society of CPAs. He is a Henderson State University alumnus and is a graduate of Vanderbilt Graduate School of Bank Financial Management.

77 ARMONEYANDPOLITICS.COM MARCH 2024 CONGRATULATIONS, Aaron McDonnel! Your leadership and dedication to our company is an inspiration to us all. Here’s to continued success and innovation! CRCRAWFORD.COM 479.251.1161 FAYETTEVILLE, AR Design-Build | Pre-Construction Services | General Contracting | Construction Management YOUR NEW CAREER STARTS HERE Take the next step toward a career that makes a difference. Submit your nursing school application to Baptist Health College Little Rock by one of our upcoming deadlines. APPLICATION DEADLINES • Apply by May 1 to Start in July • Apply by November 1 Start in January APPLY ONLINE at

Sandy Ferguson is chief risk officer at Generations Bank, which has 10 branches in Arkansas and one branch in Missouri. She began her banking career as a high school student in 1981, when a neighbor approached her about working at Union State Bank in Junction City, which later became Generations Bank. She has played a pivotal role in the bank, working in every department throughout her career. Her presence has been essential in assisting the institution’s growth from $25 million in assets in 1981 to almost $900 million in 2024. Ferguson is the bank’s longest-serving full-time employee and will celebrate 43 years of service in 2024.

Greg Fogle COO


Greg Fogle is chief operating officer at Nabholz Construction Corp., which was founded by Bob Nabholz in Conway in 1949. Fogle has been with the company since 2004. Originally from Ottawa, Kan., he has a Bachelor of Science in construction science from Kansas State University. He has worked on projects across the U.S. and in three foreign countries, and he has a designated designbuild professional certification from the Design-Build Institute of America. He has served on the boards of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce, as well as the YMCA of Northwest Arkansas and the Westark Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He also served on the corporate leadership council of the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. In his spare time, he enjoys outdoor activities, and he is a flight instructor.

Mary Fowler CEO

Peoples Bank of Magnolia

Mary Fowler has served as the CEO of Peoples Bank in Magnolia since 2000. She is the fourth generation of her family to work at Peoples Bank, which was founded by her great-grandfather in 1910. Fowler earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, and she graduated from the Southwestern Graduate School of Banking at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2005. During Fowler’s tenure, the bank has continued to grow while staying true to its family-like atmosphere. Peoples Bank prides itself on being deeply involved in the local community. The bank provides ongoing support for Southern Arkansas University students through scholarships and has previously been a sponsor of SAU’s “Player of the Game” program. In 2022, the bank assumed the Magnolia branch of Bank OZK.

A. Matt Francis CEO

Ozark Integrated Circuits

A. Matt Francis has served as president and CEO of Ozark Integrated Circuits in Fayetteville since founding the company in 2011. As president and CEO, he has grown the company into the premier provider of high-temperature electronics and rugged computing solutions for the aerospace, defense and energy industries. The company provides complete solutions from design to manufacturing and test — all performed at Ozark IC’s facility in Fayetteville. Francis has master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering and physics from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.He currently serves as a director of region five in the U.S. Southwest for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the largest technical professional organization in the world, which has more than 460,000 engineers, technologists and scientists as members globally. He has served as a council member for the city of Elkins for over five years, co-founded the Elkins Community Network and the Elkins Robotics/Electronics Club.

Hayden Franks CEO Franks Dermatology

Hayden H. Franks, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist who has been in private practice for more than 20 years. Specializing in skin cancer, medical dermatology, and surgical dermatolwogy, he began Franks Dermatology with a vision of providing unmatched quality of care. He does this with an experienced and compassionate team, cutting-edge technology, patient education, and hands-on attention to detail. Dr. Franks has a passion for mentoring, teaching and helping people. While volunteering as an attending physician at AHEC, he was selected by the family practice residents to receive the Golden Apple Award in recognition of his outstanding teaching. At his alma mater, Hendrix College, he helped develop a mentor program to help pre-med students connect with physicians. Dr. Franks enjoys the outdoors and is the current Chairman of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Board.

Daron Frederick CIO Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas

Daron Frederick is the chief information officer at Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas in Little Rock. His career before joining the electric cooperatives included a 16-year tenure in the United States Navy, where he served as a team leader, developer for an international banking software organization, serving as the chief information officer in the health care industry, working as the general manager of a nationwide tax service, holding the role of vice president and CIO for a national trucking company, and serving as the information technology manager for the Arkansas State Supreme Court.

Sandy Ferguson CRO Generations Bank

Conway Regional Health System congratulates our Chief Financial Officer for being named one of Arkansas Money & Politics’ 2024




Bobby Gabbard CFO/Controller

Summerwood Partners, East North Partners, Summerwood Sports and Family Markets

Bobby Gabbard, controller at Summerwood Partners, East North Partners, Summerwood Sports and Family Markets, headquartered in Bryant, joined the company in 1997. Gabbard graduated with honors from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis on accounting. He then became a certified public accountant. For three years, he helped audit cities and counties with the Arkansas Legislative Audit. He also worked in several roles at Safeway Stores, which became Harvest Foods in 1991, at the Arkansas division headquarters in Little Rock.

Brealand Garrett COO/Executive Vice President

Lexicon Industrial Constructors

Brealand Garrett, executive vice president at Lexicon Industrial Constructors, has been on the Lexicon team for more than 25 years and has 30 years of experience in heavy industrial construction. Last year, he was promoted to his current role, for which he oversees the operations of the entire division of industrial constructors. He previously served as vice president of new construction within the industrial constructors division. For that role, he oversaw safety management, engineering, cost control and scheduling, as well as business development, estimating and construction management.

Natalie Ghidotti CEO and Founder


Natalie is CEO and founder of Ghidotti, a public relations and content marketing agency she founded in Little Rock in 2007 that serves clients throughout the region. She is also co-founder and co-owner of the Nest, Little Rock’s first coworking community and social club for women. She serves as president of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, Arkansas’ oldest and largest civic organization, and she is chair-elect for the Public Relations Society of America’s national Counselors Academy. She is the only Arkansas member of the Public Relations Global Network, a collaborative of 50 hand-selected PR firms representing key markets around the world. She is a past president of the Arkansas Women’s Leadership Forum and a past recipient of PRNews’ “Top Women in PR,” which recognizes women public relations leaders raising the bar for the industry. She has also been troop leader for Girl Scouts Troop 6109 for 10 years.

George Gleason CEO and Chairman Bank OZK

George Gleason has served as CEO and chairman of Bank OZK, headquartered in Little Rock, for 45 years. Under Gleason’s leadership, Bank OZK has been profitable every year and has grown to more than $34 billion in total assets, 2,700 employees and more than 240 offices in eight states. Bank OZK is the largest bank in Arkansas and consistently ranks as one of the best-performing financial institutions in the country due to its high level of profitability, strong capital and liquidity, disciplined credit culture, and outstanding team. Gleason is a native Arkansan who received his undergraduate degree in business and economics from Hendrix College and earned his law degree from the University of Arkansas. In 2022, Gleason was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

Chris Gosnell CEO Farmers Bank & Trust

Chris Gosnell joined Farmers Bank & Trust in Magnolia in 2010 and was elected president and CEO in 2017. Gosnell brought six years of banking experience from northwest Arkansas when he joined the bank, and he previously served as president and chief banking officer for Farmers Bank & Trust. Gosnell received his Bachelor of Arts in administrative management from the University of Arkansas in 2003, as well as his Master of Science in operations management in 2005. He graduated from the Graduate School of Banking at Colorado and serves in a leadership role for several Arkansas organizations and committees. Gosnell graduated Leadership Fayetteville in 2009, Leadership Saline County Class XI in 2011, the FBI Citizens Academy in 2018 and Leadership Arkansas XIII in 2019. He was named an Arkansas Business “40 under 40” in 2015 and one of the Arkansas 250 in 2022 and 2023.

Steve Grandfield COO


Steve Grandfield, chief operating officer of Lexicon, has served the company for more than 20 years. As a member of the executive leadership team, he is vital to Lexicon’s strategic operations, employee culture and success. He began his career at Lexicon with Prospect Steel, working his way up from structural engineer to construction and project manager, contract administrator, vice president and president. Last year, he was promoted to chief operating officer, for which he oversees the company’s daily operations, reviews the efficiency of current business functions, and collaborates with leadership to set and meet business objectives. Grandfield has also led key projects for the company, including the Tenaris Seamless Pipe Mill in Bay City, Texas, and the Shreveport Convention Center in Shreveport, La. Prior to joining Lexicon, Grandfield served in various engineering roles in Australia. He graduated from the University of Tasmania in Australia with a degree in civil engineering.


Dr. Hayden Franks is a highly skilled dermatologist who has been in private practice for more than 20 years. Specializing in skin cancer, medical dermatology and surgical dermatology, he began Franks Dermatology with a vision of providing unmatched quality of care. He does this with an experienced and compassionate team, cutting-edge technology, patient education, and hands-on attention to detail.

Franks Dermatology | 4220 N Rodney Parham Rd, Suite 320 | Little Rock | 501-246-1042
Congratulations HAYDEN FRANKS, M.D.

Jenny Griffin CFO

Encore Technology Solutions

Jenny Griffin, chief financial officer at Encore Technology Solutions in North Little Rock, has been instrumental in the success of several local companies. She was a finance director for Delta Dental of Arkansas before serving as CFO of Advanced Cabling Systems in North Little Rock and helping lead their sale to ADT Commercial in 2019. During her time at Advanced, she served on the board for the Single Parent Scholarship Fund. Then she served as the CFO for Lumber 1 Home Center, which has locations in Mayflower, Stuttgart and Little Rock, before assuming her current role for Encore Technology Solutions. Jenny has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and is a certified public accountant.

Bob Gunderman CFO

Summit Utilities

Bob Gunderman was appointed chief financial officer at Summit Utilities in July. He is responsible for overseeing Summit’s accounting, financial planning, taxation, audit, investor relations, treasury, insurance, procurement, and gas supply and control teams. Prior to joining Summit, Gunderman served as the chief financial officer of Windstream Holdings in Little Rock, a privately held communications and software company and previously publicly traded Fortune 500 company. Before being named CFO of Windstream in 2014, Gunderman held various senior finance executive positions after joining Windstream in 2008. Gunderman began his career in 1994 with Deloitte & Touche and entered the telecommunications industry in 1996, serving in various finance executive positions with Alltel, the fifth-largest wireless telecommunications company in the United States before its acquisition in 2008.

Rob Guthrie CDO and incoming CEO


Rob Guthrie is incoming CEO of Bernhard and currently serves as the company’s chief development officer. As one of the largest privately-owned engineering and contracting firms in the country, Bernhard is headquartered in Louisiana and has a large presence in Arkansas. Guthrie, who has been based in Little Rock for more than a decade, has been at the hub of Bernhard’s progress since he joined the firm in 2018. He has played a pivotal role in the growth of its energy-as-a-service portfolio, which now boasts partnerships with a range of multi-hospital systems and higher education campuses across the U.S. With an impressive career spanning decades in the industry, he is a proven leader in achieving long-term operational savings, realizing decarbonization objectives and bolstering facility resiliency. Guthrie will take over the CEO role on June 11.

Tammy Hall CFO and Vice President for Finance and CFO Harding University

Tammy Hall is chief financial officer and vice president for finance at Harding University in Searcy. She joined Harding as assistant vice president for finance in 2003. Previously, she worked for W.R. Grace in Memphis, Tenn. She has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Harding and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Memphis.

Brad Harrison CEO and President Mississippi County Electric Cooperative

Brad Harrison is CEO and president of Mississippi County Electric Cooperative and MCEC Fiber in Blytheville. Harrison is a Mississippi County native with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Arkansas State University and a Master of Business Administration from Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Harrison started his career with MCEC in 2004 as an electrical engineer. In 2011, he took over as CEO, heading up the organization, which sells more than three billion kilowatt hours of service to its members for an annual revenue of $165 million dollars.

Grady Harvell COO and President W&W | AFCO Steel

Grady Harvell is chief operating officer and president at W&W|AFCO Steel in Little Rock. He was born in Lunenburg into a family with eight children and went to high school in Melbourne. After studying civil engineering at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, he earned a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He joined AFCO Steel as an engineer trainee in 1972. In 1974, he became a project engineer, a role for which he designed and supervised steel construction projects. In 1980, he was promoted to general sales manager, a move that put him in charge of estimating, managing design engineers, contracting and subcontracting for customers of AFCO’s structural and bridge sales. He was named president in 2002.

Montgomery Heathman CEO and President Heathman Family and Cosmetic Dentistry

Montgomery “Monty” Heathman, DDS, is CEO and president of Heathman Family and Cosmetic Dentistry in Little Rock and the Dental Clinic of Stuttgart. He has been in practice for 20 years and is a second-generation dentist following in the footsteps of his father, the late Dr. N. Dwight Heathman Jr. Heathman grew up in Springdale, graduated from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and earned a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Dentistry in Memphis, Tenn., in 2000. He is a member of the American Dental Association, the Arkansas State Dental Asso-


Congratulations for the well-deserved recognition on AMP’s 2024 C-Suite list!


ciation, the Central Arkansas Dental Association and the Xi Psi Phi dental fraternity. His clinics offer cosmetic procedures and general dentistry, including tooth-colored fillings, ceramic crowns and veneers, root canal therapy, tooth extractions, temporomandibular joint therapies and implant restorations.

Brad Hegeman CSO and Vice Chairman Nabholz

In his career with Conway-based Nabholz, Brad Hegeman has served in a number of leadership positions including executive vice president, regional president and chief operating officer. In 2021, he was elected vice chairman of the Nabholz Group Board and named chief strategy officer, for which he focuses on growing and diversifying the company through acquisitions, new geographic locations, new service offerings and innovation. Hegeman is committed to his community and dedicates his time to a number of organizations. He is chairman of the Governor’s Military Affairs Committee, chief of staff of the Air Force Civic Leader Program, a member of the CHI St. Vincent Board of Directors, a member of the Conway Development Corp. Board of Directors, a member of the Little Rock Air Force Base Executive Board, and chairman of the foundation board of directors for the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

Christopher Heigle CEO and President Arkansas Northeastern College

Christopher Heigle, who has a doctorate in education and is CEO and president of Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville, was named the college’s fifth president in 2023. Heigle joined the college in 2020 and previously served as director of federal grant development and vice president of student affairs. Previously, Heigle served as the associate vice president for student success at East Arkansas Community College in Forrest City. Heigle and ANC have worked to ensure the college has the lowest tuition and mandatory fee costs in Arkansas. Heigle has served on the boards of the Mississippi County Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Great River Economic Development Foundation, the East Arkansas Crossroads Coalition, Downtown Forrest City and the Forrest City Area Chamber of Commerce. He is a graduate of the Blytheville Leadership Institute, the Arkansas Community Colleges Leadership Institute, the Crittenden County Leadership Institute and the Mid-South Basic Economic Development Course.

Tim Hicks CFO

Bank OZK

Since 2022, Tim Hicks has served as chief financial officer of Bank OZK, the largest bank in Arkansas and one of the nation’s top-performing financial institutions at more than $34 billion in total assets, about 2,700 employees and more than 240 offices in eight states. He joined the bank in 2009 as senior vice president of corporate finance and has held a variety of leadership positions, including chief credit and adminis-

trative officer and executive director of investor relations. He has a Bachelor of Arts in business and economics from Hendrix College in Conway.

Daniel Hobbs CFO

Simmons First National Corp. and Simmons Bank

Daniel Hobbs was named chief financial officer of Simmons First National Corp. and Simmons Bank, which is headquartered in Pine Bluff, in 2023. He most recently served as executive vice president and head of finance for a southeastern bank with more than $150 billion in assets, leading a finance team that provided financial leadership for all aspects of the bank’s lines of business — consumer, corporate and wealth — as well as support groups, strategic insights and analytics, and financial systems. During his 16-year tenure, Hobbs also served as CFO for the consumer bank and in a variety of other capacities with finance responsibilities for operations and technology, digital, marketing, procurement and corporate real estate. Prior to his career in the financial services industry, Hobbs served in a multitude of financial leadership positions, including director of financial planning and decision support at Saks. He is a University of Alabama at Birmingham alumnus and a honors graduate of the Consumer Bankers Association Executive Banking School.

Nick Hobbs COO J.B. Hunt

Nick Hobbs is chief operating officer, president of contract services and executive vice president at J.B. Hunt, a logistics company headquartered in Lowell. Hobbs has more than three decades of experience in the transportation industry. He took a position in operations management at J.B. Hunt in 1984, after earning a Bachelor of Science in finance and financial management services from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He was promoted to senior vice president in 1998, took on the role of president of contract services in 2011 and became chief operating officer in 2020.

Nicholas Horton CEO and Founder Opportunity Arkansas

Nicholas Horton is CEO and founder of Opportunity Arkansas, a non-partisan, nonprofit Arkansas-focused policy organization. Launched in 2022, Opportunity Arkansas works to renew what was formerly nicknamed the Land of Opportunity by solving generational problems such as poverty, dependency, crime and failing schools and simplifying government. Horton began his career as a journalist, serving as the editor of the Arkansas Project, the state’s largest policy news site. From there, he spent eight years with the Foundation for Government Accountability, where he conducted research about the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and food stamps, in addition to managing a national team of researchers as research director. He has done policy work in roughly half the country and his original research and analysis has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Forbes, the Washington Examiner and more.


Quincy Hurst COO

Superior Senior Care

Quincy Hurst is the chief operating officer of Superior Senior Care, a statewide caregiver registry specializing in non-medical home care services since 1985. After graduating from the University of Arkansas, Quincy began working for Superior Senior Care as a billing specialist at the company’s Rogers branch. He worked his way up, founding and managing the largest Superior Senior Care office to date, before joining the corporate team in Hot Springs. Quincy was promoted to chief operating officer in 2022 and has helped continue to grow the company, which now includes 27 locations. One remarkable success has been expanding the company’s in-network status for a variety of long-term care payors across the nation. Quincy attributes these achievements to a loyal team of hardworking individuals, many of whom have been with Superior Senior Care for more than 20 years, and his ability to adapt to change in the ever-evolving health care industry.

John Jordin CIO

Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas

As chief information officer at Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas, John Jordin monitors the interactions of business operations for 17 clinics and manages the information systems department, including the implementation of electronic medical records and medical practice software. Leading MANA into the next century of technology, Jordin creates more efficient medical practices resulting in better care for northwest Arkansas patients. Jordin was a principal in the formation of MANA in 2000 and served as administrator of FirstCare Family Doctors, one of the initiating physician practices. He is a native of Little Rock. He received his Bachelor of Science in business administration and public administration from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and his Master’s degree in health service administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Jason Keith CEO/President Staley Technologies

Jason Keith serves as president of Staley Technologies in Little Rock, where he manages strategy and handles daily operations for the sales, operations, finance and administration departments. Keith also facilitates the company’s mergers and acquisitions while maintaining Staley’s business objectives. Prior to joining the Staley team, Keith was a controller with Jason International, where he served on the board of directors. He previously served in the U.S. Army, where he completed a six-year tour working in satellite communications. He graduated from the University of Central Arkansas with a Bachelor of Business Administration in accounting and finance before going on to earn his Master of Business Administration in business management in 2009.

Jeff Kmiec CEO City of Wilson

Jeff Kmiec, CEO of the city of Wilson, is orchestrating an American renaissance story on the Arkansas banks of the Mississippi River. The historic village of Wilson is a revitalized farm and craft community welcoming a new era of both homeowners and visitors. Kmiec is tasked with crafting and executing the vision for the ultimate small town in America by offering hospitality, education, career advancement, real estate development and a family-friendly lifestyle, along with the unique charm of the Delta region. Kmiec is a seasoned operation, sales and marketing professional with a track record of delivering innovative, cost-effective solutions that improve guest experiences and drive business growth. Kmiec is a results-driven chief executive officer who has made a mark in the hospitality industry as the architect behind legendary luxury brands that include the Greenbrier, Nemacolin Resort, and the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic and 84 Lumber Classic. Kmiec is known for his hands-on leadership, as well as developing talent and building legendary teams.

Josh Lane CEO and President Access Control Devices

Josh Lane is CEO and president of Access Control Devices Inc. in Little Rock. He has served in this role for more than 24 years. The software firm has grown to include national and international partners including the Detroit Lions, the Cleveland Guardians, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Hawker Beechcraft, NASA, Saab, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Starbucks. Lane graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in finance.

Christina Littlejohn CEO Arkansas Symphony Orchestra

Christina Littlejohn, CEO of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in Little Rock, started and built the Mobile Symphony Orchestra in Alabama, launched the Cleveland Orchestra’s Miami Residency, and navigated the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra from near bankruptcy in 2009 to an artistically and financially healthy orchestra that puts service to its state first. The Arkansas Symphony raised nearly $12 million to build the new ASO Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, a welcoming hub of musical activity for all Arkansans, which will open this fall. During the COVID-19 pandemic, ASO reached over a million people in over 30 countries with its “Bedtime with Bach” series, kept all full-time musicians and staff employed, and continued its education programs to serve students across the state. Littlejohn was recently honored with the 2023 Governor’s Arts Award for Community Development. In 2017, she gave a TedX talk titled “Transform a Symphony, Change a Community,” and frequently speaks about leading through change.


Brian Marsh is CEO and president of Goodwill Industries of Arkansas, a role he assumed in 2017. He previously served as chief operating officer and has been a member of the Goodwill team since 2013. During his time at Goodwill, he has led the expansion of the organization’s training and education programs, including the opening of multiple locations of the Excel Center at Goodwill, the first adult high school in Arkansas, as well as the Goodwill Training & Education Centers in Little Rock and Springdale. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Mississippi State University and previously served in leadership roles at Envirotest in Colorado and Essilor Laboratories of America in Dallas. He and his wife, Dani, have three adult children and live in Alexander.

Aaron McDonnel is chief operating officer of C.R. Crawford Construction in Fayetteville. He joined C.R. Crawford in 2021 and provides extensive knowledge in pre-construction, general contracting and construction management. He has devoted his career to building strong client relationships and leading project teams to achieve successful completion and meet aggressive schedules. As chief operating officer, McDonnel provides experience and leadership to the company’s project management and field operations teams, and he works with the company’s business development and pre-construction services departments throughout the bidding process and award of projects. With an eye for improving quality and processes, he gives special attention to ensuring clients experience a seamless transition from pre-construction to project management once projects are awarded. McDonnel has a Bachelor of Science in construction management from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Kevin McGilton is CEO and president of Riceland Foods. McGilton joined the farmer-owned cooperative in 2003, working in export sales advancing to lead the department as the vice president of international rice sales. Most recently he served as chief of staff and vice president of government affairs. He began his career in the rice industry in 1995 with Louis Dreyfus in McGehee. Prior to joining Riceland, he worked for the USA Rice Federation in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hamburg, McGilton is a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and he serves as an executive council member of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, as a director of the National Oilseed Processors Association and on the government affairs committee for the USA Rice Federation. He served as the past vice chairman of the Arkansas Rice Federation and past chairman of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce.

Mechele McNary CTO/Director of Information Technology Alliance Rubber Co.

Mechele McNary is the director of information technology at Alliance Rubber Co. in Hot Springs. She joined Alliance Rubber Co. in 1997 and worked her way up through the organization in various departments before becoming a database administrator. As an administrator, McNary demonstrated her abilities by helping the company navigate its migration to a new system. She became the IT director in 2006. McNary obtained her bachelor’s degree in information technology and management information systems from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. She is a founding member of the Hot Springs Women’s Leadership Alliance, an organization with a goal to bring together a diverse group of female leaders to collaborate and encourage each other through mentorship, education and support. In 2021, McNary was named to the board of trustees for the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs.

Andrew “A.B.” Meadors CEO Sunstar Insurance of Arkansas

It has been a busy last several years for Andrew “A.B.” Meadors. Since 2016, Sunstar of Arkansas has had eight acquisitions and has grown to 85 employees and 11 statewide locations. He is a certified risk manager and a graduate of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys in 1981 and Southern Methodist University in Texas in 1985. New agency partners trust Meadors. to correctly and honestly describe the post-closing culture after joining Sunstar. There is no “bait and switch.” Meadors is a truth-teller. He is a person that does not take himself too seriously and has a self-deprecating style of humor that people tend to take to. He looks after his people first and not himself. He has always believed that, ‘When our clients do well, we, in turn, will do well.” He is a member of Rotary Club of Little Rock, as well as former president and current selection committee chair of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Kristin Merlo CEO Delta Dental of Arkansas

Kristin Merlo took over as president and CEO of Delta Dental of Arkansas in 2021. Delta Dental is the largest dental and vision insurance provider in the state, helping with more than 800,000 members in Arkansas and more than 2.4 million members nationally. Merlo has served in senior leadership roles in the Delta Dental system for more than 20 years, most recently as senior vice president and chief operating officer for Delta Dental of Virginia and with Delta Dental of Washington. Before joining Delta Dental, Merlo served in various sales, marketing and brand management roles with Eli Lilly and Co. Merlo is a University of Virginia graduate who has a bachelor’s degree in history and an Master of Business Administration from the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business.



After 20 years as chief research officer at Milken Institute, a think tank based in California, Ross DeVol began an incredible endeavor to create a new kind of think tank in 2019, when he became president and CEO of Heartland Forward in Bentonville. The think-and-do tank uses applied research to help states and communities advance economic success. Since starting the organization, DeVol has helped put Heartland Forward on the radar, and the organization’s research and program have been recognized by national media outlets such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Axios and Bloomberg.

702 SE 5th Street, Suite 48 Bentonville, AR 72712


Dr. Montgomery “Monty” Heathman is a second generation dentist following in the footsteps of his father, the late Dr. N.D. “Dwight” Heathman. He has been in practice for 24 years, and he has been practicing in the Little Rock and Stuttgart areas for over 14 years. He has a true passion for both the art and the science of dentistry.

87 ARMONEYANDPOLITICS.COM MARCH 2024 12501 Cantrell Rd., Little Rock • 501-223-3838 2001 South Buerkle St., Stuttgart • 870-673-2687 • HeathmanFamilyDental HEATHMAN FAMILY DENTAL


Michael Moix is the co-owner and CEO of Moix RV, one of the largest RV dealerships in Arkansas. Moix RV has locations in Conway, Brinkley, Hot Springs and Springdale. Moix is originally from Conway. He attended Conway High School and graduated from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Moix RV was founded in 1976, and Moix has led the company for 30 years.

John Moran CFO

USAble Life

In his role as chief financial officer at Priority1, a logistics company headquartered in Little Rock, Brady Moore oversees all operations of the accounting and finance, collections, claims and payroll areas, as well as the company’s insurance and benefits. He has more than 20 years of experience in finance, 11 of those in a CFO role. Moore has served as the head of multiple financial divisions at FedEx, Central Transport and Beelman Truck Co. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Science in finance from Louisiana Tech University. In addition to his experience in finance, Moore has more than 30 years of transportation and supply-chain experience with a specialization in less-thantruckload freight. His passions include college football, golfing, traveling and other outdoor activities.

Upskill NWA

Carol Silva Moralez is president and CEO of Upskill NWA in Rogers. He leads an industry-based workforce development program that provides lower-income workers access to education and places them into highpaying, high-demand careers in health care. Moralez has 25 years of combined operations and executive leadership experience at Walmart, including two and a half years as lead partner for diversity and inclusion and leadership development practices at SERVE2PERFORM in Fayetteville. Moralez has received multiple community leadership awards, including the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s 2023

“Top 10 C-Suite Executives” and 2020 “Top 10 Women in Business.” Axios NWA named her a 2022 Power Player to Watch. The Excellerate Foundation and Upskill NWA were nationally recognized for public philanthropic partnerships in 2023.

Beyond her professional achievements, Moralez finds ways to give back to her community, serves on the board of the RogersLowell Chamber of Commerce and is vice president of the Community Clinic NWA Board of Directors.

John Moran, chief financial officer at USAble Life in Little Rock, brings more than 25 years of experience to the company. He joined USAble Life in 2018 after working as CFO at Swiss Re Group in Armonk, N.Y., where he helped lead acquisitions and growth strategy for Swiss Re’s life insurance start-up business, Life Capital Americas. Before that, he served as CFO and leader of the life insurance division of Enstar Group Limited in Basking Ridge, N.J. He also served as senior vice president and controller of central finance for HSBC North America in Jersey City, N.J. He was a member of the senior management team of CareOne, a start-up senior care company in Fort Lee, N.J., that has 56 properties in seven states. His expertise helped build the Multicare Companies, an elder care services company based in Hackensack, N.J.

Sarah Mosley CEO

Telcoe Federal Credit Union

Sarah Mosley serves as the president and CEO of Telcoe Federal Credit Union, a distinguished nonprofit financial institution headquartered in Little Rock. With a history spanning more than 70 years, Telcoe Federal Credit Union has diligently served its members, boasting four locations across Arkansas and a membership exceeding 23,000, with assets totaling $453 million. Mosley began her career at Telcoe in 1973. Her commitment to delivering comprehensive financial solutions and exceptional service emphasizes her vision for Telcoe’s continued success.

Beyond her professional duties, Mosley’s passion for community service is evident through her involvement with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Catalyst Corporate Federal Credit Union, where she has previously served on the board of directors. Her dedication to both the financial sector and the community exemplifies her as a dynamic leader, driving positive change and impact.

Mike Mudd COO

Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas

Mike Mudd is chief operating officer at Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers. He previously served as COO of service lines at Rochester Regional Health in New York. Mudd supervised the operational leadership of multiple service lines for the five-hospital Rochester system, managing physician relations and working closely with nursing leadership. Mudd has maintained an active service role within the communities he has served, volunteering with the March of Dimes and the American Cancer Society, among other charitable organizations. Mudd has also served as COO for Community Health Systems hospitals in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Jackson, Miss., and in other administrative roles in health care systems in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.


LOOKING FORWARD TO THE NEXT 75 YEARS OF safety, quality, service, and


Founded as a small construction company 75 years ago, Nabholz has grown into a strong team of professionals serving our clients, communities, and each other. With a wide range of projects under our belt, we have the experience to deliver your project successfully — regardless of size.


573.507.7700 |


Jake Nabholz began his 25-year tenure with the company working as a summer laborer while in high school. After graduating with his construction management degree from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, he advanced his career within Nabholz, serving in business development and leadership roles in Tulsa and central Arkansas. In 2018, he was promoted to the position of regional president, overseeing construction operations in central and northeast Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Nabholz serves on the boards for Arkansas Children’s Foundation, Philander Smith University, Conway Corp., Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, First Security Bank and the Associated General Contractors of Arkansas. He is part of the third generation of the Nabholz family to work at the company, following the path of his grandfather, company founder Bob Nabholz, and father, former executive vice president and current vice chair, David Nabholz.

Tammie Neal CHRO

Signature Bank of Arkansas

The career of Tammie Neal, chief human resources officer at Signature Bank of Arkansas is a true Cinderella story. Often called “Employee No. 1” by CEO Gary Head, Neal was the first person to sign on to Head’s plan of building a bank from scratch. She began as an administrative assistant and took on any task handed to her in a wide realm of to-dos involved in getting a bank up and running. As the bank grew and more team members were added, Neal was promoted to director of human resources, or as staff call the role, “head people person.” A long-time member of the executive team, Neal was given a new title in 2022, when she was promoted to chief human resources officer. Neal has helped grow the bank from one employee to more than 200 over the past 20 years while caring for each and every new team member along the way.

Judge John Alan Nelson Chief Executive

Mississippi County

Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson has been the chief executive of the county since 2018 and has overseen significant economic development projects. County sales tax collection has jumped nearly $11 million with the addition of Nucor Arkansas’s $240 million sheet metal production line, cold mill and galvanizing line; Zekelman Industries’ steel tube galvanizing factory at Atlas Tube; Majestic Steel’s state-of-theart processing facility; Big River Steel’s $3 billion mill; and Hybar’s $700 million rebar mill. Congress recently designated Blytheville’s National Cold War Center an official museum of the Cold War, and Nelson has fielded other interest in the former Air Force base. Nelson is a proponent of Live Here, Work Here, a program he said has sparked more home construction over the past 18 months than in the previous 40 years. Additionally, Nelson oversaw renovations of the Blytheville and Osceola courthouses, each more than 100 years old.

Tim O’Donnell CFO

Northwest Arkansas National Airport

Tim O’Donnell joined the Northwest Arkansas National Airport in 2019 as chief financial officer. Previously, he served as vice chancellor for finance and administration at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He was a member of the chancellor’s executive committee and had oversight of a total budget in excess of $800 million annually. Prior to joining the UA, O’Donnell was vice president and treasurer of Southwestern Energy Co. in Fayetteville until the company relocated to Houston. He spent 22 years at Southwestern and held numerous senior-level financial positions with the company. He is an inactive certified public accountant and a member of both the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Arkansas Society of CPAs. He is currently on the board of the University of Arkansas Foundation and is a past board member of the Washington County Historical Society and the Walton Arts Center Foundation in Fayetteville. He has a Bachelor of Business Administration in accounting from the University of Iowa.

John T. Olaimey CEO and President Southern Bancorp Bank

John Olaimey joined Southern Bancorp Bank, which has locations in Arkansas and Mississippi, in 2012, bringing more than 20 years of experience in banking, finance, corporate law and executive management. This experience, and his commitment to Southern Bancorp’s unique mission, have been central to the success and growth of Southern Bancorp Bank, helping to lead the CDFI to 56 locations and a $2.65 billion asset size. Prior to joining Southern Bancorp, he served as president for Radius Group in Little Rock, a fintech that specializes in the development of innovative products that enhance the efficiency and profitability of community banks. His previous experience also includes serving as the executive vice president, chief operating officer, general counsel and secretary for Centennial Bank, as well as vice president of corporate law for Alltel in Little Rock. Olaimey received his juris doctor with high honors from the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Phillip Oldridge CEO Envirotech

Phillip Oldridge is the CEO and board chair of Envirotech Vehicles, a provider and manufacturer of purpose-built, all-electric, zeroemission vehicles and zero-emission drive trains for integration in medium to heavyduty commercial fleet vehicles. Oldridge is a pioneer in the electric commercial vehicle industry with more than 30 years of experience in the manufacturing and distribution of electric vehicles. Previously, he founded GreenPower Motor Co., a Canadian designer and manufacturer of passenger transit and shuttle buses, alongside his brother, and was


the CEO from 2011 until 2019. Oldridge has also served as CEO of Bus & Coach International, Nevada Charter, and Canamera Carriers. Oldridge has an Master of Business Administrat and a bachelor’s degree from Richmond, the American University in London.

Bill Pack CFO

Conway Regional

Bill Pack is chief financial officer at Conway Regional Health System. Prior to joining Conway Regional in 2022, he spent more than 30 years in health care in Colorado and Texas, most recently serving as a system vice president with Centura Health in Denver. Before that, he was vice president of finance and/or chief financial officer for organizations such as CHI St. Luke’s in Houston, CHRISTUS in San Antonio and SCL Health in Denver. He has a Master of Business Administration in health care management from Marylhurst University in Oregon and a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Louisiana State University. He is originally from Pine Bluff.

Kyle Parker CEO and President

Arkansas Colleges of Health Education

Kyle Parker, CEO and president of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, possesses a nationally recognized presence in the fields of law, technology, business and higher education. Beginning as a private practice attorney, Parker wrote CLARA, the first artificial intelligence software ever granted a registered copyright for the legal profession while he was still in law school. He has several notable accomplishments, and has served as KDP Management general manager, is executive manager and sits on the board of directors for NAS Recruitment Communications, is an advisor for the James Fork Regional Water District, and is a general partner for KDP Investments, Parker Ranch and KDP Management. He has worked directly with the CEOs of various companies to create new executive management, operation structures, sales, and technology solutions to control expenditures and increase revenue, while also serving on each company’s respective board of directors. Parker is also active in his community as he serves as a volunteer board member for various civic, charitable and educational institutions and organizations.

Stephen Ragland CFO

Stone Bank

Since joining Stone Bank in 2016, Stephen Ragland, chief financial officer, has managed the bank’s accounting, investment and human resources functions as the bank has grown assets from $100 million to more than $750 million and staff has more than quadrupled, all while maintaining consistent profitability and regulatory success. In 2020, he graduated from the Leadership Circle for Banking and Finance at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He is a certified public accountant and has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Nick Roach CLO, Director and President Stone Bank

Nick Roach has been with Stone Bank since 2010 and serves as chief lending officer, director and president. Prior to joining the bank, Roach had more than 10 years of banking experience, including customer service, credit analysis and lending. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in economics and finance from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. Roach graduated in 2017 from the Southwestern Graduate School of Banking at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. During his tenure with Stone Bank, he has developed the bank be a Top 100 Small Business Administration Lender and Top 5 U.S. Department of Agriculture lender. The bank is also consistently ranked as one of the leading Farm Service Agency agri lenders in the state of Arkansas. For the past two years, he has served as president of the National Rural Lenders Roundtable of the USDA in Washington, DC. He also sits on the Arkansas Capital Corp. board.


As chief administrative officer and long-time member of the executive team at Lexicon in Little Rock, Brian Rutherford is involved in all of Lexicon’s business activities and operations. He has been a member of the Lexicon team for more than 20 years and is a certified public accountant. He joined Lexicon as vice president and corporate controller in 2000 and was promoted to chief financial officer in 2016 before assuming his current role in 2020. Before joining the Lexicon team, he served in senior roles for two multinational manufacturing companies. He earned a Bachelor of Science in accounting from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in 1992.

Ahmed Samad CEO Arkansas Surgery & Endoscopy Center

Ahmed Samad is the CEO of Arkansas Surgery & Endoscopy Center, Digestive Care, ASC Anesthesia, Central Arkansas Surgical Center, and A.A. Properties. He has propelled these businesses to the forefront with his visionary leadership and commitment to excellence. Holding an MBA and numerous credentials in health care management, Samad’s passion for enhancing patient care has grown from one physician in one location to multiple physicians now serving Pine Bluff, Little Rock, Russellville, and the surrounding areas. His strategic vision and hands-on leadership style have transformed the surgery centers into leading destinations for surgical and endoscopic procedures with a high standard of quality care. Samad has been recognized in Arkansas Business’ 20 in Their “20s,” AMP’s “Future 50,” and Becker’s Hospital Review’s “Emerging Leaders Under 40.” He is deeply committed to community service, including his recent role on the Little Rock Planning Commission. As a leader, he exemplifies integrity, empathy, and a relentless drive for excellence, shaping the future of health care in Arkansas and beyond.


Tacos 4 Life

Austin Samuelson is the CEO and co-founder of Tacos 4 Life, a restaurant that donates one meal to starving children around the world for every meal purchased at its locations. Driven by the need to eliminate world hunger, Samuelson and his wife, Ashton, founded Tacos 4 Life in 2014.

Prior to opening Tacos 4 Life, Samuelson graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia with a degree in finance. Before joining the restaurant industry, Samuelson lived in California and worked in commercial real estate. With Samuelson’s leadership, drive and vision, Tacos 4 Life has grown to 26 locations across seven states, including 10 locations in Arkansas. In partnership with Feed My Starving Children, Tacos 4 Life has donated over 33 million meals to children in need across the world. Samuelson and his team know that their jobs do not end in the kitchen or the office and are committed to ending starvation alongside their guests.

Patrick Schueck is the CEO of Lexicon, a leading provider of construction management, steel fabrication, erection, mechanical installation and plant maintenance for heavy industrial, commercial and bridge projects, as well as a full spectrum of golfcourse construction, renovation and management. Schueck has overseen many major projects, including the expansion of the McCormick Center in Chicago; AT&T Stadium, formerly Cowboys Stadium, in Arlington, Texas; ThyssenKrupp Galvanizing Lines and Melt Shop in Calvert, Ala.; NASA Stennis A3 Test Stand in Mississippi; and numerous Nucor Corp. projects. He was instrumental in transforming Lexicon into the world’s leader in automated robotic fabrication. Schueck also serves on the boards of Arkansas Children’s, the American Institute of Steel Construction, the Little Rock Regional Chamber and Fifty for the Future. He is on the regional board of U.S. Bank and is a member of the Little Rock Regional Airport Commission. He and his wife, Jessica, are the proud parents of four children.

Randy Scott CEO Farmers Bank & Trust (Blytheville)

Randy Scott is CEO and president of Farmers Bank and Trust, a 115-year-old bank headquartered in Blytheville with more than $350 million in assets. Scott, a 2023 Arkansas Money & Politics C-Suite honoree, has been a community and financial services leader in Mississippi County for more than two decades. Scott was reappointed to the Arkansas Northeastern College board in 2022, an appointment that expires in 2026. Previously, he served as chairman of the Arkansas Bankers Association Board of Directors and was chairman of the Arkansas State Bank Board in 2019. Scott and Farmers Bank & Trust have been a proponent of Mississippi County’s “Work Here, Live Here” initiative, which pays

10 percent of the purchase price of new homes purchased in Mississippi County by those working in the manufacturing sector.

Citizens Bank

Vernon Scott serves as executive vice president and chief lending officer at Citizens Bank, a $1.4 billion bank headquartered in Batesville. With more than two decades of banking experience, Scott has dedicated the past five years to Citizens Bank. Under his leadership, the bank’s loan portfolio has grown by over $500 million, representing a 70 percent increase. He has overseen the bank’s expansion into new markets and the establishment of its poultry lending and equipment finance divisions. Scott’s primary focus at Citizens Bank has been on driving growth while upholding the bank’s commitment to its community roots and People First mission. Scott is a graduate of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration. He has been involved with multiple civic organizations, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the American Heart Association, Habitat for Humanity and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

Chris Shepard CFO Clark Contractors

Chris Shepard was hired as chief financial officer of Clark Contractors, which is headquartered in Little Rock, in 2022. His responsibilities include managing the firm’s financial actions, including financial reporting and analysis, strategic planning, and risk management. He previously served as director of operations of the Alotian Golf Club in Roland and worked at Hudson, Cisne & Co., now HCJ CPAs & Advisors, for several years. He has 12 years of financial experience, including roles as accountant, controller and director of human resources. He has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia and is a certified public accountant.

Nicki Simpkins CFO

Pinnacle Pointe Behavioral Healthcare

Nicki Simpkins is chief financial officer at Pinnacle Pointe Behavioral Healthcare in Little Rock. She became CFO in 2021 after working as controller for nearly a decade. Prior to joining Pinnacle Pointe, she worked for Windstream Communications in Little Rock, Frazer Frost in Little Rock and Hank’s Fine Furniture in North Little Rock. She earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in finance from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and a Bachelor of Science in accounting from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Austin Samuelson CEO

Congratulations Bob Fehlman and Daniel Hobbs.

As a community bank that’s been dedicated to moving Arkansas forward for 120 years, we’re honored to have two leaders included in the prestigious Arkansas Money & Politics list of executives shaping the future of our great state.

Bob Fehlman, Chief Executive Officer Daniel Hobbs, Chief Financial Officer Victor Esposito

Heath Simpson joined Ritter Communications of Jonesboro in March 2020 as chief financial officer following a nationwide recruitment campaign. His scope of responsibilities increased over his tenure with the company. He was promoted to president and chief operating officer in late 2022 and promoted to chief executive officer in January. Heath brings 25 years of extensive financial and operational experience with nearly 20 years in the telecommunications industry at major national brands such as AT&T and Frontier Communications and was previously CFO at BACOM, a privately held telecom infrastructure company. A former officer in the Army Reserve, Heath earned his MBA and Bachelor of Business Administration from Texas Christian University.

Central States

Jim Sliker serves as the CEO of Central States, a 100-percent employee-owned company. Under his leadership, the team’s unwavering commitment and enduring enthusiasm in the past decade has seen revenue grow from $265 million to a planned $1 billion in 2024. Central States has increased from six manufacturing facilities in 2013 to 11 as of 2023, with two currently under construction, and from 525 employee-owners to over 1,400 today serving over 6,000 commercial, architectural, post-frame and residential contractors and customers across the United States. The Rochester, N.Y., native was previously the president of Valeo Thermal Systems North America, which provides air conditioning and engine cooling systems in the OEM automotive industry. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Kettering University in Michigan, along with a Master of Business Administration from the University of Michigan. A champion for giving back, Jim serves on the MakeA-Wish Mid-South board and the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter board of directors.

Mark Smith, president of Smith & Co. Insurance, is originally from Marianna, where he lives today. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Smith previously worked for St. Paul Fire Marine Insurance Co. in various divisions, including claims, marketing and bond underwriting. Smith also worked for the University of Arkansas System in Little Rock to serve as the director of employee benefits and risk management. While at the University of Arkansas, Smith oversaw and developed both fully insured and self-funded insurance programs which protected more than 22,000 employees, 900 vehicles and $1.2 billion real property values. Outside of his role in the family insurance agency, Smith has been involved in both local and state volunteer endeavors. He

has served as president of the Marianna Chamber of Commerce, Marianna Rotary Club and Marianna Animal Shelter, as well as chairman of the Community Foundation of Lee County. Smith has also served on the Arkansas Workforce Investment Board and the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business Executive Forum. Within the insurance industry, Smith has served as president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Arkansas and as a national director at Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America. Smith was also named as an Alan Kennedy award winner, the highest honor given by the Independent Agents of Arkansas.

Mark Snowden CEO and President First Electric Cooperative

Mark Snowden was named CEO and president of First Electric Cooperative in March 2023. In this role, he is responsible for leading and managing the cooperative’s employees and more than 100,000 member accounts. Snowden first joined the electric cooperative family in 1998 at Cimarron Electric Cooperative in Kingfisher, Okla. During his 24-year career at Cimarron, Snowden worked and gained experience in key account relationships, rate design, marketing and accounting. Snowden eventually served as CEO of Cimarron Electric and later accepted a position at National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation as vice president of Strategic Services Group. With vast experience and leadership roles, Snowden currently resides in Cabot, where he and his family are active in the community.

Nate Steel Chief Compliance and Government Affairs Officer Good Day Farm

As chief compliance officer and state governmental affairs officer at Good Day Farm in Little Rock, Nate Steel leads the company’s responsibilities regarding regulatory compliance and matters regarding governmental relations. A licensed attorney and former Arkansas legislator, prior to Good Day Farm, Steel was a co-founder and managing partner of Steel Wright Gray, a commercial litigation, government relations and administrative law firm in Little Rock. Steel’s law practice focused on licensing and advocacy before state boards and commissions with a focus on medical marijuana and casino gaming licensees. He has represented some of the largest public companies in regulated industries in the southeastern United States, including banking, energy, health care and pharmacy. Nate served three terms in the Arkansas General Assembly from 2010 to 2015. There, he cochaired the House Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee and sat on the judiciary, state agencies, joint budget and energy committees.



Stephens Insurance

Miles Stephens is the CEO and president of Stephens Insurance, a position he was named to in 2019. Stephens previously served as a senior vice president in the investment banking division of Stephens, where he advised mid-to-large sized businesses with a focus on the energy and auto retail sectors. Prior to joining Stephens in 2014, he held research positions at Hotchkis and Wiley Capital Management and Lehman Brothers. Stephens is a graduate of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and received his Master of Business Administration from Columbia Business School in New York. He is currently a director of Vanguard Truck Centers.

Ember Strange CFO

City of North Little Rock

Ember Strange is North Little Rock’s chief financial officer. She has 18 years of experience in management and governmental accounting. She currently serves as president of the Women’s Public Finance Network of the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada. She is vice chair of GFOA’s standing committee on accounting, auditing and financial reporting. She is a past board member for the Arkansas GFOA. She also served on the board of trustees for the Arkansas Municipal League Pension Management and Other Post-employment Benefits Trusts, the city’s investment committee and the electric department’s risk management committee. In 2017, she attended the Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. She also attended GFOA’s Advanced Government Finance Institute at the University of Wisconsin. She received a bachelor’s degree in accounting and her Masters of Accountancy from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Brian Swindle CFO

Harrison Energy Partners

Brian Swindle, chief financial officer at Harrison Energy Partners in Little Rock, attended the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, where he obtained a Bachelor of Science in accounting in 1997. He is a certified public accountant and gained 11 years of experience working in public accounting, including eight years with a local firm and three years operating his own firm. He joined Harrison Energy Partners in 2008 as controller and was promoted to chief financial officer in 2011. Swindle, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, served from 1986 to 1992. He is also an active member of the Arkansas Society of Certified Public Accountants and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

As chief operating officer at SupplyPike in Rogers, Christine Tan brings a wealth of strategic leadership and operational expertise to the role. With over six years of experience in operations, human resources and business administration, she has a track record of optimizing processes, enhancing efficiency and driving sustainable growth. Tan is a graduate of the University of Arkansas Sam M Walton College of Business. She is known for her passion towards employee engagement that has significantly contributed to the success of the organization. Under her leadership, SupplyPike has been named an Arkansas Best Place to Work three years in a row and a Great Place to Work two years in a row. She has led SupplyPike in achieving its operational goals while fostering a culture of innovation and excellence

Wes Taylor CEO NWA Steel

Wes Taylor is no stranger to steel or northwest Arkansas. Born and raised in Springdale, Taylor is the CEO of NWA Steel, founded in Springdale in 1961. In his early years, Taylor could be found on NWA Steel job sites during the summer and after class as he worked toward graduating from the University of Arkansas. He did so in 2002 — while also working full time on the weekends at the Walmart home office. After college and a few years managing logistics and warehousing with Walmart, Taylor was called back to his true passion in construction. There were many economic challenges in construction, leading up to 2010 when Taylor was moved to start a construction company. In 2012, NWA Steel was added to that movement to offer turnkey Fab & Erect Steel Services with six very ambitious team members. Today, NWA Steel is AISC Certified in Building Fabrication and Erection with 140 industry experts committed to making every project a success.

Kris Upton CEO RPM Group

Kris Upton is the owner and CEO of the RPM Group in Little Rock. For nearly 70 years, Rector Phillips Morse has had a rich and storied history in Arkansas real estate. Beginning in 2023, and for the first time ever, the firm has one owner with a single vision for the future. Since Upton took the helm as president in 2012, RPM has grown to nine sales offices and consistently ranks in the top tier of commercial sales, leasing and real estate investment advisory services. While Upton does not shy away from recognizing RPM’s past successes, his focus is building on future prospects for the firm highlighted by the integrity, talent and professionalism of the more than 350 employees and sales associates that are dedicated to serving Arkansas. Upton is especially proud of the company’s residential operation, Coldwell Banker RPM Group, that finished 2023 as the No. 1 ranked firm in central Arkansas based on sales volume.




Springdale Camden Magnolia



Little Rock

El Dorado

11 Locations Across the Natural State 85 Professionals Ensuring Your Satisfaction

Little Rock:

10800 Financial Centre Pkwy, Suite 300 (501) 225-3454

Springdale: (Farris Insurance)

4706 S. Thompson Street (479) 756-6330

Sunstar has added vast experience to our already stellar team of insurance professionals. Covering more of the Natural State than any other independent insurance group, we’re one of the fastest growing insurance agencies in the region. That’s the power of local. That’s the power of Sunstar. Learn more at

Jonesboro: (Incl. Evins Insurance)

2479 Browns Lane (870) 932-7448

Congratulations, John Moran, chief financial officer, for being named one of Arkansas Money & Politics’ C-Suite Executives of 2024.

For the last six years, John has worked to help USAble Life deliver on our mission of making a meaningful difference in the lives of our customers thanks to his many years of experience in finance and leadership.

We appreciate all that you do!

Paragould: (Mark Miller Insurance) 117 W. Court Street (870) 236-1415

Camden: (Campbell & Co.)

221 W. Washington St. (870) 836-5724

Hot Springs
Sheridan Our Superior Service Never Gets Eclipsed

Mahesh Venkatraman CFO

Welspun Tubular

Mahesh Venkatraman, chief financial officer at Welspun Tubular, has demonstrated expertise in navigating complex financial landscapes with an analytic mind and confidence with numbers. He has also displayed a strong ability to adapt to evolving challenges while ensuring effective collaboration and communication across a diverse team He drives the financial strategies that support the company’s growth and profitability while ensuring compliance with industry regulations and setting up processes and controls. He has worked with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Arkansas Office of Skills Development for the past five years and has participated in Little Rock Regional Chamber meetings. During the past few years, he has also taken Welspun and Arvest Bank’s relationship to the next level. He has been engaged in Harmony Health Clinic fundraising since 2019. He also serves on the boards of the Hindu Temple of Central Arkansas and Welspun Pipes.

Sharon Tallach Vogelpohl CEO and President MHP/Team SI

Launching her agency career as an intern at then Mangan Holcomb Partners in 1994, Sharon Tallach Vogelpohl, CEO and president, became a principal in the firm in 2005 and was named president in 2010. Under her leadership, MHP/Team SI now serves hundreds of clients nationally with 130+ professionals providing the most data-driven performance marketing in the region. Known for her “Power Ideas,” she has nurtured many omnichannel campaigns from strategic development to award-winning recognition. This vast experience extends to philanthropic efforts for dozens of nonprofits and professional organizations. Sharon has earned the Woman’s Foundation Woman of the Year in Business Award, the Junior Achievement Legacy Award and Rotary International’s Service Above Self Award for leading the international organization’s People of Action campaign. Sharon is currently president of 50 for the Future, and will serve as the first female president of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2025. She was also recently named to the National Advertising Review Board, honored among the Top Women in Communication by PR Daily and the PR People of the Year by PR NEWS

Arkansas Capital Corp.

Sam Walls III joined Arkansas Capital Corp. in 2003 and was named CEO in 2022. Arkansas Capital is a 67-year-old private economic development company that has helped deploy over $2 billion in capital through small business lending and project finance and has also been a leader in entrepreneurial education. Walls is a 1996 graduate of the Universty of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, a 1992 graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a 1988 graduate of

Little Rock Catholic High. Nationally, Walls was recently named a member of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Advisory Board and he has served several years on the National New Market Tax Credit Advocacy Board. Locally, Walls is on the boards of the Arkansas State Chamber, the Little Rock Chamber and the Mount St. Mary Foundation.

Alexandria Washington CEO and Managing Principal The BIG Agency

Alexandria Washington is CEO and managing principal of the BIG Agency, where she and her team serve as the go-to brand architects for clients across the country, especially in her home state of Arkansas — employing more than 30 young Black and brown creatives. Previously, Washington served as a broadcaster in a number of cities from coast to coast and still serves as an award-winning radio personality with Bradford Media Group, and as a TV host with media titans such as TMZ, Fox News, Viacom and Radio One. She is a graduate of Leadership Greater Little Rock and was recognized as an AY magazine “Most Intriguing Woman in Arkansas” for 2022. Washington is a graduate of the University of Alabama, and earned an MBA from Philander Smith University.

Ryan L. Watley CEO Go Forward Pine Bluff

Ryan L Watley is a native of Pine Bluff, as well as a graduate of Pine Bluff High School, an alum of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the University of Oklahoma. Watley joined Go Forward Pine Bluff as CEOelect in 2017. He is responsible for educating the Pine Bluff community on strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities around the city’s government infrastructure, education system, economic develoment and quality of life. Watley became CEO after the successful passage of the Go Forward Pine Bluff tax initiative that provides funding for 26 initiatives to address city challenges. In six years, Watley has successfully raised over $20 million in private investments and philanthropic contributions. The funds have worked in sync with tax dollars to achieve a 92 percent activity rate among the 26 initiatives. Watley attributes his success to the core values of faith, family, and responding to the needs of others.

Jeff Weatherly CFO Lexicon

Jeff Weatherly has served as Lexicon’s chief financial officer for more than 20 years. He is responsible for accounting, treasury, risk management, banking and surety relationships, litigation, and acquisitions. Prior to joining the Lexicon team as vice president and CFO, he served as director of tax for Hudson Foods in Rogers and manager for Arthur Anderson & Co. in Kansas City, Mo. A certified public accountant, Weatherly received his bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance from the University of Missouri.

99 ARMONEYANDPOLITICS.COM MARCH 2024 501-301-8800 9301 Frazier Pike Little Rock, AR 72206 CONGRATULATIONS Mahesh Venkatraman CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER Among the Largest Welded Line Pipe Manufacturers in the World. CEO & OWNER OF WINCHOICE USA Congratulations to Morgan Wiles for being named one of AMP’s C-Suite Executives! Under Morgan’s leadership WinChoice USA has been able to service over 40,000 homes across America all from Mountain Pine, Arkansas. Give us a call today to see how we can help you! (855) 988-7283 Visit us online at

Quinten Whiteside COO

Quinten Whiteside is the chief operating officer at Wright Lindsey Jennings in Little Rock, one of Arkansas’ largest and oldest law firms with more than 70 attorneys spanning 50 practice areas. An experienced litigator, Whitseside’s practice focuses on administrative law, government relations, transportation, landlord/tenant concerns and health care. Mid-South Super Lawyers named him a “Rising Star” in 2021 and 2022, and he was featured in “Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch” in 2021, 2022 and 2023 for insurance and transportation law. He spent six years on the Friends of KLRE/KUAR Board of Directors, including as chair of the recruitment and governance committee, and is a Leadership Greater Little Rock Class XXXVII graduate. Whiteside currently serves on the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Commission and on the boards of directors for First Tee of Central Arkansas and the ACCESS Cup Golf Tournament.

Morgan Wiles CEO and Co-owner WinChoice USA

Morgan Wiles is the CEO and co-owner of WinChoice USA and Morfe Windows. Since founding these multi-million-dollar businesses in 2011, Morgan’s leadership and perseverance continues to put his team at the forefront of the home improvement industry. After six years of active duty and two overseas deployments in the Army, Wiles entered the window sales industry before pursuing his entrepreneurial dream. Together with his business partner, Shaun Keefe, Wiles launched operations in their hometown of Mountain Pine, investing in the community’s economic future. Under his stewardship, WinChoice was recognized as one of the fastest-growing companies by Inc. 5000. Today, his companies employ more than 210 individuals covering 9 states.

City of Faith

Terry Williams is the executive director of City of Faith, a nationally respected, nonprofit reentry center for federal offenders with locations in Little Rock and Louisiana.

A passionate believer in prison reform, Williams helped establish a community relations board to increase communication between residential reentry and the Little Rock community. She directed the land purchase, design and construction of an 8,000-squarefoot administration and training facility adjacent to the residents’ quarters at the Little Rock center, which houses more than 100 residents. She is considered a national leader in the field of prisoner reentry. A member of the Maumelle City Council, Williams has a Master of Public Administration and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She received a Bachelor of Arts in corrections from Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, La.

Casey Willis COO

National Park Medical Center

Casey Willis is the chief operating officer at National Park Medical Center in Hot Springs. Prior to joining the team in 2022, Willis served as associate administrator at North Alabama Medical Center, which is another Lifepoint facility. She also served other health care organizations in several roles including market director for physician services, director of health information management and clinical case manager. Willis earned her Master of Business Administration from Martin Methodist College, where she was honored as the D.W. Johnston School of Business MBA Student of the Year for Outstanding Leadership and Scholarship. Outside of work, Willis enjoys all Hot Springs has to offer with her husband, Russ, and her family, who all appreciate the great outdoors.

Stacy Wilson CRO

Little Rock Regional Chamber

Stacy Wilson is chief revenue officer at the Little Rock Regional Chamber. In her role, she oversees all chamber revenue generation, including all chamber memberships and sponsorships. She also oversees the planning and execution of all chamber events. Wilson works tirelessly to serve all of the chamber’s member organizations. She joined the chamber in 2020 as director of programs and investor development and previously worked as special events director for Susan G. Komen Arkansas. She graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in business.

Cindy Wolfe COO Bank OZK

With more than three decades of banking experience, Cindy Wolfe, chief operating officer, has been an instrumental part of the leadership team that has fueled the growth of Bank OZK, one of the best performing financial institutions in the country with over $34 billion in total assets, approximately 2,700 employees and over 240 offices in eight states. She joined Bank OZK in 1997 as a commercial lender and pioneered the bank’s expansion outside Arkansas in 2001. Since then, she has served in various leadership positions in the Carolinas and Arkansas. She became chief operating officer in 2022. Her areas of responsibility include retail banking, wholesale banking, deposit operations, marketing, trust and wealth and human resources.


Spa City Rentals prides itself on taking the hassle out of vacation properties for property owners and guests alike. As a leading player in the short-term rental market, Spa City Rentals is bringing the economic benefits of this lucrative industry to Hot Springs and Garland County. From bringing in tourist dollars to creating jobs, short-term vacation rentals make a positive impact on their surrounding communities.

“Because of the price advantage that short term rentals offer, less popular tourist destinations become more attractive with the arrival of short-term vacation rentals,” owner Amy France said. “We had more than 3 million tourists in 2023, which was a record-breaking year for the city of Hot Springs. Tourism is what keeps our city thriving and growing year after year.”

France and her team have seen firsthand the evolution of the short-term rental space in recent years, and they are constantly working to stay ahead of changes in customer taste and owner needs. For example, Spa City Rentals will be adding concierge services to its repertoire in 2025, offering services such as grocery delivery, party setup, babysitting and travel to and from the airport.

“You can’t list a three bedroom, two bath home with no amenities, beige walls and used, worn furniture and expect it to cash flow like before,”

France said. “We try to create experiences for our guests instead of offering bland homes. If you are not doing this, you will not stand out and in return will get fewer bookings.”

As a small, woman-owned business, Spa City Rentals understands the importance of reinvesting in the local economy. Every Spa City Rentals home utilizes local products wherever possible, and if a guest requests flowers, they come from local florists. The Spa City Rentals team also makes it a point to recommend all of the restaurants, bars and other attractions Hot Springs has to offer, whether on its website or in-person with guests.

That attention to detail and personal touch is what makes Spa City Rentals a hit with property owners as well, since they rely on the business to make their vacation rentals stand out and above the competition. Spa City Rentals uses competitive pricing, and they utilize multiple marketing channels to promote their properties. The Spa City Rentals team is available 24/7 and has a 99 percent response rate to guests. When guests call, they are dealing with real Hot Springs residents, not some distant corporation.

“Prompt responses are of the utmost importance to us and in return we get more bookings,” France said. “If our homeowners don’t succeed, neither do we, so we are willing to always go the extra mile.” | 501-813-4134


Bobby E. Brown

Invest in YOURSELF

Bobby E. Brown Jr., president of Brown Comstock Private Wealth Advisors in Hot Springs and branch manager at Raymond James in Hot Springs, said he would advise those looking to launch a successful career path to invest in themselves.

“Invest in yourself, and get the best education you can afford,” he said. “Join a team, as it will save you years in learning the business. Surround yourself with smart people that you respect.”

Brown did just that and has experienced much success in his more than 30 years of experience in the financial services industry.

That includes recognition as one of the AdvisorHub Top Advisors to Watch in 2023. Brown currently holds Series 7, 63, 65, 9 and 10 licenses in 14 states and has Arkansas life and health insurance licenses. He is also a registered principal.

A native of the Natural State, Brown is from Hope and graduated from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville with a Bachelor in Science in business administration with a focus in marketing, economics and finance. He then attended law school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and is a graduate of the prestigious Center for the Study of Capitalism, part of the school of business at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He also is a graduate of the Bachrach Academy and American Cotton Shippers Association International Cotton Institute in Memphis.

// Photo provided
TOP TEN x amp Arkansas Money & Politics CELEBRATING 10 YEARS

In his current position, Brown is responsible for supervision of the firm, investment and portfolio management, and business development.

“As independent professional advisors, we can offer you a personalized financial strategy, not a generic investment program,” he said. “Your individual portfolio will be based on your unique situation, your attitudes, preferences and goals. It will be designed to account for change, both in the market and in your circumstances, so that it can work with you and for you at every stage of your life.”

Brown said his firm’s approach is straightforward.

“We focus on becoming your partner in building the future you desire. As we work together, our advisors will thoroughly explain the investment strategies recommended, so that you’ll be fully comfortable with all aspects of your investment program,” he said. “Every decision we make will be focused on achieving the results you want. Our mission is to help our clients achieve financial independence through professional advice, sound risk management, quality investment products and personal, efficient service.”

the mission of which is to provide caring, professional support and education to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers through direct financial assistance, social programs and educational services. It was established by cancer care specialists and supported by generous physicians, companies, families and individuals who understand the special needs of the courageous individuals fighting the disease.

“Our Promise is unique in this area for providing direct financial support and spending money raised locally only for local uses,” Brown said.

Invest in yourself, and get the best education you can afford.

Brown has been a leader in Arkansas throughout the entirety of his career and has served various organizations in several capacities. Notably, Brown served as president of Fifty for the Future and spent seven years on the executive board. He also has served on the executive boards of the Quapaw Area Council Ouachita District Boy Scouts of America, Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce. He has served as treasurer of the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff and is a graduate of Leadership Pine Bluff.

He is past president of Our Promise Cancer Resources,

As a lover of nature, Brown enjoys spending time outside, and Arkansas makes for a scenic backdrop. He also serves on the capital campaign steering committee of Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs. Garvan Woodland Gardens serves as the botanical garden for the University of Arkansas.

Garvan’s mission is to preserve and enhance a unique part of the Ouachita environment; provide visitors with a place of learning, research, cultural enrichment and serenity; develop and sustain gardens, landscapes and structures of exceptional aesthetics, design and construction; and partner with and serve communities of which the gardens is a part.

”The beauty of the outdoors in the Natural State, from floating, boating or fishing in our rivers or lakes, biking, hiking or hunting … Arkansas is the best state,” Brown said.

In his free time, Brown can be found golfing, spending time in the great outdoors, and bonding with family and friends. Brown and his family are active members of Grace Church in Hot Springs, where he serves on the board of trustees.


Marcy Doderer


When Marcy Doderer became president and CEO of the Arkansas Children’s in 2013, in a way she was joining the family business. Her father, J.B. Norton, M.D., was the chief of pediatric cardiology at Arkansas Children’s when she was growing up, and one of her earliest work experiences was a college internship with the CEO of Arkansas Children’s.

“At that point, I shifted from a potential career path in banking to hospital management, and I never looked back,” Doderer said.

Doderer earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Trinity University in San Antonio and a Master of Arts in hospital and health administration from the University of Iowa. She then found work in Texas, holding progressively higher leadership positions at hospitals both large and small. After a decade of working at adult-centric facilities she joined the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio as vice president and administrator in 2002. She has dedicated herself to pediatrics ever since, though it would be another decade before she would return to Arkansas.

children. My timing was perfect, as the board of Arkansas Children’s Hospital had just launched a search for a new CEO. I reached out to the recruiter, interviewed, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.”

The growth of Arkansas Children’s since that time has been immense; what was once a single hospital in Little Rock has become an entire health system, having constructed an entirely new hospital at Arkansas Children’s Northwest, built new clinics in southwest Little Rock and Pine Bluff, and renovated and expanded the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Jonesboro Clinic. With an integrated network of clinics and alliances with physician practices around the state, a research foundation and a philanthropic foundation, Arkansas Children’s can serve children in all 75 counties.

“ I believe the best leaders find an amazing blend of ambition and humility.

“Following 20 years working in large health systems, I was interested in leading a free-standing, independent children’s hospital,” Doderer said. “I wanted to work in an organization where everyone, from the governing board to the front-line staff, was interested in improving the lives of

Doderer and the rest of Arkansas Children’s leadership have not been content to stop there, however; right now, Arkansas Children’s is embarking on the single largest expansion of its 112-year history. The $318 million plan will add more than 100 providers, 400 team members, and hundreds of thousands of square feet in new construction and renovations on both the Little Rock and Springdale campuses to help care for even more children.

“Another major initiative is the growth of our research enterprise,” Doderer said. “Through the Arkansas Children’s Research Institute, we are quickly growing the number of


clinical trials available to the children of Arkansas so that we can help bring novel and effective treatments more quickly to the state. We are also excited about adding dedicated space and research teams to help understand the best approaches to care, treatment and prevention of opioid use. We are establishing the National Center for Opioid Research this year with the help of the attorney general of Arkansas’ opioid settlement funds.”

In the health care industry, one can never expect what the next day might bring. This is especially true for a system that has experienced Arkansas Children’s level of rapid change, and it is that dynamic nature of the work which both drew Doderer in and has kept her there for her entire career. She said she spends most of her day in a long chain of meetings, but each meeting might deal with a very different and highly important topic. One might focus on internal matters for the Arkansas Children’s system, ensuring the quality and safety of services provided while managing finances and long-term strategy, and the next might see Doderer advocating externally on children’s health issues, working on economic development opportunities or collaborating with other children’s hospitals across the nation.

“I am energized to do more when I welcome new employees at orientation and when I round with our frontline teams,” Doderer said. “It is important to me to try to connect with the team several times a week so that I can thank them for the good work they do, listen to their ideas for improvements and help problem solve for the pain points in their work. I also really enjoy the deep work we do as a team to build our strategic plans. It is incredibly intellectually stimulating to sit with a group of leaders and devise new and better ways that allow Arkansas Children’s to serve more children across the region.”

For anyone hoping to follow in Doderer’s footsteps in the health care industry, she said integrity is one of the greatest qualities one can have. Maintaining that integrity day in and day out, however, takes honesty, courage and authenticity — the guts to take tough stands, engage in difficult conversations about touchy subjects, to be open about oneself and stick up for one’s own beliefs and values despite the inevitable opposition.

“Finally, I believe the best leaders find an amazing blend of ambition and humility, Doderer said. “You need some level of drive to achieve, to be better, to deliver more, and you need to be humble, kind and never have to be the smartest person in the room.”



Christie Erwin

Let the Kids Be Heard

Christie Erwin was rocking her third child one afternoon when she felt the call that would change her life forever.

That was when the woman who would go on to foster more than 50 children and found Project Zero in Little Rock said God told her, “It’s time.”

“I felt the Lord was saying, if you’re going to be pro-life, you need to do more than talk — which I wasn’t talking much at that time about it — but it was like, you know, the world has seen enough of that,” she said. “You need to act.”

It did not make any sense for her and her husband, Jeff, to start fostering newborn babies, she said, but that is exactly what they did. They fostered with Bethany Christian Services, a private Christian nonprofit adoption agency in Little Rock, for 11 years before becoming foster parents for the Arkansas Department of Human Services Division of Children and Family Services in 2004.

“You have to walk into it with an open heart, an open mind and with your eyes wide open because every child that comes into your home, whether you’re fostering or adopting, is going to have different needs, going to have different things that you’re going to have to address and find resources for,” she said.

It is impossible to parent an adoptive or foster child the way one might parent a biological one, so foster parents must be open to doing things differently, she added.

“A lot of times people walk into it, [and] they think they know,” she said. “They’ve gone through training. They’ve read books. They’ve listened to podcasts. They’ve done all these things, but it becomes very different when that child is in your home.”

She said the most rewarding part of fostering was watching children who have experienced trauma begin to grow in response to love and care.

“To see them flourish as a result of the care that God has allowed us to give them is probably my favorite thing,” she said. “I

think the hardest thing, undoubtedly, is seeing a child that you’ve had the opportunity to watch grow go back to that situation that has not been healthy and learn later that they’re not doing well. That probably is the most crushing thing that has happened.”

Although fostering left her grief-stricken at times, she said, she would not trade the experience for anything.

“I began to see kids and how hopeless they felt and how they needed people to champion them and to let the world know about them and to, especially, let the world know that they are not less than,” she said. “They are not second best. They are valuable, precious, unique and deserve to be fought for.”

Erwin fostered for almost 20 years. She now has six children, the last two having been adopted from foster care. She also cochaired the Pulaski County Adoption Coalition, which shut down due to lack of funding, and she helped launch the CALL, a Little Rock nonprofit that supports children in foster care.

Although Erwin and her husband never planned to adopt, that all changed when Serenity, their fifth child, now 20, came into their home as a foster child at 14 months. Erwin said her husband felt as though God told him they would adopt her. They later decided to adopt their youngest child, Edward, 15, who they began to foster at 6 months after about a year spent trying to reunite him with his birth mother.

“The goal is never adoption,” she said. “It’s always reunification, and it should be to rehabilitate a family and to allow kids to grow up there, safe and healthy and loved, but as things went along and that wasn’t going to happen, we realized that [Serenity] was going to be our daughter forever, and so it was an easy transition, and it was for Edward too.”

She stopped fostering about 12 years ago, around the time Project Zero was born.

Erwin’s calling began to shift from mothering to advocacy


about 15 years ago, when she attended an adoption conference in Austin after writing her book, The Middle Mom — How to Grow Your Heart by Giving it Away.

“As we were sitting, listening to one of the pastors speak, he said something that radically changed the course of my life and the calling of my life,” Erwin said. “He said as Christians, if we were doing what God has called us to do, there would be zero kids in foster care waiting to be adopted. I got home, and I just could not shake that.”

Those words led her and her friend Caryl Watson to found Project Zero.

“It has one goal, and that goal is to have zero kids in foster care waiting to be adopted,” she said, adding that about 230 Arkansas children are currently waiting. “That’s the lowest number we’ve ever had since Project Zero’s inception, and while we are blown away by that and thrilled by that, we’re also humbled by that and inspired by that to push forward to get to zero.”

The organization works to achieve that goal in three ways: raising awareness, building hope in waiting children and connecting the children with adoptive families.

While many Americans know about the plight of children waiting to be adopted overseas, Erwin said, fewer know about the 100,000 children seeking adoption in the U.S. She added that aging out of foster care without being adopted can have catastrophic results for young people.

Erwin said her organization is known for thinking outside the box when it comes to its mission and even went so far as to travel to Nashville, Tenn., to cut an album about waiting children.

The album was a flop — Erwin said the organization did not know how to market it — but Project Zero has had success raising awareness in other ways. The organization created the online Heart Gallery, which displays photos of children seeking adoption, and about 10 years ago, the organization began making videos that allow waiting children to share their stories in their own words.

“Sometimes they’re fun and light as far as a kid one time said, ‘If I was adopted, I’d probably turn into a rainbow’” Erwin said, “or it can be something as gut-wrenching as, ‘It’s been years since I had a hug.’”

The organization builds hope in a variety of ways, including Project Prom, which helps teen girls prepare for high school’s top formal. Project Zero also provides children with opportunities to meet families looking to adopt, by hosting a variety of events where children and families can mingle.

“We talk daily with adoption staff all over the state and work very closely together to think of creative ways to help our kids be seen and heard respectfully, and we can help families and encourage them while they’re walking the process,” she said.

x amp Arkansas Money & Politics CELEBRATING 10 YEARS

Frank Fletcher Jr.

Dream Weaver

Arkansas Business Hall of Famer Frank Fletcher Jr. leaned back in a side chair at the foot of the desk of Thomas Roy III, the longtime chief financial officer at Frank Fletcher Group. During the course of a 30-minute interview, Fletcher repeatedly emphasized his lack of intelligence and pointed to his confidante as the source of his success.

“I’m a dreamer. I come in with great dreams of how to do stuff, and then [Roy] goes back, runs the computer and goes, ‘That wasn’t a dream, that was a friggin’ nightmare,’” Fletcher said.

As if to underscore the point, Fletcher recounted once coming in flushed with enthusiasm over wanting to buy a Little Rock hotel.

“He ran the figures on it, and he said, ‘We’re going to lose $2 million the first year, and that’s going to be our best year,’” Fletcher said. “I had no idea. I wasn’t that smart. I tell people there’s a reason this gentleman has been with me and made every major decision.”

The two men shared a good belly laugh at the statement. As Fletcher’s bio on the company website attests, he has “built a still-growing string of 20 ultra-successful enterprises in a variety of industries,” something that takes more than a modicum of skill and intellectual ability. When reminded of that fact, Fletcher’s laugh shrank to a knowing smile.

“We have a lot of talent in our companies,” he said. “I’m a believer. I try to relate to our employees that God gave you talents, and yours are probably totally different from the next guy, but everybody has a talent. Tom can’t sell anything, but Frank Fletcher can’t do anything he can do, and [Roy] has done many, many unbelievable things in guiding me.

“I always try to, at any level, inspire people to be the best they can be. We have a lady who cooks breakfast at our Wyndham, and we get over 50 comment cards a week just because she cooks omelets, and she does it in front of you, and when

you come in the Wyndham, she screams, ‘Good morning!’ People are amazed at that friendliness at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. She is just an example of how you can take one person, and they guide the ship for other people. It’s attitude, habits, respect for others.”

Fletcher’s deference to the talents of others is not just feelgood talk but part of a sly genius camouflaged by a well-honed aw-shucks persona. He learned business from the best — Walmart founder Sam Walton — who he credits with helping him to think bigger, work harder and deliver more value than the next guy. Walton’s no-nonsense approach also shored up Fletcher’s self-confidence and launched him as an entrepreneur, albeit in a decidedly tough love kind of way.

“I was a manufacturer’s rep for Walmart, where I sold for all these companies, maybe 20 of them. I traveled all over. They paid me a commission, and I liked that, and I would have been doing that the rest of my life. I loved it,” he said. “Mr. Walton called me in there about eight or 10 years into it, and he said, ‘We’re going to call all the factories and have you fired. We need your commission. We want to take your five percent off the price.’

“I mean, it was a shock. I said, ‘Mr. Sam, I’ve been with you…’ and he said, ‘Frank, don’t start crying. You’ve been paid well, son.’ I kept kind of looking at the floor, and he said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You go down to Little Rock. You rent you a garage and make something.’ I’m 28 or 29, and I didn’t know how to turn the key on, and that’s exactly what I said. He said, ‘I don’t feel sorry for you. Find something. If you’ve got the lowest price on something, I’ll buy it from you.’”

Out of necessity bordering on desperation, Fletcher bought lamp components, assembling them in a garage and selling them to Walmart, later expanding into mirrors and picture frames. The venture was a success, and he quickly gained other


retail clients. None of them, however, played the integral role that Walton would continue to play in the young businessman’s career.

Fletcher said after a decade of supplying Walmart, he started hearing from Walton that his price was too high, despite having moved his manufacturing offshore. Finally, Walton invited him to a gathering of corporate heavyweights from back east, where Fletcher was unexpectedly called on stage.

“He said, ‘The No. 1 lamp we sell at Walmart. How much do we sell that for?’ I said, ‘$79.’ He said, ‘How many do you think we could sell if we drop that price to $49?’” Fletcher said. “He said, ‘How much do you charge me for that?’ I said ‘$47.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t look like we can sell it for $49, does it? Well, I’m going to give you an order for $10 million and two minutes to tell these gentlemen out here how you’re going to go down from $49 to about $30. We’d all like to hear it.’

“At that point in time, $10 million was the same thing as a billion to me, so I accepted the challenge, and I went to mainland China north of Hong Kong, and my Taiwanese partner went with me. We went into partnership with a guy in mainland China and opened a factory up there so we could make those [expletive] lamps to fit his price point.”

The home decor business would eventually give way to auto dealerships — of which Fletcher has owned 38 lifetime and now owns nine in Arkansas and Missouri — by which he has built Fletcher Auto Group into one of the top 100 car dealers in the U.S. Other business segments include Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in Little Rock, Benihana in North Little Rock, Riverfront Steakhouse in North Little Rock, Fletcher Real Estate and Frank Fletcher Racing. For each, he gives the lion’s share of credit to others, downplaying his own ability as far as the listener will let him.

“My father wanted me to get a master’s degree. I said, ‘You don’t realize I barely got out of school,’” he said. “I am not ‘A’ smart, but I’ve got good common sense.”

Fletcher’s long business career and track record for success has led to industry accolades and wide commendations for supporting causes great and small all over Arkansas. His capstone honor was his induction into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2013. There, he resides alongside its first inductee and his longtime mentor, Walton.

His career success has brought any number of life’s luxuries within reach, and while he still brings Roy the occasional wild hair business idea — lately, the nagging desire to buy a radio station — common sense keeps his fundamental priorities straight: family, church and the many opportunities he has to impact his 750 employees.

“I come out here every Saturday morning at 8 a.m. when a lot of people say you ought to take it easy. I would say I’m


the only owner in Little Rock that goes to the Saturday morning sales meeting,” he said. “Why do I do it? Because these people in here love it. I get in here, and I get them fired up like the circus, and I give them bonus money. ‘If we do this, we do that, you guys can all make a lot of money today.’ I have such a great time with it. I do a little preaching to them, less than two minutes.

“My part of life now is trying to lift people up. I’m not working for money anymore; I’ve got more of that than I deserve. I go to bed at night with the hope that I’ll do better the next day, trying to uplift people to a better part of life than they’re in. That’s very rewarding.”

amp Arkansas Money Politics CELEBRATING 10 YEARS
Mak Millard // Photo provided
Successful by DESIGN By
Myron Jackson TOP TEN x

For a young company in a field as competitive as marketing and communications, talent alone is often not enough.

Businesses truly built to go the distance are those that see a need in the community and succeed in bridging that gap for their clients. When founders Myron Jackson and Telly Noel created the Design Group in Little Rock in 2007, they set their sights on a particularly glaring void: the lack of effective, authentic communications aimed at diverse audiences.

Jackson and Noel had seen the damage being done by what they saw as inaccurate, pandering campaigns at other agencies. The duo set out to give a voice to Arkansans of color by forming their own firm, and 17 years later, the Design Group remains the leader of the pack while others work to catch up. The Little-Rockbased company is at the forefront of multicultural communications, providing clients with the insights and expertise they need to reach African American, Latino, urban and youth consumers.

sociation, which has a membership that serves more than 441,000 Arkansans, announced the Design Group as its communication agency of record, adding yet another name to the firm’s impressive portfolio.

Outside of their work at the Design Group, Jackson and his wife, Stephanie — a local media and public relations powerhouse in her own right — have recently embarked on an even bigger project in the publishing world. With its debut issue launched last November, NOIRE magazine will share news and culture by and for Black Arkansans. The quarterly publication will feature visual and longform content, both in print and online, and promises “stories of triumph, heartache, celebration, grief, hope and aspiration.”

As disruptors, we really try to challenge the status quo by creating an agency that speaks to the total market.

“If we’re nothing else in this agency, we are disruptors,” Jackson, the Design Group’s CEO, told Arkansas Money & Politics in 2023. “The status quo has always been about developing marketing messages that were meant to be relevant to all but really only appeal to a few. As disruptors, we really try to challenge the status quo by creating an agency that speaks to the total market.”

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, Jackson and Noel’s consumer segmentation reflected the increasingly diversity-rich marketplace their clients were trying to speak to, whether that be in terms of race, ethnicity, lifestyle or life stage. The firm quickly made a name for itself thanks to that innovative technique. Just two years in, the Little Rock Regional Chamber named the Design Group the Little Rock Regional Minority Business of the Year.

The Design Group is a full-service firm, so the team works on fronts ranging from brand strategy and public relations to media planning and website development. The agency’s experience across both private and public sector organizations gives it a flexibility and a depth of knowledge that clients rely on. Just last year, the nonprofit Arkansas Black Mayors As-

As the need for their services grows, Jackson and the Design Group plan to keep helping brands reap the benefits of being culturally connected to consumers. Though the industry fundamentals have not changed much since the Design Group first opened its doors, the firm gives clients an advantage over the competition through communications that are authentic, culturally relevant and intellectually and emotionally engaging.

Jackson has always referred to himself as an “ad man,” and that is a good thing to be when one’s firm continues to be one of the most prominent media buyers targeting multicultural consumers in the region. He keeps his finger on that pulse, both locally and nationally, through groups such as the National Association of African-American Advertising Agencies, the National Association of Black Journalists and the Public Relations Society of America, among others. He and his firm are also careful not to lose sight of the most crucial component of their success, which lies in staying closely connected to the communities they aim to reach.

“We often say that we have proximity power,” he told AMP in 2023. “In the African American community, the target demo may be Telly’s mom, may be my aunt, may be a brother-in-law, may be a cousin. We use that proximity power and revel in the fact that no one’s going to understand that segment better than the individuals who are living it every day.”

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Jim Ronquest

Right at HOME

Though it may not have been where he was born or raised, Jim Ronquest is as much at home in the Natural State as any native-born Arkansan. The famed outdoorsman originally hails from the Missouri Ozarks, but his father’s job at a large construction company meant the family moved often. It was in the Mississippi and Ohio river bottoms of western Kentucky that Ronquest discovered what would become a lifelong love for waterfowl hunting.

After a stint in Tennessee, Ronquest’s family returned to Missouri, where he finished high school. At about that time, he took his first steps into the outdoor industry, working on guided hunts for a variety of different companies. In doing so, he became close friends with Butch Richenback, world champion duck caller and founder of Rich-N-Tone Calls, a duck call maker based in Stuttgart. Before long, he was running a business alongside Richenback, Rich-N-Tone Guide Service.

“Of course, being in Arkansas, we’re the duck hunting capital of the world, and that’s part of why I wound up here,” Ronquest said. “This has been home longer than anywhere. I grew up in a hunting and fishing family, and I just fell in love with waterfowl, calling and the communication between us and birds. That communication is why I like duck and turkey hunting so much and all that goes with it. The camaraderie, the people, the gear, the dogs — that all culminates into a good duck hunt.”

After Richenback eventually sold the company to John and Angie Stephens, the new owners expanded the business, rebranded to RNT Calls and introduced a new dimension: video production.

“That was one of my interests at the time,” Ronquest said. “I ran the camera some, though I was better in front of the camera than behind it. I helped produce the first couple of videos, along with kind of becoming the PR guy of RNT Calls. John was a great marketer, especially in conjunction with Blade Fisher, who joined not too long after I did. They did a really good job of that, but I got to be the guy upfront doing some of their sales. As the company grew, I stayed there, and that turned into starting a TV show.”

RNT-V first aired in 2006 and follows the RNT staff through waterfowl hunts, building game calls and taking part in Stuttgart’s famous World Duck Calling Championship. Originally on the Men’s Outdoors and Recreation Network, it eventually became part of the Sportsman Channel and is still ongoing today. For 16 years, Ronquest oversaw all aspects of show production, sponsor sales and relations, and network negotiations. At the same time, he did seminars at sporting goods stores around the country to spread the word about RNT.

“[RNT-V] was a great experience — getting to travel the country in pursuit of wild fowl, making new friends, seeing new country and being a part of the show production,” Ronquest said. “Some of the people I’ve gotten to meet and some of the places I’ve gotten to go, I would have never had those opportunities without doing what I do for a living. I’ve always tried not to take it for granted. There are so many good stories and good people that it’s hard to pick just one out. They’ve all been excellent. All the years that I was in the commercial guidance business, I made friends that I still communicate with fairly regularly — people that I met in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.”

Ronquest eventually left RNT in 2022 before being convinced to get back into the game as vice president of development at Drake Waterfowl, an outdoor apparel company that produces outdoor hunting gear and accessories, from soft goods such as jackets, waders and other clothing to hard goods, including duck blinds and dog stands. Though the company is based in Olive Branch, Miss., Ronquest has largely been able to work from home and remain in Arkansas.

“Nowadays I get to do a lot of different things,” Ronquest said. “It’s been really fun for me. I’ve enjoyed being involved in bigger business dealings, probably playing above my grade a bit. I get the opportunity to hunt with a lot of our accounts, dealers and other people we work with around the country to try to develop partnerships. It’s not just content development I do; it’s also product development and business development. I get

// Photo provided

to work with the product development guys pretty hand in hand, and I definitely work on the PR marketing side, kind of being the front guy. It’s kind of odd riding down the interstate out of Little Rock and seeing a billboard with my picture on it.”

A few simple qualities have allowed Ronquest to find the success he has had throughout his long career, including a willingness to work hard — particularly on things that other people might not be willing to do — and the dedication to pick a direction and stick with it while making the best of and learning from whatever came his way.

“Experience goes a long way. You can’t know what you don’t know,” Ronquest said. “You’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there and be honest. If you don’t know the answer, tell them you don’t know. If you need to go find it, go find it, but don’t try to be something you’re not.”

The actual number of duck hunters is relatively small — according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, only about 1.6 million duck stamps were sold between 2020 and 2021, compared to roughly 11 million deer hunters. Yet the number of hunters belies the true economic impact of the sport.

“If it was just one company, it would be a Fortune 500,” Ronquest said.

That outsized impact means that waterfowl earn a great deal of attention from government conservation organizations. Each year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and numerous state organizations, such as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, conduct surveys on factors such as breeding pairs, habitat and migration numbers. Thus the sport provides for the hunters themselves, the massive industry that has grown up around it, and the wildlife agencies that receive funding from the proceeds of that industry and keep the sport sustainable.

“You’ve got to take care of the resource before the resource can take care of you,” Ronquest said. “The No. 1 thing we have to do is take care of our waterfowl resources. Some of that’s out of our control. A lot of it comes down to the good Lord above and Mother Nature, but anything we can do to help, anything we can do to support good-quality habitat when the rains come back and we get water on the landscape is probably the biggest thing we can do moving forward.

“You can’t blame a guy making a living farming for planting down at the very edge of a pond or trying to get his fields ready to go for next spring. That being said, some modern farming practices don’t work really well with duck hunters. You can’t tell a farmer, ‘I know you’re making a living farming, but we really need you not to use this field. How about you just sit out a little bit and let us have more ducks?’ That’s not going to work, so we’ve got to find ways to balance and work together moving forward to ensure that we always have wild places where the wild ducks can go.”


x amp Arkansas Money & Politics CELEBRATING 10 YEARS

Brett Russell

BABY, YOU CAN Drive My Car

When it comes to Corvettes, Blazers and other Chevrolet models, perhaps no one knows them as well as Brett Russell, dealer principal of Russell Chevrolet in North Little Rock and vice president of Russell Chevrolet Co., which also owns Russell Honda in North Little Rock.

“I’ve known nothing but Chevrolet since I have been alive,” he said. “My grandfather started this in ’63, and I came around in ’67, and then Honda we got in about ’72, but … I’ve kind of been partial to Chevrolet the whole time. Even though I’ve driven some Hondas, the vast majority of the vehicles that I’ve driven since ’16 were Chevrolets, from Camaros to Blazers to Tahoes.”

His grandfather, John Russell, was the sales manager for what was then Critz Chevrolet in North Little Rock, and when the Critz family sold the business, John bought out the owner. John left the store as manager on New Year’s Eve in 1962, and he returned Jan. 2 as owner.

“They flipped roles over the new year, and that’s how he got started in the car business,” Brett said.

When John retired, Brett’s father, Bob Russell, and his uncle, Rick Russell, bought him out, Brett said, adding that Rick’s sons, Jarrod and Rory, work at the Honda store. Brett is in the process of buying out his father, he added.

Brett Russell came to work at the dealership in 1991, after earning a computer science engineering degree at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. While it seems like a given that Russell would join the family business, he said the choice was in his hands.

“It was always, ‘It’s here for you. This is your option. If you want to, come work for us,’” he said. “That’s one reason why I got a different degree, just in case I decided to do something different.”

Growing up in the auto industry was “pretty exciting,” he added.

“I always got to see and ride in and then drive the newest models as they came out,” he said.

At that time, the kings of the game were the Big Three auto

// Photo provided manufacturers: Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, the maker of Chevrolet.

During the early 1970s, a gas crisis brought an influx of imports, including Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Honda, he said. The Russells owned a Mazda franchise before choosing Honda. Russell said the brand provides a “mirror” to Chevrolet.

“We have one domestic and one import, and they both complement each other pretty well,” he said, adding that trucks are the bread and butter of the Chevy franchise, while fuel-efficient options have been staples of the Honda line since the 1980s.

“Those have done real well for us,” he said.

The dealership has taken a low-pressure approach to sales since his grandfather was in the industry, he said, adding that he and his staff see themselves as advisors who can talk customers through the process of buying a car and all aspects of car ownership. When it comes to employees, he said he tries to welcome them to his family while understanding that they have families of their own.

“We try not to overwork our employees,” he said. “We give them family time. We like the fact that our employees don’t feel overstressed, and they aren’t missing out on family engagements or family events, and we just want to impress that back onto all of them that we’re a family, and we want you to be involved in yours, as well.”

He added that auto sales can be a good career choice regardless of whether a prospective employee has sales experience.

“In my opinion, it’s pretty easy to get into the car business, but whether or not it’s in your wheelhouse, it takes a little bit of time and effort of working with people that know how to sell a car to pick up the good habits, forget the bad habits and make a living of it,” he said. “It’s not for everybody, but those that it’s a good fit for, they do a remarkable job of selling and making a living at it.”

Russell has witnessed plenty of change in the auto industry since he began his career. New technology is developed every year, he said, adding that safety and fuel-efficient features are the main


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areas of advancement. Vehicles have gotten bigger over time, he said, and it can be difficult to spot a truck with a regular cab, and SUVs have surpassed sedans in popularity.

“It’s really competitive in this business,” he added. “People have got a lot of options out there. It seems to me that 20 or 30 years ago, people were very loyal to a brand. Now you don’t see that much anymore, so they’ll have a Chevy today, and then tomorrow, they’ll switch over and drive a Honda or Toyota or Tesla.”

His favorite memories center on the excitement of unveiling new models of cars. Back in the day, he said, dealerships would have a new-car show day in September.

“They’d put brown paper all over the windows, sneak in the new models after hours, and then have an unveiling,” he said. “Now that’s kind of gone by the wayside because everybody reads the publications and sees them online and sees the models before they are even in production and make it out to us.”

That said, he still gets a kick out of seeing a new model make its debut.

“The newest Corvette has drawn a lot of eyeballs and people interested in looking at it and test-driving it — sold quite a few of them since it came out,” he said, adding that electric vehicles have yet to gain that kind of fandom. “EV is kind of hit and miss. I mean, there are some people who are kind of excited for it, and then there are those that are going, ‘This is never going to work,’ so we’ll see how that goes in the next couple years.”

He is still waiting on a flying car, he said, but he expects plenty of futuristic advancements for the auto industry. Vehicles are beginning to connect to each other using artificial intelligence to avoid accidents, he said, and self-driving cars are being roadtested today.

“Again, the big question mark is how the EVs take off,” he said. “Are we going to see EVs as we know them now be the thing in the next five, 10 years, or are they going to say, ‘Nope, there’s not enough infrastructure for it. Let’s back a little bit up and go hybrid only”

At the end of the day, he said, he enjoys providing people with reliable, safe transportation, and he likes seeing the excitement on people’s faces when they get in a new car and drive into the sunset.

He said he works to be involved in the community by partnering with schools and other organizations, as well as participating in local chambers of commerce. He recently served on the board of commissions for the North Little Rock Housing Authority, and he has been chairman of the board of the Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association.

He was named Arkansas Dealer of the Year in 2016, and Russell Cheverolet has earned Chevrolet’s Mark of Excellence Award several times. He said he hopes to continue being recognized as a top dealer by Chevrolet and fulfilling the sales and service needs of the central Arkansas community.

“I would like to one day hit that retirement age and be able to turn off and walk away, but we’ll see how that goes,” he said. “My dad, like I said, is retired, but he still comes in here at 85, so I don’t know if I’ll be doing that or if I’ll just say, ‘Alright, here it is, next generation.’”

At this time, he added, his children have decided not to follow in his footsteps at the dealership, but other relatives will likely continue the family business, he said. His daughter, Amanda, is studying pharmacy at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, and his son, Blake, earned a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and now works as an engineer.


Carlton Saffa

HOME at Last

Southwest Oklahoma native Carlton Saffa found himself immersed in the beauty of Arkansas for the first time while driving through the Bobby Hopper Tunnel on what is now Interstate 49. As a senior in high school, he ventured to Fayetteville for a college visit at the University of Arkansas, mostly for the excused absence from school, and ended up finding a home in the Natural State.

“I felt like I was transported to Colorado. Arkansas is just so gorgeous,” Saffa said. “At 18, I think we always think that we grow up and become tougher, and while that is true in a lot of ways, if you told me that I had to move to a state where I did not know anyone right now, I would be nervous.”

Saffa’s parents’ alma mater is the University of Oklahoma, and he did not know a soul as he exited his comfort zone, speeding on the on-ramp to northwest Arkansas. In Fayetteville, he found great opportunities beyond his safety net and met many incredible people who he still calls friends today. Saffa met his wife, Kristen, during his college years, and they currently reside in Little Rock with their two young children.

“There is no place I would rather live than Arkansas. I chose Arkansas, and it chose me back,” Saffa said.

According to Saffa, he has never met a stranger, a trait that has served him well throughout his career, including in his current role as chief market officer for the Quapaw Nation-owned Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff.

As CMO, Saffa reports to the Quapaw Business Committee. The first hired employee at Saracen, he has seen how much the business has grown over the years. Saffa was able to oversee the licensure of the enterprise in all aspects, including with the property’s history-making casino gaming license.

“I came to this organization when it only really existed on paper. We had contractors and consultants, but not even a gaming license,” Saffa said. “I was able to see Saracen become the first casino outside of racing to be granted a gaming license within the history of the state.”

Saffa is directly responsible for all outward-facing functions of the property, as well as day-to-day management of the property’s 800-plus employees, who are co-managed by Saffa alongside two additional senior executives.

Saffa served as one of the Quapaws’ representatives for the construction of the Saracen annex, a 300-slot facility which was completed and operational in 100 days. Saracen’s main property, a $300 million construction project, was developed in parallel, and Saffa was on site daily throughout.

“In a career, I never want to be bored. I can tell you through the past four years at Saracen that I have still not once had a boring day,” Saffa said. “It was unbelievable to watch the annex be completed and then to see people still waiting in line for the 80,000-square-foot gaming floor, which was the largest construction project of the state.”

According to Saffa, Saracen has been in various states of construction ever since. Being built in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saffa believes that time is his greatest enemy in the business.

“When we choose to work on something, we are also choosing to not work on something else. It is all about debating opportunity cost, to put it frankly,” Saffa said.

Saffa led the initiative to regulate mobile sports gaming in Arkansas, and through the production of BetSaracen, he was able to engage the entire state in a small part of what Saracen offers.

“We chose to go all-in with sport book,” Saffa said. “It is still pretty young, but we chose to work on the sport book, and I think the results are paying off. NWA has become a critical market for us, and while 70 percent of our users come from Little Rock, we still needed to advertise on a statewide basis, and it has paid dividends. We consider NWA to be the second most important business market.”

BetSaracen books two-thirds of all online wagers placed in Arkansas, and as of December 2023, it was named the 14th-largest sport book operator in America by Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. As


Saffa described it, BetSaracen has been more important than table games, though casino gaming is still the biggest draw to Saracen. Recently, Saracen gave away a Denali, attracting a crowd of about 8,000 on the giveaway day.

While running day-to-day operations, Saffa has learned many important lessons, including the need to create a positive culture. According to Saffa, the culture of Saracen is far more important than strategy.

“Organizational culture is slowly built but hard to change. At Saracen, we work together and grow together in a space where office politics are simply not tolerated,” Saffa said. “We are all here to provide the best gaming experience we can in the best environment possible.”

Saffa said he looks up to the people he works with most because they challenge him every day.

“I do not like yes-men. I get frustrated when people just tell me what I want to hear. I look up to the people who in many instances report to me,” Saffa said. “The most important and valuable thing in the world is institutional wisdom. There are so many folks whose counsel I seek, and these people are significant in their industries.”

Saffa credits mentors such as lobbyist Don Tilton, attorney Ron Hope, banker Paul Berry, car dealer Steve Landers, state regulators and others for helping him this far in his career and for being great sounding boards.

From casino to casino, gaming functions are relatively similar, but Saffa has strived to create a difference through other functions of Saracen.

“People come to casinos for a myriad of reasons. They’re escaping to something, escaping from something. They want to win. They want to have fun, and they want to feel like they’re somewhere else,” Saffa said. “At Saracen, we differentiate ourselves through other things such as having knowledgeable sommeliers, top-of-the-industry chefs. We don’t just offer Pappy Van Winkle, but we have a cellar full of wine and the only Kobe beef license in the southeast United States.”

In the span of his entire career, Saffa has had multiple rewarding experiences. Aside from playing a role in the licensure and construction of Saracen, he is also proud of his time working for former Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

“I have known Asa since college, and when Asa won [the race for] governor, I felt really proud to play a small role in that,” Saffa said.

Saffa served as senior advisor to Hutchinson, which involved a lot of work prior to his inauguration. In that role, Safffa handled complex and potentially controversial issues on Hutchinson’s behalf, while also coordinating the passage of Hutchinson’s priority legislation packages. In overseeing both the drafting and passage of Act 561 in 2017, Saffa was able to see through Hutchinson’s vision for the elimination of a dual holiday for both Robert E. Lee and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That left the holiday to King alone.

In addition to his role at Saracen, Saffa currently serves on the


board of directors for several organizations, including the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Little Rock Regional Chamber, the Historic Arkansas Museum and United Way of Southeast Arkansas. Saffa also serves on the house corporation of his college fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Notably, Saffa is serving his second term as a member of the Arkansas Supreme Court Office of the Committee on Professional Conduct, which is a body appointed by the court to regulate the practice of law.

For others who wish to embark on similar professional journeys, Saffa recommended retiring the attitude that it is who they know, not what they know, and adopting the attitude of being honest and doing what they say they will.

“So much of life is just showing up, and I believe you make your own luck in life. Who you know may get you in the room, but what you know gets you the job. The best part of this life is showing up and giving your darndest,” Saffa said.


The Catholic High Way

His title changed last year from principal to head of school, but Steve Straessle remains the face of Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys, the school from which he graduated in 1988. In addition to his administrative duties, Straessle still teaches two classes. He joined the Catholic High faculty in 1992 as a freshly minted University of Arkansas graduate with a degree in history eager to help impart onto new generations the Catholic High formula of molding boys into young men.

Except for one year when he worked for a local Civil War historian, Straessle has been at CHS ever since, as principal — and now head of school — since 2005. He has seen the challenges of educating youth persist and evolve over his more than three decades in the classroom and front office, but some of those faced by educators today are new.

“Mental health among teenagers has moved to the forefront of secondary education,” he said. “Yes, schools have always been the place where the initial steps of a diagnosis may be revealed. However, schools now have to take the lead in addressing those mental health challenges kids face because, simply, they’re with us eight hours a day, and if we’re not helping the process during that time, we’re holding back important progress. We’ve hired a counselor, a licensed clinical social worker, to help us full time.”

“ I am extremely optimistic about this generation of youngsters. If I had one complaint to level, it would be their addiction to convenience.

“In this environment, the textbook has become a guide instead of a primary source as we navigate tsunami after tsunami,” he said. “I worry that my current students believe our current political world to be normal instead of the aberration that it is. Collaboration is a good word, I tell them. Take the [U.S. Supreme Court justices Antonin] Scalia/[Ruth Bader] Ginsburg route, and dislike the policy but not the person — unless, of course, that person tries to usurp the foundations of democracy and change our country in a way that is irrevocable.”

Straessle recently discovered that the hiring of a new football coach has changed, even at a school that does not emphasize athletics. Parents and boosters are more than willing to share their advice, especially in the wake of the Rockets’ recent run of success, he soon discovered.

Straessle said another challenge unique to the times relates to teaching American government and politics in the current political environment.

“Hiring a football coach is indeed different these days,” he said. “Scrutiny is a good thing and breeds credibility. It was important to us that a coach not inherit the position but that he is chosen for the position, so instead of just tapping a new coach, we formed a committee and went through the process of interviewing and drilling down on the right fit for the school. Father [George] Tribou [the longtime and late former CHS principal] once lamented that education in Arkansas is one long sporting event occasionally interrupted by academics. Not here. We find coaches that bolster academics and keep athletics as one leg, an important leg, on an otherwise sturdy table.”

Of course, one challenge faced by educators that remains constant is motivation.


“Convincing kids who are in the most transitory period of their lives that what they do now directly impacts the success or challenges of their future remains a focal point of school,” he said. “We focus on the urgency of education — always have, always will. High school is the proving ground for the adult world, and we devote ourselves to helping boys learn to show up early, stay late and work in a way that they are missed when they are gone. All along the way, we’re challenging and nurturing, cajoling and critiquing in healthy, motivational ways.”

Over the decades, that method has helped Catholic High carve out a reputation for discipline, and it has proven to be a popular approach as more modern parents worry that kids are being coddled at school. The Catholic High way is encapsulated in an incident involving a sign that was taped to the front office window several years ago. Its message was intended for parents who were delivering a forgotten lunch or homework to their sons at school. Essentially, the message told these parents to stop, turn around and go back. A photo of the sign made it to Facebook, and comments were overwhelmingly supportive of CHS. Parents stopped delivering forgotten lunches and homework to school.

Straessle decided to have the sign framed and hung on the wall near the school entrance.

“We will still advise parents that the old-school way of learning through soft failures is vital to a young man’s growth,” he said. “I am extremely optimistic about this generation of youngsters. If I had one complaint to level, it would be their addiction to convenience. It’s easier to call Mom or Dad to bring a forgotten lunch or homework than it is to problem-solve their way through it. We are a school that values the art of problem solving.”

Straessle said Catholic High’s current approach to education gets several things right, the most important among them being, of all

things, evolution.

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“This has nothing to do with the creation of the world but the creation of a young, reaching mind,” he said. “Education leans into flexibility as it finds ways to help kids navigate the path to successful adulthood. This requires evolving practices that meet the moment. I’ve always admired that educators are willing to try new things to benefit the kids in front of them.

“What does education get wrong? I think education can easily slip into the convenience addiction, to lowering the bar so that everyone feels good instead of actually being good.”


Tourism Tour de Force

Almost any career professional will tout the power of relationships, though not many have a story of their utility quite like that of Karen Trevino. Now the president and CEO of North Little Rock Tourism, Trevino has also served as the organization’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, and her previous experience includes stints as a group tours consultant at the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and the director of operations for the Arkansas Hospitality Association, among many other roles. While her influence can be felt throughout the tourism world, Trevino’s entry into the industry was, as she described it, a total accident.

“I interviewed for a job with the state but didn’t get it,” she said. “Then I randomly got a call from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, asking me to interview for a position with them. Turns out the person from the other interview took my resume with her to her new position at Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism — one of the most serendipitous occasions that has occurred in my life.”

Even before that, however, the seeds of a career were being sown. With her father in the Air Force, Trevino spent her childhood in locales from Spain to North Dakota, but travel in the recreational sense was not something her family spent much time on. Born in Russellville — though technically only there “three days, just long enough to get born” — Trevino’s family came back to Arkansas while she was in high school. Between junior and senior year, Trevino found herself on the front lines of the hospitality industry by a much more common means: fast food.

“I graduated when I was 17, and I moved out on my own pretty quickly after that,” she said. “I had worked at McDonald’s on McCain Boulevard [in North Little Rock] since I was 15, and I was already a manager by the time I was 17, so I just thought I would be a secretary and work at McDonald’s.”

Trevino’s managerial career at the Golden Arches lasted 10 years, during which she landed the Parks and Tourism job.

Balancing both occupations meant little sleep. Trevino opened the store at five in the morning for breakfast, clocking in with the state from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and heading back to McDonald’s to work until close. Despite the full plate, her work in North Little Rock would turn out to be the start of a lifelong love affair with her adopted hometown.

“I’ve always felt like since that time, North Little Rock was my home,” she said. “I can’t explain it. It’s just like, in all these years of moving and doing things, I never felt at home anywhere. There wasn’t one thing where I [was] like, ‘Oh, this is where I feel like my heart is,’ but North Little Rock is like that for me.”

Without the means to go to college straight out of high school, Trevino took a non-traditional route to her education. It was only after taking the position with NLR Tourism that she earned her master’s degree in tourism, in addition to the six different certifications she has earned since. She considers herself a lifelong learner, and she values education highly, whether in the classroom or through lived experience.

Perhaps nothing has been as much of a teaching moment, both personally and professionally, as her ordeal with breast cancer 14 years ago. Over a period of two years, Trevino faced radiation, chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, all while working full-time, raising children and still being on the road to a master’s degree.

“I soon learned that the world is extremely kind, caring and supportive. It wasn’t a fun experience, but it certainly was a positive one,” she said. “I think before that I was pretty high-strung. I didn’t have a whole lot of patience. From that experience, I believe it softened me to not think everything’s the end of the world. … I met the most wonderful people through that experience, women that I would never have met any other way.”

Today, Trevino is recognized across the state, region and even


internationally for her impressive work raising the standard of Arkansas tourism. Most recently, during the 50th annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism in late February, she was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, further solidifying her status at the top of the industry.

“This recognition has been a lifelong dream,” she said. “So many of my mentors are members of the Tourism Hall of Fame. To be considered along with those stars of the industry and their caliber makes me very proud. It is so nice to see my efforts over the past 40 years to be recognized by my peers and the state.”

Trevino has been recognized in other ways, as well. She is the first Arkansan to serve as chair of the Southeast Tourism Society after having been an active participant in the group’s board of directors for 20 years. On the global stage, Trevino is serving this year as the president of Skål International USA, an organization with more than 20,000 members in the travel and tourism industry worldwide. Additionally, North Little Rock Tourism was named Tourism Office of the Year in 2023 by the Southeast Tourism Society, an accomplishment that Trevino credits to her “fantastic staff.”

“I was totally floored that we got it because, you know, we’re up against Tampa, [Fla.] and places like that, big places,” she said. “I think it’s just because we have operated on a shoestring, and it’s that constant pushing, looking and trying to expand on our offerings and what we can do and doing it just a little bit better than before.”

Once someone gets to experience North Little Rock, she said, they are often eager to spread the word about what the city has to offer. From the budding downtown in Argenta, where NLR Tourism manages the plaza with all manner of festivals, events and live music, to classic attractions such as the Old Mill and the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum, Trevino said, “we have so much to be proud of.”

“Every day, we’re trying to figure out, ‘Well, what can we do about this, and how can we help this?’” she said. “It’s not just external people from outside of the state that we’re trying to bring in. We need our community to understand who we are and what we’re doing and to love our city because if they love the city, they’re going to share that message with their friends and family.”

Trevino and the tourism office are taking full advantage of every opportunity to show locals and visitors alike everything there is to love about the city. The Southeast Tourism Society will be in Little Rock for its 2024 Domestic Showcase, giving NLR Tourism the chance to introduce travel writers and agents, tour operators and others to what is waiting just across the river. That is not even to mention April’s eclipse, which is bringing travelers from across the country to various spots in the Natural State, North Little Rock included.

“Those are people who will leave and be our ambas-

sadors,” she said. “They’ll be telling people how great it is over here, and hopefully they, their family and friends will come back.”

When it comes to booming interest in other corners of the state, Trevino described the relationship between different regions as a “co-opetition.” Tourism and hospitality leaders learn from one another’s strengths to raise Arkansas’ profile across the board. For Trevino, the key connecting it all, from Burns Park to Argenta Plaza, from statewide partnerships to regional and international organizations, is a focus on relationships.

“I know that sounds really basic, but the reason that I loved tourism originally, and why I’m so honored about this hall of fame, is because of the people who were before me that laid the groundwork for what tourism should be and who basically started this direction that we’re going in,” she said. “When they started retiring … that’s when I realized I was grown up because I was becoming the leader, and I was becoming the one that people looked up to. It was all those people before and all the people since and the people that I meet across the United States and all over the world — to me, it’s the people.”

amp Arkansas Money Politics CELEBRATING 10 YEARS


Two-year colleges help provide industries with what they need

Years ago, technical schools were often viewed as secondary alternatives to traditional four-year universities. Those who earned two-year associate degrees or certificates to work in some manufacturing trade were thought of not having the discipline or educational prowess to earn a degree.

Over the past decade, that impression has shifted. Now two–year colleges are realized as an important element of a student’s education and career, industries’ productivity, and the state’s economic success.

“Even in the past five years, the trends are different,” said Lisa Willenberg, the chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton. “It’s changing to handson learning over traditional lessons. I think industries realize that [potential employees] are not efficient without the hands-on instruction.

“They are seeing a skills gap,” she said. “Earning a proficiency certificate is faster than spending two or four years in college.”

We’re seeing so much interest in workforce programs. Twenty years before, you had to have a four-year degree to get a job.

The college has about 2,000 credited students and 1,000 noncredit, short-term students this semester, Willenberg said. Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville has been a model for other community colleges and technical schools over the past several years. Courses are tailored to suit the needs of local businesses — especially the booming steel industry of Mississippi County — to provide workers.

The program helps students seek employment quickly, offers industries workers already trained to meet the job requirements and experience needed to work there, and helps keep students in the county after graduating.

“Our instructors are responding to the needs of industry,” ANC chancellor Christopher Heigle said. “There’s an economic interest in what we do. We see a greater return on our investments here.”

— Lisa Willenberg

UACCM provides proficiencies in welding; diesel technology; air conditioning, heating and refrigeration technology; computer design; crime scene investigation; and other disciplines.

Nationally, trends are indicative of the shift toward the technical schools that offer vocational programs. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, two-year schools have seen a 16 percent increase in enrollment in the 2023 fall semester.

“Students are seeing that a four-week certificate in directional


boring can earn them $60,000,” said Mike Rogers, the state’s chief workforce director. “That’s compared to a four-year degree with a starting average salary of $48,000.”

Rogers was appointed the director’s role last year by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and tasked with developing strategies to help strengthen workforce training and to boost the state’s employment economy.

Rogers, who worked in both education and industry management, is also charged with creating more skills training programs at high schools and prisons.

“Our main priority is to get people employed as soon as possible,” Rogers said. “A lot of people just can’t put their lives on hold. They need the jobs and the money.

“They can go to four-year universities, but they still need the money to turn the lights on at night. Some [four-year] degrees lead directly to jobs, but others may not want that time commitment.”

Willenberg and Heigle are quick to say they are not criticizing four-year universities. Both chancellors oversee programs that allow students to transfer easily to such an institution if needed.

“I’m not suggesting that liberal arts are not as important. They are,” Willenberg said. “We’re just focusing now on where the business is booming.”

They also suggested students earn certificates of proficiency, work for a while to earn a living and then return to further their education if they desire.

“There’s been a 400 percent increase in workforce training needs in the last four or five years,” Willenberg said. “There is a need there. We have a good reputation [at Morrilton]. We are customizing training for local businesses.

“We’re seeing so much interest in workforce programs. Twenty years before, you had to have a four-year degree to get a job. Before, students had to learn the skills after they got the jobs. Now we have the skills created so they can get the jobs.”

The trend toward technical schools may have been boosted by the COVID-19 epidemic that went global in 2020. Then, when the virus shut down businesses and schools, education went more to online and individual training, forsaking the traditional classroom learning.

When the pandemic abated, students returned in force to the technical schools.

“In the fall of 2023, the campus was abuzz,” Willenberg said. “The kids were coming back, and the workforce training was stronger than ever.”

Former ANC chancellor James Shemwell began tailoring courses at Blytheville after talking with area business. He is credited with the merging of classes there with needs of industry, Heigle said.

“We’re following through with that,” said Heigle, who was named ANC’s chancellor last March. “We’re responding to the needs of the industry. We are melding programs together to create the best of what industry wants.”

Other colleges have replicated what ANC has done by going to area businesses and creating programs aimed at their desires.

“We wanted to make our program relevant to the local economy,” Heigle said. “We can show others how to do that. We value the pathway of traditional students, but some students can get lost. At first, all they need is a roof over their heads and a hot meal. We can help them get that quickly. Once they get that, they can think about returning later to earn a traditional degree if they want.”

He added that he found that 60 to 80 percent of the area’s workforce does not require a four-year degree and instead favors short-term, skill-based training. It helps quell the loss of people who, after getting out of high school, leave Mississippi County for the greener pastures of, for instance, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Those students earn degrees, get jobs and do not return to the county.

“It doesn’t do Mississippi County any good to have students transfer out and not come back,” Heigle said. “What technical schools do for rural areas, when you have a competitive economy, is to get those students to stick around.”

Rogers said he sees the trend toward technical schools’ increases in enrollment to continue. Currently, those schools do not receive state funding for students who earn certificates of proficiency, but he hopes legislators will soon change that.

“We’ll see this keep growing,” he said. “El Dorado, Hope and Texarkana are seeing more petroleum gas jobs that need skilled workers. Lithium is surging. The ecosystem balances out. Every job wants skilled workers.

“In the past, going to school was like going to a restaurant and having the waiter tell you what to order. The state had been doing that to employers. Students would come out of school, and we’d tell employers, ‘This is what you get.’ Now the mindset is different. Now we are being more responsive to industry.”

Lisa Willenberg Christopher Heigle Mike Rogers


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Esperanza Massana Crane leads AEDC’s revamped small-business division

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission last summer consolidated its many services and resources for small businesses and entrepreneurs into one division.

Esperanza Massana Crane is the director of the new AEDC Small Business and Entrepreneurship Development Division. She previously ran AEDC’s Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise Division, which was consolidated into the new division.

When announcing the restructuring, state officials said the move should enable AEDC to expand its services and set up the division as the state’s one-stop shop for small business and entrepreneurial services and resources.

Arkansas Money & Politics visited with Crane about her division’s role moving forward.

Arkansas Money & Politics: How would you define the division’s goal?

Esperanza Massana Crane: Our division’s goal is to support entrepreneurs, innovators and small business owners in creating and growing successful ventures in the state of Arkansas. Some of our overall goals include:

AMP: In what ways was the office restructured?

Crane: We recently consolidated our services for small businesses and entrepreneurs under one division, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Development Division. We aim to be a convenor and a hub for small businesses and entrepreneurs in the state. We have three areas of focus:

• positioning Arkansas as the state where small businesses and entrepreneurs are empowered to scale and create sustainable employment opportunities;

• helping to grow a solid statewide ecosystem that will nurture and grow ventures;

• developing more connections and channeling resources to all areas of the state, particularly rural areas;

• promoting a capital pipeline; and

• developing talent and resources to further enhance our workforce.

• science and technology, which is dedicated to stimulating innovation and growth among the state’s technology businesses;

• minority- and women-owned business enterprise, whose mission is to facilitate the growth, development and expansion of minority- and women-owned businesses in the state; and

• entrepreneurial ecosystem support, which is a new area dedicated to working strategically and collaboratively with entrepreneurial ecosystem support organizations in the state to support the growth of small businesses and entrepreneurs in the state.

AMP: How does the office connect entrepreneurs with resources?

Crane: Education and connecting entrepreneurs with resources are some of the most important resources provided by our office. This is part of the reason we are partnering with the office of innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas to create an eco-map, which is going to be called the Arkansas Business Resource Hub. The eco-map is intended to list entrepreneur support organizations across the state, their events, important information, etc. The tool is intended to make it easier for an entrepreneur to find the resources and information they are looking for.

Esperanza Massana Crane

AMP: How do you connect startups with incentives, grants and other forms of funding?

Crane: Access to capital is very important for any business owner, whether they are starting or scaling a business. Most of the calls we receive are related to funding, and our role is to help businesses navigate the options that are available in the ecosystem and connect them with these resources. Ultimately, our role will always be centered around providing opportunities and creating high-paying jobs.

Most of the incentives we offer are through our science and technology programs. These incentives are focused on supporting tech and tech-enabled companies as they create higher-paying jobs. Most of these incentives can be found at

I would like to highlight a couple that are relevant to this conversation:

• The Accelerator Program: Every year, AEDC also funds accelerator programs, which are created to stimulate innovation and growth among the state’s technology businesses. The goal is to create high-skilled, high-wage jobs by encouraging the development of technological products and services. Through these accelerator programs, companies can receive the mentoring, training and knowledge needed to scale and direct their technology-based business for continued growth.

• Innovate Arkansas: We are also excited about revamping the Innovate Arkansas program, which will be led by Startup Junkie [in Fayetteville], one of the largest entrepreneur support organizations in the state. Innovate Arkansas was established in 2008 to assist new, technology-based entrepreneurs in turning inventions and high-tech concepts into viable businesses. Innovate Arkansas’ goal is to create high-paying Arkansas jobs in the knowledge-, technology- and information-based industries. In addition, Innovate Arkansas will help build the state’s venture capital pipeline.

AMP: Does your office work only with early-stage businesses?

Crane: From early-stage to well-established businesses, our role is to connect businesses with the various resources and opportunities that exist in our entrepreneurial ecosystem.

AMP: What is the most common form of assistance your office provides?

Crane: From a larger perspective, our most common form of assistance is working strategically with our resource partners (ESOs, community partners, etc.) to create economic opportunities for small businesses and entrepreneurs across the state.

AMP: Did the restructuring alter the focus on women- and minority-owned businesses?

Crane: The goal under our minority- and women-owned business initiative is to facilitate the growth, development and expansion of minority-owned businesses in the state. One of our programs includes a certification program, which is intended

to provide minority- and women-owned businesses with some leverage as they pursue procurement opportunities. We are happy to announce that we certified 50 businesses last year, which represents a significant year-over-year growth in the number of certified businesses in Arkansas.

All of our resources and information for minority- and women-owned businesses can be found at community-resources.

We are excited to announce our minority and women-owned business matchmaking event will take place May 29 at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. The event represents a resource and networking opportunity for minority- and women-owned businesses and local, state and federal government buyers across Arkansas.

This is a one-day event to help minority- and women-owned businesses match with private- and public-sector buyers for business opportunities. Registrants will have a 15-minute, prearranged matchmaking appointments that would be otherwise difficult to schedule independently.

AMP: How does it feel to see client businesses grow to become success stories?

Crane: I am very proud to be part of the AEDC family. We are all passionate and dedicated to serving the state and wanting to see it grow. Anytime we can help a business grow, we are filled with gratitude and are inspired to continue doing more.

The Small Business and Entrepreneurship Development Division team includes Esperanza Massana Crane, seated, from left, Karen Castle and Laura Kingrey, as well as Bob Kucheravy, standing, from left, Mallory McFall and Ana Rodriguez. (Photos provided)

Four Join Arkansas Business Hall of Fame

In February, four distinguished individuals were welcomed to the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame sponsored by the Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The quartet was recognized for a lifetime of success, demonstrating the value of faith and perseverance in myriad industries statewide. Arkansas Money & Politics congratulates this year’s honorees, their companies and their families.

Gary George, from left, Eric Jackson, John Conner Jr. and Dhu Thompson were recently inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.


Ask anyone who has done it — or tried — and they will likely tell you launching a business is not necessarily the hardest thing they have ever done. Sustaining and growing a business is the real trick, and doing so for more than 100 years is a worthy accomplishment.

Gary George’s family, stretching back to his grandfather and continuing through to his adult sons, has done just that and then some. As president, CEO and now chairman, George not only grew George’s, headquartered in Springdale, for a good chunk of its century-plus existence; he did it with the world’s largest competitor, Springdale-based Tyson Foods, in his backyard.

On that point, George just shrugs. Having lived his entire professional life knee-deep in a philosophy of doing what one does well and working every day to get better at it, he did not not spend much time worrying about what the other guys were up to. Instead, he remained laser =focused on how to best move the company forward.

“Let me go way back to my grandfather,” he said. “This would have been in the ’30s and ’40s. We were no different than Tyson and several others up here that started hauling live chickens to be processed in Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago. That’s how the poultry business started here. We weren’t any different than anybody else.

“Then, in the late ’50s, we got involved in a partnership where we owned part of the processing plant, and then we bought everyone out. All the poultry companies, Tyson and everybody, started kind of the same, and then we grew. They really grew. Others have done it. That’s how the industry started.”

Almost everything George says about the company begins and ends with family. The earliest memories he has are of spending time with his grandfather — company founder C.L. George — and doing odd jobs at the business under the direction of his uncle, Luther, and father, Gene.

“I grew up with [C.L.]. We lived within two blocks of each other until I was 13 or 14,” George said. “When I was growing up, he really was out of the chicken side of it; he would deal in land, cattle. One of the things I remember vividly: On many Sundays, I would go over and drive he and my grandmother around.

“Back in the ’60s, people were sitting on their front porch. They’d come out to the car. He’d start talking to them. I learned to communicate with people from him, not that he was a big talker. He just knew how to connect with people.”

George graduated from the University of Arkansas and headed straight back home — “Never crossed my mind to move away or to do anything else,” he said — where his

father put him to work in a generalist role that allowed him to gain insights into various aspects of the company. One day, his dad came to him with a surprise announcement.

“My father said, ‘Hey, I’m going to make you president,’” George said. “I said I wasn’t ready, but he did.”

Shell-shocked at the new responsibility, George adopted a philosophy of being a servant leader, learning the company from the perspectives of those on the front lines.

“We just had one plant at the time, and I remember interviewing a plant manager,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to be your boss, but you’re going to have to teach me the ins and outs of processing because I want to be able to walk through this plant and know what I’m looking at and know if something needs to change,’ and he did.

“I knew why I was there. It was my last name, and I didn’t want anybody to think that I thought I knew it all because I darn sure didn’t. It all goes back to communication with people, whether they report to you or not. Knowing that you care, to me, is as much a part of being successful as anything.”

In the decades since, George led the firm to more growth, culminating in seven plants in Arkansas, Virginia and Missouri, each of which sports the latest automation to help 7,000 team members do their jobs safely and efficiently. The company ranks in the upper echelon of chicken processors in the country by size, but more importantly to George, the growth has been achieved with the continuing input of family. His sons are co-president and CEO, one son-in-law is in the company’s land development arm, and the other is in charge of Springdale-based Legacy Bank, which the family founded some time back.

Then there is George’s secret weapon and the person he gives the most credit for his professional success and personal happiness, his wife, Robin, who he met in college and aptly nicknamed Birdie.

“The best decision I have ever made in my life is that little girl that I met on a blind date, hands down,” he said.


“There’s this saying, ‘Behind every successful man is a strong woman.’ She’s not behind me. She’s in front of me or right at my side. She’s quiet. She couldn’t care less about the business, but she’s just so grounded. She’s the most important thing of anything I have done.

“The [Arkansas Business Hall of Fame] is a great, great

honor. My dad was inducted several years ago, and when they told me, I just broke down and cried thinking of him. I’m humbled when I look at who’s in there, I think, ‘Why the hell am I in here?’ yet the best accomplishment in my life is my family, easy. My kids and their spouses, I’m proud of every one of them.”

Many people in Arkansas have, in one measure or another, the dogged determination, word-as-bond ethics and affinity for the things that last by which the state is known. John Conner Jr. is not only one of them but has marched under that three-cornered banner throughout his professional life.

“I’m just kind of a farmer that got lucky,” he said. “I had the ball bounce my way a few times. I’ve just been lucky more than smart.

“What’s worked for me and is probably the trait I’ve got is persistence. Never, never, never give up. Don’t lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.

You’ve just got to keep on every day. You’ve got to set your goal and figure out how you’re going to get there.”

It is fitting that the many ways in which Conner has made a living have all come back to the same element — the land and its people. He is Arkansas to the bone, his father’s family settling into farming in Woodruff County in the 1840s and his mother’s kinfolk settling in Jackson County in the 1870s. There, they engaged in a sawmill, lumber, farming and cattle.

Conner’s lineage in agriculture first came to bear when, after graduating from the University of Arkansas and a stint with the National Guard at Fort Polk in 1970, he came home and received, in his words, “a little bit of seed corn to start with” from his grandfather, R.G. Holden. Few investments have paid off as handsomely since.

“My first crop was in ’72, and I bought a farm that year and started expanding and buying farmland as I could, expanding my farm operation,” Conner said. “I learned how to farm myself, and then I started looking around and realizing how capital-intensive agriculture is. I knew I couldn’t get to the place I wanted to get to without having some type of operating business that would have a better opportunity to produce better cashflows and profits.”

That business was farm equipment, of which Conner opened a John Deere dealership in 1988. Over time, Greenway Equipment would grow into a massive enterprise; in partnership with Marshall Stewart, Conner would grow it into 32 locations in Arkansas and Missouri, plac-

ing it as one of the largest and most successful John Deere dealers in the world.

Multiple business ventures followed, including fuel businesses in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, car dealerships, since sold, in Newport and Batesville, and, notably, land acquisition, which has accumulated 120,000 acres plus over the years. Yet for all that success, Conner still maintains a deceptively simple business philosophy.

“I try to stay fairly grounded on my base operations,” he said. “I realize that everybody’s looking for the next new thing. I’ve just been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to participate in some of those new things, and they worked out well for us, for my family.

“I’m always trying to think about how we can improve our operation, how we can make things better for the people we work with and for the family members, and how we can do a better job of what we’re doing.”

Today, Conner’s plainspoken but inviolate philosophy runs through the veins of his business interests, infused in the 1,600 employees who make the operation go.

“My attitude, after I got into the equipment business, is to service our customers and take care of our customers and our employees. That’s the way we tried to build our business,” Conner said. “When Marshall came on with me in ’98, that was his responsibility. We concentrate on that a lot.”

More than anything else in his repertoire, Conner has been guided by an appreciation for the things in life and


business of permanence and a love of place that underpins all of the core values he has carried with him from very early in life.

“From the time I was two or three years old, I was out there with my granddad, R.G. Robert Holden, every time my mother would let me,” he said. “I learned a whole lot out there on the farm. He was very influential in my life. My dad and my grandad taught me more about business than anybody.

“My dad had more formal education than my granddad, but there were things I learned from both of them, how to just get up and go to work and work hard and set a good example. My dad and I worked together for 53 years and never had an argument. It was just a fantastic relationship.”

Today, Conner can look back with pride on what he

continues to build out of the Arkansas earth. A certain tone sparks in his voice when he speaks of his family: wife, Andrea, his four children and their families. His life can be viewed as a large table around which are seated the things he knows best and loves the most.

“Growing up in Newport, my family’s been in this general area for quite some time. Far as I’m concerned, this is home, and it doesn’t get much better than around here,” he said. “I love it here. I love what I do every day. It wasn’t a serious option to go somewhere else. The majority of my landholdings are within a 60-mile radius of here.

“Being inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame is one of the biggest honors myself or my family has ever had. I’m very pleased and proud of the fact I’ve been selected. I thought it was just a real honor for us.”


A Revolution in Plastics

Louisiana-born Dhu Thompson started his career in banking and could have comfortably ridden that profession all the way to retirement. Instead, in midlife, he decided to make a radical career shift, embarking on an entrepreneurial adventure to revolutionize an entire industry.

It all started with dirty plastic.

“At the age of 40, I said I don’t want to do [banking] the rest of my life,” he said. “I started looking, and I found a somewhat floundering plastics company started in Stuttgart, Ark. About 12 gentlemen had come together and borrowed about $5 million to build a small plant to do blown film extrusion, which is the way you start with making flexible poly pipe.”

The pipe was not a new product; farmers then as now bought it every year for use during a single growing season. However what the Stuttgart operation proposed was to create an additional step, to reclaim the pipe after the season, clean it and turn it into resin that could be used to manufacture other products, including more pipe.

There was only one problem — the reclamation technology Thompson envisioned did not exist, and developing it from nothing was incredibly expensive. Rather than being scared off, however, Thompson was intrigued.

“It was a great idea, but nobody had ever washed plastic that contaminated with soil and vegetative matter. It was just never done,” he said. “I went ahead and bought controlling interest of it, injected capital into it, along with the partners that wanted to stay, and tried to pull that company back together.”

He laughed at the memory of the early days.

“God, I think, takes care of naive people,” he said.

If the Almighty was on the side of Delta Plastics of the South, which has facilities in Little Rock and Stuttgart, in its formative period, he had a funny way of showing it. Thompson remembers losing seven figures the first year and six figures the second. Then, in Year Three, a funny thing happened as farmers started to see the benefits of poly pipe as a category over traditional aluminum pipe and sales began to accelerate enough to keep the company running while Thompson and his team chased the ultimate prize.

After years of development, thousands of miles traveled to source components and millions of dollars in research and development, Thompson and team finally cobbled together a wash system that melded various mechanical elements.

“We used mud shakers out of the oil field industry. We used large debarking trimmers that we modified out of the timber industry. We used sledge pumps out of the oil field


industry to move mud and water,” he said. “We built this system, which I ended up patenting in the United States and Mexico. We made improvements every year, and we spent a huge amount of money, but we kept getting better and better at what we were doing.”

Upon finally achieving the technology that could produce post-consumer resin for the same price as virgin resin, Thompson found end users who wholeheartedly shared Delta Plastics’ conservation core value.

“The end-user customer drove our market because they would go to the distributor and say, ‘I want Delta Plastics. Delta Plastics is going to clean up my farm,’” Thompson said. “We ended up with about 82 18-wheelers with 32-foot dumps and specially designed clamshells that circumnavigated Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas and Colorado, and we brought in all this plastic. We were like waste management for the farm for the pipe they wanted to divest themselves of. That was a huge service nobody else could provide, and that’s why we ended up with in excess of 97 percent of the market at one time in the United States.”

Delta Plastics also branched into garbage bags that boasted the lowest carbon footprint on the market. Rather than target the consumer, Thompson went after institutional and corporate accounts wanting to up their reputation for sustainability. In short order, clients as diverse as New York City Public Schools, NFL stadiums, Las Vegas casinos and the Library of Congress were using Thompson’s bags.

In addition to being a wildly successful business, Thompson said he is proud of the venture’s means of preserving the cleanliness and beauty of the wild. It is something he not only promoted through his professional life but that also headlined his far-reaching community service and philanthropic activities, which also include collegiate entrepreneurial competitions and fighting hunger.

“My favorite philanthropic group is the Nature Conservancy; I’ve sat on the board for quite some time,” he said. “They’re very apolitical and always concerned about the environment, and I really enjoy working with them.

“I gave $1 million to buy Blue Mountain. We had Pinnacle Mountain. Then we had Rattlesnake Ridge, and then Blue Mountain came up. We had an opportunity to string all that together with bike trails for Little Rock. I was proud to be the lead donor on that.”

Today, Thompson runs U.S. Irrigation, with locations in Stuttgart and DeWitt, and focuses on his charitable work. He also delights in time spent with his wife, Mary Ellen, and three grown sons. He said relationships and faith are the most important building blocks of his life, both as a hall-of-fame businessman and as a person.

“You have to have faith, and I can’t imagine anybody that doesn’t,” he said. “People say, ‘He’s done really well. I heard he’s a shrewd businessman.’ I don’t believe in that. I believe in relationships. People ask me what can you tell me was your key to success, and I’ve thought and thought about it. Actually, it’s people; people are important, and your relationships and your values are everything.”


The Sure Bet

Despite growing up in Hot Springs, Eric Jackson had no intention of making a hometown institution — then Oaklawn Park, now known as Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort — his career. He attended Hendrix College in Conway with the assumption he would wind up an economics professor. However, a handshake deal with then-general manager, the late W.T. Bishop, for a trial as director of operations changed everything.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you try it for six months, and we’ll try you for six months? Then we’ll compare notes,’” Jackson said. “I told Mr. Bishop, ‘I don’t know anything about horse racing.’ Mr. Bishop said ‘Well frankly, that’s the point everybody starts out at, but if you’re capable of learning and you like it, we’ll build from there.’ He was correct; I learned that if you like economics, you’ll love working at a racetrack.”


That six-month trial turned into several years in the role until Bishop’s untimely death created a vacancy at general manager. Jackson stepped into the role in 1987 and stayed there for three decades, shepherding the storied facility through some of the most challenging chapters in its long history.

“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves a couple of times,” he said. “The first was in the late ’80s, when Texas and Oklahoma authorized horse racing, and suddenly there were brand-new tracks in Oklahoma and Texas, which is where a lot of our customers came from. We reinvented ourselves and came up with something called interstate simulcasting that had not been done, where the wagering pools were merged.

“We pioneered that with Arlington Park in Chicago. The first year was 1989 or 1990. The technology was by today’s standards pretty primitive, but we were the first to do that, and it was quite successful.”

Oaklawn leadership did not have long to enjoy the advancement because at roughly the same time, Mississippi authorized casino gambling. Suddenly, Arkansas found itself surrounded by more casinos in adjacent states than any other state in the country, a statistical anomaly that remains to this day.

“We realized if we were going to survive, we had to come up with an electronic wagering product,” Jackson said. “Today’s generation grew up on Nintendo and electronic games, and that’s what the customer wants. Well, in the ’90s, we didn’t have that, and since customers vote with their feet, they went to where they could enjoy what they wanted, and that was in adjacent states.”

In response, Jackson earned the patent on a product called Instant Racing, which was introduced to the public in 2000.

“Suddenly, we had more people coming to Oaklawn,” he said. “We were able to take the revenues from that product and put it into our purses, and that made our races more competitive. Suddenly, we had better horses coming back to Oaklawn to race. I call it a virtuous upward cycle where everything helped everything else.”

Two other major developments have come along since: legislation in 2005 allowing skill-based electronic games and 2018’s Amendment 4 that allowed full casino gaming at four locations in Arkansas, Oaklawn being one. For these developments, instead of reacting, the company had an ambitious plan in place to make the most of the state’s new entertainment landscape, especially in the latter case.

“We announced what was at that time and may still be the most expensive expansion of a tourism-based business

in the history of Arkansas at over $100 million,” Jackson said. “Within the last couple of years, we’ve completed that project, including a hotel, spa and other amenities.

“It took us a little longer than we thought because I think we broke ground the day before COVID showed up in America, and it took us quite a bit longer and cost quite a bit more than we thought it was going to take and cost, but now we’re very glad we stayed the course and got it done. It’s the only racing and gaming resort destination in North America.”

If there is anything for which Jackson is better known than an industry innovator, it is as a tireless community servant. Oaklawn ownership has long held that executives should be involved with various boards and commissions, but even by this honorable standard, Jackson’s desire to make a difference in his hometown stands out.

“At the moment, I’m on the state parks and tourism commission, and I have fallen in love with Arkansas State Parks,” he said. “I wasn’t appreciative of what all we have until I was appointed to this commission. We’ve got a great parks system and great people working for the parks system. I have really enjoyed that.

“I’ve been on hospital boards for 33 years. The importance of a community hospital is often overlooked until a community doesn’t have one. I’ve been on local, state and national hospital boards, and it’s been very rewarding.”

These many years later, Jackson, who in 2017 was named senior vice president, still gets goosebumps on opening day of the racing season and takes great pride in how one of the state’s oldest entertainment centers has kept pace with changing times and changing tastes. Being welcomed into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame is the ultimate capstone, he said.

“It’s an unbelievable honor. I haven’t figured out how to express my feelings,” he said. “I look at the names of the people who have been enshrined before me, and I have trouble adding my name to that list.

“Everything that Oaklawn has accomplished took a whole lot of people, so I feel like I’m being recognized for an accomplishment that isn’t fully mine, but it is a great honor, and I am humbled beyond words.”

The Sam M. Walton College of Business established the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame to recognize Arkansans — by birth or by choice — who have been successful business leaders. The Arkansas Business Hall of Fame is designed to honor, preserve and perpetuate the names and outstanding accomplishments of business leaders who have brought lasting fame to Arkansas.



An investing primer

The 21st century is an age where investing advice is easy to come by but hard to differentiate. The rise of investment apps has made the markets more accessible than ever, so investing is no longer the exclusive realm of finance majors or The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street types. Still, it is not quite as easy as swiping and tapping one’s way into long-term wealth.

“Each one of us has the capacity to be our own financial advisor,” said John Hoefl, an LPL financial advisor at Aspire Wealth Builders in Hot Springs. “It’s just a matter of if we have the time to put into that, in addition to working. You’d rather spend time with your kids or planning a vacation — which is more fun anyway — or going to the racetrack instead of trying to figure out what’s going to be the next Walmart stock.”

Since most people are not keen to parse the documents, fluctuations and other minutiae that come with managing a portfolio, enlisting the help of someone whose entire career is based on doing so is often well worth the trouble. Investment advisors go by many names, Hoefl said, so one should look beyond the title. Seek out professionals with the right credentials, such as a certified financial planning advisor or certified retirement planning counselor, and perform a broker check through the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

“When [clients] pay us, they’re not really paying us a commission for investing. They’re basically paying us for our knowledge that we’re pointing them in the right direction and that we’re listening to them,” Hoefl said.

“Having a relationship with a financial advisor is one of the ways that people can help themselves from their own self-doing as far as trying to time the market. There’s somebody there to either jumpstart you or stop you from whatever you’re trying to do.”

To be sure, the internet has much to teach the do-it-yourself investor, but it cannot replace the kind of advice that comes with experience, a personal relationship and a second opinion.

“Financial planning is a process, and systematic review is part of the process,” Hoefl said. “Having a great relationship with an advisor helps here. When life throws you a monkey wrench — death, divorce, forced retirement — you are prepared.”

Whether one is exploring options on their own or working with the help of an advisor, most of the tried-and-true investing basics have not changed much over the years. The best course of action, Hoefl said, is to stay the course and be fully invested in all the markets, including real estate, stocks, bonds, precious metals and structured notes.

“Of course,” he added, “cash is king for opportunities or fallback.”

The importance of one’s cash reserve cannot be overstated. Just how large one’s pile needs to be will look different for different people, especially for business owners in various industries and situations. Regardless of what that magic number is, the flexibility it affords is unmistakable, so take advantage of “savings in your backyard” such as credit unions, money market accounts and certificates of deposit, Hoefl said.

With a cash reserve successfully established, one may be able to use similar methods of accumulation to build wealth through investments. Utilizing an installment-plan approach to


investing can take some stress out of the exercise, given that some of the biggest obstacles around investing are more psychological than financial.

“There are several roadblocks. Some are taxes, some are too many expenses versus income coming in, but the biggest hurdle that people need to overcome is just procrastination,” Hoefl said. “A lot of investing has to do [with] not just the nuts and bolts of the stocks or bonds and things like that; a lot of it simply has to do with human nature and recognizing what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are.”

Doing nothing, Hoefl added, is a choice, and even a poorly implemented plan that moves along “at a snail’s pace” is better than no plan at all. Starting with as little as $50, or two percent of one’s base income, for example, can help get the wheels turning in the right direction. Hoefl pointed out that other “backyard” options are also a great place to start, such as a 401(k) or employee stock ownership plan. The automation afforded by this “set it and forget it” strategy can also be ramped up over time so that, rather than feeling like a sacrifice, the extra money going into one’s investments is hardly missed.

“In most [employer plans], there’s a match, so that’s like free money,” Hoefl said, “but the first question I ask [clients] is, ‘Hey, you’re putting eight percent of your total income into this retirement plan or this 401(k). Do you miss the money?’ and the answer is, ‘No, I don’t miss the money because I’m already used to doing this, and it’s out of sight, out of mind. What I get in my paycheck is what I have to live on.’

“That really does work, and it helps to overcome the objection of just getting started, and I say, ‘Go ahead and give yourself a pay raise. Bump it up by two percent.’ If you play the game with yourself and you bump it up each year, you’re still not going to miss the money, but you’re going to learn how to live on the rest of the income that’s coming in.”

Related to the installment approach is the time-tested and widely recommended strategy of dollar-cost averaging. It is popular for a reason: dollar cost averaging allows investors to drop money into the market horizontally instead of vertically by systematically investing into the same investment, regardless of fluctuations in the share price, Hoefl said. With time, this approach can lower the average price of the shares, thus avoiding the urge to try and time the market for the best prices.

“All you’re really trying to do is accumulate as many shares as you can at the lowest possible cost,” Hoefl said, “so the accumulation of shares, whether it’s an individual stock or a mutual fund, is the key.”

Conversely, once investors are ready to start reaping the benefits of all those investments in retirement, taking money out of the market systematically can also be more effective than taking out a lump sum at the beginning of the year.

“It allows them to stay fully invested in the market, whether it’s in bonds or stocks or whatever it is,” Hoefl said. “Their money is working just as hard as they were when they were working.”

On the other hand, there is no need to fall into the trap of avoiding taking out any money at all. Hoefl stressed the importance of

taking profits in order to actually enjoy the successes of an investment strategy. Once again, human psychology plays a large role here.

“The greed part comes in when you think, well, you’ve gotten a 30 percent return already on this investment, and it’s going to do just as well in the future as it has in the past,” Hoefl said. “The next thing you know, six weeks later, it’s now down 20 percent, so your gain is only 10 percent from where you were before, so you may actually have regrets by not taking profits.”

Taking a profit, Hoefl said, is basically rewarding oneself for good business decisions, and he has not met many people who regretted doing so. Besides, in most cases, all of those investments and strategies are not ends in themselves — they are means for reaching milestones, whether it be retirement, funding a child’s education or even crossing items off of one’s bucket list.

“Most people don’t come to me or anybody else just to invest money,” Hoefl said. “People are more motivated to stay in the markets when it’s tied to their own personal goals.”

No matter the end in mind, investing is a long-term project, and as with any long-term project, consistency is key. However, it is also a good practice in prioritizing oneself both now and in the future.

“Before you pay everybody else, pay yourself first,” Hoefl said. “When you’re going through your bills and so forth on your computer screen, the first bill that should come to the top is the bill that you pay to yourself. Put it in your savings account or your credit union account or whatever you want to call it. Instead of being at the end of the line, you’re at the beginning of the line.”


For Poultry Producers, Food Safety is a Priority

Shane Acosta started the Poultry Federation’s Food Safety Conference 12 years ago and has been leading the charge since. A member of the federation’s board of directors, he is assistant vice president and general manager for plant operations at Cargill’s Springdale plant.

Acosta knows how important it is for the industry to stay on top of food safety issues. The Poultry Federation is a multi-state trade organization representing the poultry and egg industries. Its annual and growing Food Safety Conference has become a major event on the industry calendar. This year, it ran March 5 to 7 at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs and brought together food safety experts, industry representatives and even members of academia from across the country to discuss food safety, as well as quality and compliance issues.

Arkansas agriculture secretary Wes Ward spoke at the 2023 Poultry Federation Food Safety Conference. (Photos provided)
“This event covers key foodsafety topics from farm to table, so it is beneficial to all levels of the food chain, including producers.” — Shane Acosta, Cargill

“With the ever-changing events in the industry and ongoing challenges for producers, conferences like this are excellent opportunities to network and catch up on key topics,” Acosta said. “This event covers key food-safety topics from farm to table, so it is beneficial to all levels of the food chain, including producers.”

Acosta said the industry is committed to producing high-quality, safe products and that consumers should take comfort in knowing that food safety is an “absolute priority” for all producers. That emphasis has led to growth at the Food Safety Conference, which Acosta also credited to the quality of the programs, the variety of topics covered and the diverse nature of the speakers.

This year’s speakers were led by Darin Detwiler, founder and CEO of Detwiler Consulting Group and professor at Michigan State University, whose keynote address was titled “Forging a Legacy of Food Safety.” Other keynote speakers represented Kroger, Taco Bell, Foster Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride.

Topics addressed included salmonella, foreign materials, risk assessments, effective sanitation programs, foodborne illness case studies and food-safety culture and leadership, as well as regulatory and legislative updates.

Other speakers represented Butterball, Catalyst, Midwest Technology Partners, PSSI Food Safety Solutions, CEVA Animal Health, the National Chicken Council, the University of Illinois, the Food Industry Counsel, Simmons Foods, Kansas State University, Elanco Animal Health and Cargill.

Founded in Little Rock in 1954 as the Arkansas Poultry Federation, the organization has grown to become one of the leading poultry and egg advocates in the country, representing all components of the industry, including feed milling, live production, hatcheries, processing, packaging and commercial eggs, as well as providing marketing and a variety of service and support activities.

The federation currently consists of 22 poultry and egg

company members and more than 350 allied members. It has satellite offices in Jefferson City, Mo., and Oklahoma City.

The Food Safety Conference kicks off a robust annual event schedule for the foundation. Its all-member meeting is scheduled for April 4 at the Jones Center in Springdale, the 2024 Nutrition Conference is set for Aug. 27 to 29 at the Rogers Convention Center, and the Poultry Symposium for Production and Processing will be held Oct. 7 to 9 in the same venue.

The main event, however, is the federation’s annual Poultry Festival. The 64th-annual event is slated for June 21 and 22 at the Rogers Convention Center.

The Poultry Festival has become one of the biggest industry events in the nation, and last year it sold more than 4,500 tickets. Holly Duval, director of marketing and business development at the Poultry Federation, said the 2023 event delivered an economic impact to Rogers of $4.19 million.

In addition to team building and networking, the two-day festival includes a golf tournament, a trap shoot, a fishing tournament, a women-in-poultry brunch, a scholarship auction, industry awards ceremony, barbecue contests and a scholarship auction to raise money for Poultry Federation scholarships for deserving young people interested in pursuing a career in the industry. Last year, more than $126,000 was raised.

Proceeds fund scholarships and support federation partnerships with 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

As always, a live concert at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers will close out the event. This year’s headliner is country music artist Chris Lane with special guests Danielle Bradbery and Marybeth Byrd.




Officials seeking to make Pine Bluff a culinary hub


The farms of Jefferson County stretch for thousands of acres over hundreds of square miles in south central Arkansas, row after row of leafy green fields, billowing amber row crops and myriad garden plots sprouting greens and beans and tomatoes under a strident Southern sun. South of Little Rock and east of Hot Springs, Jefferson County is one of the gateways to the Arkansas Delta, the breadbasket of the South, where the land flattens out and the sky stretches into sheets unseen in the hilly west and mountainous north of the state.

The county is also home to the largest city in the lower Delta, Pine Bluff, once a citadel of culture, trade and prosperity owed to the wealth that came from the land. The undisputed mooring point for the Black experience in Arkansas, Pine Bluff has been at various turns in its history a haven for escaped slaves, a mecca of Black music, art and entrepreneurism, and, more recently, a poster child of decay, violence and despair.

As Michael McCray, cultural development specialist for the city of Pine Bluff, eloquently put it, “I come from a place where the soil is rich but the people are poor.”

If there is one thing more powerful than success itself, it is the intoxicating lure of potential. McCray lives and breathes the potential of Pine Bluff — where others see only ripples, he feels a tide building. He is not alone, to which the new plaster and paint on Main Street attests, but it is as yet not the sea change people there have been looking for over the past few decades.

The latest movement there, however, is seeking to change that and is built on cuisine. McCray is one of several catalysts who envision recasting Pine Bluff as a culinary hub for the state, region and maybe the nation. The plan calls for a new community resource commingling educational programs, gastro-tourism, entrepreneurial support and anti-hunger activism. When talking about it, McCray relishes the spicy yet satisfying taste of what can be, which is seasoned by what has been all along.

“We talk about the Arkansas Traveler story, which is a great story, but when you really look at it, it essentially celebrates Ozark culture. It tells of the outdoors and bluegrass music and some of the hunting and fishing and the types of meals

“If you have good culinary training, that’s how you build your restaurants. That’s how you build your culinary scene. The whole farm-to-table thing is about utilizing the freshest food from local producers.”
— Michael McCray

that came with it,” McCray said. “When I tell the Arkansas Traveler story, I tell them before the traveler went back to New York up north, he took a trip down to the Arkansas Delta, and he ate some catfish and listened to blues music. He happened to be around during a time when some of the civil rights and the organizing that was going on.

“So there is a whole other culture that we can talk about in terms of cuisine, in terms of history, in terms of music that I think is probably as big as celebrating


the Ozarks, and it might even be bigger. What we’re doing right now in Arkansas with Ozark culture is $8 or $9 billion in tourism. I think there is just as large an opportunity, if not more, in the Delta.”

While tourists have always sampled local fare by necessity, the relatively recent trend of culinary tourism is to plan an entire trip around a destination’s food traditions. It is a trend that has grown rapidly around the world; the World Food Travel Association reported the global culinary tourism market was valued at $8.8 billion in 2019 with a projected growth rate of 16.8 percent by 2025. Moreover, the trend is being driven by younger travelers, the report states. This is particularly true of millennials, who prioritize authentic experiences over canned tours and are willing to spend more for them, especially when it comes to unique local dining.

McCray is joined in the effort to harness this trend in Pine Bluff by Todd Gold, senior director of hospitality for Saracen Casino Resort and founder of the private culinary school that now resides at the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock, who holds leadership roles with the American Culinary Federation, Arkansas Delta Chefs Association and Central Arkansas Culinary Association. Gold has seen firsthand the doors that can be opened to people through culinary education and the vast economic potential realized by entire communities that successfully market their food traditions.

“Why food? Why culinary school? Why do we want people to go and get that culinary and hospitality education? The answer is that it stimulates economic growth,” Gold said. “Think about this: Where do people come together? Where do most meetings happen? What do people have conversations over? What brings people together that have opposite views? Sometimes it ends up in a boardroom with no food included, but nine out of 10 times, it usually has food around it because it brings everybody to the table and it gives everybody that feel-good moment.

“[Food] sometimes allows people to move forward together. How does it bring in economic growth? It’s something that people get interested in and comfortable with. Entertainment and all those other things that surround food are important too.”

ACF Arkansas Delta Chefs Association has outlined a two-to-five-year plan to harness the power of food to achieve multiple goals. Gold said the group wants to create a multifaceted physical space in the heart of downtown Pine Bluff that will include a guest chef restaurant, a community education center with kitchens, and an area for an audience and entertaining.

The restaurant will provide cutting-edge cuisine from a rotating roster of renowned guest chefs, providing a dining experience that will showcase diverse cuisines and culinary techniques. The education center will offer cooking classes, nutrition workshops and entrepreneurial training, while the on-premises kitchen facilities and labs will provide a space for chefs, food scientists and entrepreneurs to create and develop.

Finally, the entertainment and audience space will welcome any number of events to downtown Pine Bluff.

All of that, Gold said, will serve as a lure for additional downtown development, businesses and amenities that will resuscitate the city’s core and improve the quality of life for all residents.

“The dream in my mind, even though it’s going to be a little different, looks a bit like the early days of the River Market in downtown Little Rock,” he said. “In my mind,

Todd Gold
Michael McCray

there’s a five-to-eight-block stretch on Main Street that has this center that we’re hoping to do, and surrounding that are breweries and community gardens and jazz bands and arts.

“There’s already a building down there that they do arts. There’s a beautiful new library down there that has just been developed. What we’re talking about is filling the remaining slots, completing that stretch so it is an area where people can come, they can stay, they can learn and they can dine. It’s a destination.”

The effort has even developed its own signature event, the Delta Diamond Chef Awards Gala and Competition debuting this October. The event is designed to raise money for programs and drum up exposure for the culinary center itself. In addition to awarding professional and student chefs for excellence in their fields, the inaugural event will also offer the finals of a live cooking competition that starts with an all-star field of eight Arkansas chefs who will compete in preliminary cookoffs this spring and will see the top two finalists squareoff in the final during the gala.

that is food. That’s about $60 million there. For us to get there, we have to be intentional about developing our food system, our foodways, working with community gardens, working with smaller farmers and those types of things.

“If you have good culinary training, that’s how you build your restaurants. That’s how you build your culinary scene. The whole farm-to-table thing is about utilizing the freshest food from local producers. One of the reasons Chicago is so successful with their culinary world is that they’re cooking the freshest ingredients. They have these great farmers markets, and they’re trying to only use produce which is from instate or an adjoining state, so one of the things we’re working toward is opening the doors for local producers and Black farmers to bring fresh ingredients to the table for all the restaurants.”

“Think about this: Where do people come together? Where do most meetings happen? What do people have conversations over? What brings people together that have opposite views?”

The field includes Jill McDonald at the Croissanterie in Little Rock; Brayan McFadden at Brood & Barley in North Little Rock; Jordan Davis at Chenal Country Club in Little Rock; J. Lance Curtis at the UA-PTC Culinary Arts and Hospitality Institute in Little Rock; Kevin Doroski at Draft+ Table Argenta in North Little Rock; Greg Matthews at Performance Foodservice in Little Rock; Payne Harding at Cache Restaurant in Little Rock; and Matías de Matthaeis at Saracen Casino Resort’s Red Oak Steakhouse in Pine Bluff.

McCray sees the event as part of a larger historical context, one that meshes gears perfectly with other elements of the city’s economic development machine.

“When we start to talk about cultural and heritage tourism, we have a project that’s called the Delta Rhythm & Bayous District. We can expect, like, $200 million in impact over 10 years once we implement it,” he said. “People don’t realize that a third of

When asked why Pine Bluff is the natural fit for the new center, Gold said the rich cultural traditions of the area, combined with the vast agricultural base that surrounds it, make the city a prime location.

“What the farmers produce now, there’s so many things that are unique to the Delta, and the Delta is a big stretch. That’s the reason why our chapter is the Arkansas Delta Chefs’ Association because we want to include that whole stretch, which passes beyond some of the Arkansas borders too,” he said. “There are so many unique things, and you can get connected into that and tell that story and how these things got started in this area and why they were important in the early days. There’s a rich story going all the way back to Chief Saracen and the Quapaw tribe in the mid-1600s.

“We’re looking for something more recent in the last century, a connection in the Delta with food and music and art that can’t be ignored. Those three things — the food, the music and the art — all need to be included in this big idea for it to be successful and to bring people back and to complete that comeback story.”



Trailblazing New Province grows brand while finding synergy with another brew

New Province Brewing Co. is now in its second act. Founded in 2016 by Derek and Megan McEnroe, the Rogers brewery was acquired in 2022 by John Lee and a group of like-minded investors. Despite the change in ownership, New Province maintains much of the identity it created before the sale. Built on the back of beers such as Philosopher King IPA, an India pale ale, and Fallen Queen, a Belgian witbier, the brand continues to find success with the tried and true while pushing into new territory with innovative recipes and an evolving business model.

The brewery has been in operation less than a decade, but is considered one of the senior members of the Arkansas brewing community. When it opened, New

New Province Brewing of Rogers is considered one of the senior members of the state’s brewing community. (Photos provided)

The taproom at New Province is open every day except Monday.

Province was one of around two dozen breweries actively producing beer in the state. Today that number is closer to 60. Craft beer is no longer the novelty it once was in the Natural State, thanks in part to the trailblazing efforts of New Province and others that opened their doors in those early days.

Speaking of trailblazing efforts, New Province was one of the first breweries in the state to can its beer when it did so in 2017. With the help of northwest Arkansas design firm BLKBOXLabs, the brewery introduced Philosopher King and Fallen Queen in eye-catching packaging that matched the quality of the products inside the cans. This effort helped push the brewery’s presence well beyond its taproom walls. Today, aluminum-clad New Province products are ubiquitous throughout the state. You can find those two labels and many more in liquor and grocery stores from Bentonville to Little Rock.

on the number of problems that need to be solved. Recent issues related to brewery expansion have kept him on the premises more often than not.

The brewery’s reputation has continued to strengthen over the course of time. The 8,100-squarefoot brewery at 1310 W. Hudson Road in Rogers is just a short distance east of Interstate 49 and Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. The taproom occupies about a quarter of the building’s footprint and is open every day of the week except Monday. The schedule is full of special events, and an on-premise food truck keeps patrons from going hungry. Open-mic comedy nights on Wednesdays have proven so popular that the number of comedians allowed on stage has been capped at 20 to ensure each brave soul has enough time to work through his or her bit. Thankfully, there is enough alcohol by volume behind the bar to calm nerves before participants’ names are called.

Lee assumed leadership of New Province following a successful stint at Rebel Kettle Brewing Co. in Little Rock, which rebranded as East Sixth Brewing Co. before closing. He left Rebel Kettle in 2020, and after a short hiatus from the brewing industry, he is now more determined than ever to build a successful beer brand. Although he maintains his permanent residence in central Arkansas, he is a familiar face at the Benton County brewery. The frequency of his visits depends

“We have been investing in the brewery and adding equipment to increase the amount of beer we can produce,” Lee said. “We recently expanded our Wild Goose canning line from two heads to five heads with the goal of doubling the number of cans we can produce in the same amount of time. Installation didn’t go as planned, though, and it took almost a week to fix an issue related to loss of pressure.”

The canning line is running smoothly now, which is important because New Province is now producing all of the packaged beer for North Little Rock’s Flyway Brewing, which now has a Fayetteville location and does not have a canning operation of its own. Flyway founder Matt Foster is married to one of Lee’s partners at New Province, Heather Parker-Foster. Co-manufacturing is a natural relationship for the two breweries, and it is a win-win scenario for everyone involved. It is a unique situation no one else in Arkansas brewing is attempting at this point in time.

“We’ve been turning and burning a lot of Bluewing [Berry Wheat] for them since we started working together,” Lee said in reference to Flyway’s top-selling beer. “In February, we were making 400 cases of Bluewing per week. The partnership obviously benefits New Province in terms of utilizing all of the capacity we’ve built here, and it benefits Flyway, too, because they were able to bring all of their packaged production back home to Arkansas.”


Flyway was previously using a contract brewery in Florida to can its beer for distribution.

New Province and Flyway not only share brewing equipment, but also a brewmaster. Kort Castleberry, who joined New Province in 2017 following a stint at Fossil Cove Brewing Co. in Fayetteville, obtained a stake in Flyway’s new Fayetteville brewpub location and now oversees production at both sites. Tim Berkley continues to guide brewing operations for Flyway’s original location in North Little Rock.

“New Province and Flyway are sort of sibling brands now,” Castleberry said during an interview before the holidays. “The brands are intertwined, and we’re working together to achieve a common goal. We’ve added staff at both locations, and we named Hugh Brewer as head brewer at New Province, which will help a lot.” The Flyway location in Fayetteville — which is near Lake Fayetteville and was formerly occupied by Apple Blossom Brewing Co. — carries both brands on tap.

Flyway is in the process of opening additional satellite breweries in Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn.. The Memphis location was acquired from High Cotton Brewing Co. and will keep some of those legacy beers in the portfolio.

Other capital investments recently made by New Province include four 45-barrel fermenters and a 45-barrel brite tank — a vessel used to store and clarify beer after fermentation — that were once used by JJ’s Brewing Co. in Fayetteville. The equipment became available after JJ’s stopped making its own beer for the chain of restaurants bearing the JJ’s name. A glycol chiller system big enough to cool the increased volume of beer was also installed, although it too created challenges for Lee and the team at New Province. Shortly after installation, staff arrived at the brewery to find all of the system’s coolant had leaked onto the floor. It was just the latest mishap among the myriad of others that occurred during the brewery’s expansion.

Although unwelcome, such headaches are the hallmarks of entrepreneurship. Lee has taken them all in stride and is looking forward to calmer, more predictable days ahead.

“The good thing about all of these issues is that everything happened during our slow season,” he said. “Now that we’re getting closer to spring and summer — which are prime beer drinking seasons — we’ve just about got it all figured out.”

As for the beer itself, Philosopher King IPA continues to dominate the New Province portfolio.

“It’s a fantastic West-Coast-style IPA,” said Lee. “It saw a significant increase in sales last year, up almost 20 percent from the year before. It’s the No. 1 seller here in the taproom, and it’s the No. 1 product that we have in the market.”

The beer is known for its clean bitterness and citrus flavor profile. In a market dominated in recent years by hazy IPAs, it is a throwback to the beginning of the craft beer movement.

Space Suit — a lower-alcohol session IPA — is the second-highest selling beer for New Province, followed by Fallen Queen. An up-and-coming beer is Del Rey, a Mexican lager and a lightly-hopped beer that weighs in at a relatively-low five-percent ABV. It appeals to the preference of today’s beer drinkers, who are increasingly looking for a straightforward option that does not take too much thought to enjoy. Nationwide, the style has exploded, with brands such as Modelo, Pacifico, and Tecate leading the way.

“I think you’re going to see big things from Del Rey this year,” said Lee. “It’s a popular style now, but we put our own spin on it. We’re using a specific hop from New Zealand that gives it some of its lime character. We serve it with a lime here in the taproom, but you don’t need one to get that citrusy character because it’s built right in.”

Lee was known for his creative flair when he was brewing at Rebel Kettle, but his influence on New Province’s products has been fairly conservative thus

New Province’s Space Suit, a lower alcohol IPA, is one of the brewery’s top two sellers.

far. Again, the brewery’s reputation is well-established at this point, and Castleberry created a trusted lineup of beers that the brewery’s success was built on. Lee has been more deliberate in finding his opportunities to put his thumbprint on the brewery’s offerings.

“I’ve had some influence on our selection of hazy IPAs,” Lee said. “We’re loading three to four pounds of hops per barrel for those beers, so they’re pricey to make, so for the most part, we’re sticking with canned sales out of the taproom for those.”

West Hudson, a double dry-hopped hazy IPA, is one such beer. It features notes of guava, grapefruit and pine.

Another way Lee infuses New Province with his brewing personality is through variations on previously brewed beers.

“On Fridays, we offer kegs of beer we’ve already made and add crazy ingredients to them,” he said. “We recently injected a bunch of blueberry puree into a sour base we had on hand, which was really popular with our taproom customers, and we’re playing around with our imperial stout by making peanut butter cup and mint chocolate chip versions of that big winter beer.”

“New Province and Flyway are sort of sibling brands now. The brands are intertwined, and we’re working together to achieve a common goal.
— Kort Castleberry

The special, one-off beers, typically advertised on the brewery’s social media accounts, are gone soon after they are tapped.

One beer that recently hit the market and is turning heads is Pair of Kings Double IPA, a bigger, boozier version of Philosopher King. Sold in four-packs, the limited-run beer has been popular with Arkansas beer drinkers.

“It’s incredibly smooth,” Lee said. “I think it might even be an easier drinker than Philosopher, which is amazing considering its ABV is three points higher [nine percent versus six percent].”

New Province is on an upward trajectory in its growth. According to figures provided by the alcoholic beverage control division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, the brewery produced just more than 1,100 barrels of beer in 2018. Lee said the brewery more than doubled that output in 2023.

“I don’t have a definitive number yet, but I think we did about 2,400 barrels last year,” he said, “and this year, we’ll probably produce more Flyway out of here than New Province. With all of their canned production coming here to Rogers, it will likely be more than 3,000 barrels of their beer in 2024.”

Under Lee’s and Castleberry’s leadership, New Province continues to grow its own portfolio while infusing the brewery with cash through its partnership with Flyway. In the end, the synergistic relationship between the two breweries will benefit both.

New Province’s partnership with Flyway has benefitted both brewers.

Minor League Baseball will open for business on April 5 with the start of the 2024 season.

(Photos provided)

The Same but DIFFERENT

Minor league teams adjust to new MLB agreement, Travs hope to stay put

On the outside, Minor League Baseball looks much the same as it did five years ago. The crack of the bat, the buzz of a building crowd, the smell of hot dogs, the glistening condensation of beer cans — the magic of baseball remains alive and well in Major League Baseball’s farm system.

A sporting Rip Van Winkle, however, might be forgiven for waking up in 2024 after a five-year slumber and doing a double take. COVID-19 threw the world a knuckleball in 2020, and when it resumed in 2021 after taking a year off, MiLB looked different.

When teams like the Texas League’s Arkansas Travelers and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals — the Double A affiliates of the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals, respectively — took the field in 2021, Major League Baseball had taken over operation of the minors.

With travel reduction and cost efficiency in mind, the number of MiLB clubs affiliated with MLB was culled from 160 to 120. Post-COVID, each MLB franchise has a fourlevel farm system — Triple A, Double A, High-A and Low-A. The leagues within each level were restructured to capitalize on geography, and even a few Triple A affiliations were switched for that very reason.


For the 2021 season, the Travelers and Naturals played in what was dubbed the Double-A Central, which consisted of all the former Texas League teams. In 2022, MLB brought back the minor leagues’ traditional league names.

Sophie Ozier, the Travs’ first female general manager and one of the youngest in pro baseball, has known only the postCOVID restructure in her current role.

“I started as GM of the Travs in 2021, so I’ve never known it any other way,” she said. “That being said, we rarely worked with MLB prior to 2021. Now we work with them on a daily basis.”

Many of the clubs that lost affiliation continue to operate in independent leagues, and MLB operates two rookie leagues, in Arizona and Florida, that play games at MLB spring training sites. Plus, the minors’ schedule format was changed to reduce travel by as much as 56 percent, as well as to reduce expenses.

“In modernizing our minor league system, we prioritized the qualities that make the minor leagues such an integral part of our game while strengthening how we develop professional athletes on and off the field,” said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in 2021.

Baseball insiders feared the changes could quell MiLB of its Bull Durham charm, and Travelers CEO Rusty Meeks told Arkansas Money & Politics that the changes indeed turned clubs into franchisees. On the flip side, minor league players are paid more and unionized under the new agreement. Travel time — and by extension, travel costs — are reduced, and many minor league facilities

were upgraded to meet MLB’s standards. The Travs’ home stadium, DickeyStephens Park in North Little Rock, is dealing with a lingering sinkhole problem that could conceivably force MLB to move the club to another city.

Baseball under the Travelers moniker has been a constant in central Arkansas since 1901. There have been only seven seasons since when the Travelers were not playing baseball in or across the river from Little Rock.

The Little Rock Travelers became the Arkansas Travelers in 1957, becoming the first pro sports team to name itself after a state, and the club itself is the fourtholdest in MiLB and its nickname the fourth-longest running. Only the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons (1877), the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts (1885) and the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens (1896) are older.

Meeks does not want that run to end, but MLB’s new requirements may force the team’s hand. The team’s lease at Dickey-Stephens with the city of North Little Rock runs through 2026, and by the following season, MLB has told the Travs the sinkhole problem must be fixed.

The Travs played at historic Ray Winder Field in Little Rock from 1932 to 2006, when they moved across the river. Ray Winder had maintained a Fenway-

“We’re doing everything we can to remain a part of this community. We’re trying our best to stay, but MLB would move us to a facility somewhere else.”
— Rusty Meeks, Arkansas Travelers

Park-like charm but, by 2000, was showing its age. The Travs were pressured by their parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, to build a new stadium. Instead, former GM Bill Valentine chose to end the affiliation with the Redbirds and sign with the Los Angeles Angels. Valentine was a vocal proponent for renovation of Ray Winder, but that idea never gained traction — local momentum favored a new stadium — and the Travs debuted in the city-owned Dickey-Stephens on the river in North Little Rock in 2007.

No one wants the Travs to leave, least of all officials of the club or city. The Travs draw well — more than 307,000 took in 67 home games in 2023 for an average attendance of about 4,600 — good for fifth in the Texas League.

The team and city have publicly debated which party is responsible for fixing the sinkhole problem, a result of flooding along the river. Meeks said sinkholes have appeared almost every year the team has played on the river and were especially bad the past four years. The city has fixed existing sinkholes only to have new ones open. Two test wells dug 26 feet deep were installed during the offseason to help prevent water from getting in and causing problems. Meeks said 10 more wells will be added.

If that does not fix the sinkhole problem or a permanent fix is not in place in time for the 2027 season, the Travs could be on the move. With no other stadium available in central Arkansas and the prospect of another local city such as Conway financing a new stadium unlikely, MLB would find the team a new

Justin Cole Sophie Ozier Rusty Meeks

home, Meeks said. He pointed out that the Jackson, Miss., market — home to minor league ball almost as long as Little Rock — has an empty, relatively new stadium, the Double-A Mississippi Braves, which played in the suburb of Pearl, having moved to Columbus, Ga.

“MLB would move us,” Meeks said of the sinkhole issue. “There’s not another stadium in central Arkansas, and there’s one available now in Jackson. We’ve got to get something done.”

Meeks said the club has spent more than $5.5 million on stadium upgrades to meet the new MLB facility standards, including adding new lights and a new batting cage.

“We’re doing everything we can to remain a part of this community,” he said. “We’re trying our best to stay, but MLB would move us to a facility somewhere else [if Dickey-Stephens doesn’t meet the new standards].”

Since the former Wichita Wranglers of the Texas League moved to Springdale and became the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in 2008, there has never been any doubt the region represents a good fit in the Royals’ farm system. Justin

Cole, vice president and general manager of the Naturals, said team officials did not have any concern over the club’s future post-restructure, but like any club, they followed the situation closely and maintained a good standing with all stakeholders.

Cole said the restructure has resulted in much more direct collaboration between MiLB teams and MLB.

“We’ve also been able to tap into additional resources from Major League Baseball, enhancing our operations,” he said. “While adjusting to new policies and contacts was part of the transition, the day-to-day operations have remained largely similar. We continue to have close contact with our affiliate in Kansas City, as well as our MLB direct and indirect contacts.”

At Arvest Ballpark, it’s business as usual for the Nats, a natural extension of the Royals organization.

“Over the past 16 years, we’ve been fortunate to have consistent support from numerous businesses that have stood by us,” Cole said. “The community’s support and affinity for the team remain strong. We are focused on maintaining this level

of support while also finding new ways to attract fans each year.”

Like club officials from Toledo to Tacoma, Cole said the Nats keep looking for ways to attract people to the park. In 2023, the Nats drew just fewer than 4,000 fans a game.

For a team based in northwest Arkansas, it helps when a former Razorback comes through the system. Former Hog star Cayden Wallace is back in Springdale for 2024 as the Nats’ third baseman.

“It certainly helps, especially a player of his caliber,” Cole said. “He enjoyed a fantastic career at the University of Arkansas and is one of the Royals’ top position player prospects. On some nights last year, you could see — and hear — the support he was generating. Our hope is those fans have such a great experience, they want to keep coming back, even after he has moved up to Triple-A and MLB.”

Big picture, not much changed for minor league teams under the new agreement. Clubs must still develop players and sell tickets.

“While every market is different, we remain grateful that our community’s

At Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, it’s back to business for the Naturals and their parent club, Kansas City.

support and attendance remains strong,” Cole said. “To stand out, we continue evaluating ways to enhance the ballpark, amenities, experience and our offerings. While that may not always lead to overall growth, if we can find those incremental wins, over time, it will lead to long-term growth for us.”

The Nats open the season April 5 at home with a three-game set against Tulsa and will give away Wallace bobbleheads June 22. The Travs begin defense of their 2023 North Division title the same weekend with a three-game home stand against Springfield.

Meeks said the new relationship with MLB has been good from a uniform and merchandise standpoint, but running a minor league team still boils down to bringing in revenue from tickets, sponsorships and concessions.

“We can do more programs now and have better buy-in power,” he said. “We’ve had to change a lot. We had to go away from the mom-and-pop style under the new agreement.”

Minor league ball may never again resemble the Travs of Ray Winder Field or the Durham Bulls of Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh. Under the new minor league agreement, MLB identified six potential new revenue streams: ticket revenues (read: raise your prices or sell more), sponsorships, broadcasting and media rights, naming rights, monetization of activities, and hosting non-sporting events. Both Arkansas MiLB parks host nonbaseball events, and Dickey-Stephens hosts the Razorbacks for a midweek game each season, for which the Travelers keep all ticket and concession revenue.

Meeks said the trend of minor league parks as event venues will increase. He added, though, that a $7 ticket can still get someone in to see a game at DickeyStephens.

“That’s kind of unheard of in this day and age,” he said.

What will keep fans coming back to Minor League Baseball is the same thing that has been bringing fans to the park for more than a 100 years: the sounds, smells and crisp visuals provided by a home team in white taking the field at

twilight and contrasted against the bright green of the grass; the multi-colored palette of a sponsor-soaked outfield wall; the slower pace and relaxed vibe; and young men chasing their professional dreams.

Baseball, after all, is spectacle, sometimes, on a grand scale. The Travs will continue to host a Razorback game each spring — always the biggest crowd of the year — and break out their popular Diamantes gear to honor the central Arkansas Hispanic community. The Nats’ Thunder Chicken alternate uniforms are a big hit in Springdale. When the team was launched, fans were asked to vote on the team name, and Thunder Chickens was the No. 2 choice.

Football may now be the national sport when it comes to TV ratings, but there is nothing so American at its core than Minor League Baseball.

MiLB, after all, provides an intimacy not found in other sports, Cole said.

“You get to see players who are close to achieving their dream of becoming a major leaguer up close and personal,” he said. “Additionally, fans get to experience the fun, family-friendly atmosphere that Minor League Baseball is known for, all while enjoying classic ballpark food and the sounds of the game.”

Ozier said the Travs organization feels an obligation to give back to a community that has supported the team for more than 120 years.

“We have been in this community since 1901 and are the fourth-oldest Minor League Baseball team in the country. Creating family and affordable fun is at the forefront of everything we do,” she said. “We are proud to be a part of this community for as long as we have and try to give back to the community in any way we can.”

Attending a Minor League Baseball game is about so much more than the game, and Ozier — as do Cole and other GMs — recognizes her role, a role that didn’t change with the new MLB deal.

“Some people come to Dickey-Stephens Park specifically to watch a baseball game. Some don’t care at all what’s happening on the field,” she said. “Our role is to create a space for people to disconnect and have fun, whether that’s drinking a beer with your friends in the beer garden, bringing your family out to the splash pad or watching the next big prospect. We work really hard to maintain the timeless feel of Dickey-Stephens Park while also finding innovative ways to create new fans.”

The parks themselves, such as Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, are a part of the draw for Minor League Baseball teams.


Resurgence of grassroots amateur boxing part of promoter’s plan

Lendrick Nelson has delivered professional boxing to central Arkansas since 2012, when he and lifelong friend Dale McDaniel launched Diamond Rock Promotions in North Little Rock. Nelson is the son of legendary Little Rock trainer Ozell Nelson, who trained hometown phenom Jermain Taylor during his run to the undisputed middleweight title. The younger Nelson grew up around the sport and is a former Golden Glove and Junior Olympics boxer, so it stands to reason his career path would include boxing.

Nelson and McDaniel, who attended Joe T. Robinson High School in west Little Rock together, started promoting boxing in central Arkansas in 2014. Nelson also owns Nelson Contracting, a construction business, and McDaniel helps run his family’s McDaniel Equipment Co. in North Little Rock. Their first event, Mayhem in the Rock, was a big hit, and Diamond Rock Promotions was up and running.

In 2018, the promoters felt central Arkansas was ready for a return of the original Toughman competition, a grassroots amateur-boxing competition started in 1979 and popular across the country during the 1980s and 1990s, especially. At their peak, Toughman contests were held across the country, even in Las Vegas, and local and state winners advanced to

MARCH 2024
Nelson said he’d like to see Toughman return to the Statehouse Convention Center one day. (Photos provided)

national and international competitions. In Arkansas, Toughman cards filled the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock.

Nelson said he would like to see the grassroots event return to the Statehouse. For now, he is filling up the Maumelle Event Center. The latest installment of Diamond Rock’s Toughman, a franchise of the original Toughman competition, was held March 7 and 8 and had more than 30 participants.

Enthusiastic response to Toughman’s return led Diamond Rock to hold two events a year. Another installment will be held the first weekend of August.

“When we decided to bring it back, we wanted to get it back to its original run,” Nelson said. “We’ve tried to get the feel for doing it twice a year, and it’s been well received. We’ve had great success with it. We’ve had great crowds, and it’s really good family fun.”

Toughman weight divisions are lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight and superheavyweight for the men and open for the women. Fighters pay $60 to participate. Sanctioned referees and gear are used, including standard USA Boxing headgear, 16-ounce gloves and groin protectors. Bouts entail three one-minute rounds. Nelson said everyone fights the first night, and competitors can fight multiple times on night two unless they are knocked out.

“You’re able to keep competing as long as you don’t get knocked out,” he said.

Nelson said for him, boxing represents

a rite of passage — his dad and brother both each fought, as well. Toughman competitors have told him the same thing. Others have said they simply have anger issues and steam to be blown off or that Toughman represents a bucket-list item.

“They say, ‘I’ve always wanted to do it,’” Nelson said. “All that changes when you get into the ring.”

He noted two quotes that frame the Toughman narrative well. The first is attributed to former Razorback and Hall of Fame basketball coach Nolan Richardson: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” The second comes from former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a game plan until you get into the ring.”

Toughman operates on the standard rules of boxing — no kicking, wrestling, eye gouging or grabbing — and competitors must not have ever competed in a pro fight or in more than five amateur fights over the past five years.

Participants must be at least 18 years of age to compete and cannot be older than 55. For fighters over 40, advanced medicals are required, Nelson said, and all fighters must have blood work done to compete.

Winners take home prize money, a belt and, perhaps just as importantly, bragging rights.

As much as anything, Nelson said he hopes Toughman helps reinforce Little Rock as a boxing town.

“I definitely want to shine a light on Little Rock’s boxing pedigree,” he said. “There’s always been a great reception here for the professional fighters, and there’s a lot of interest at the youth level in boxing. There are five or six local boxing gyms in greater Little Rock with great athletes at each gym.”

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
— Nolan Richardson


Darrell Walker’s passion extends beyond coaching


Mention Darrell Walker in most corners of Arkansas, and his name recognition is almost instantaneous among Razorback fans. The Chicago native carved a permanent place in the Hogs basketball pantheon for scoring 1,325 points in three seasons (18th all-time) plus ranking fourth all-time in steals (230) and sixth in made free throws (524).

Under the late Eddie Sutton, Walker and his mates reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1981 and 1983. He was second-team All American the latter year, as well as an NABC All-District selection, All Star and Player of the Year. He was twice named Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year before entering the ranks of the NBA, where he played for five teams over a decade as a pro.

Recently, Walker reentered the Ar kansas basketball landscape, this time from the bench. Now in his fifth sea son as the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s head basketball coach, Walker has had a transformative ef fect on the Trojans program. He led the team to an outright Sun Belt Conference crown in his second season, landing him Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors.

Walker, who holds the additional distinction of being the only active coach with head coaching experience at the NBA, WNBA, Division II and Division I levels, re sides in both the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and the University of Arkansas Hall of Honor.

In fact, he is so closely associated with the hardwood that many people did a double-take when, in January, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock announced Walker as one of the newest directors for the AMFA Foundation. Many of those outside of the coach’s immediate circle had no idea of the depth of his art appreciation that has fueled decades of collecting various works.

“It started in 1990 or ’91,” Walker said. “Bernard King is a hall-of-fame basketball player who I played with on the [NBA’s] New York Knicks, and we wound up playing together again in Washington. He was always on me about other interests, like museums and art. I’m a young player

“When I got traded to the [Detroit] Pistons in ’89 or ’90, I just took it upon myself to start collecting and visiting museums and visiting galleries, artists’ studios and educating myself on the road. Just got hooked on it..
Former Razorback star Darrell Walker enjoyed a long career in the NBA. (Photos provided)

focused on my career and hanging out with everybody else in their 20s.

“When I got traded to the [Detroit] Pistons in ’89 or ’90, I just took it upon myself to start collecting and visiting museums and visiting galleries, artists’ studios and educating myself on the road. Just got hooked on it.”

King was a revelation to Walker, who said his mentor’s passion for art was something uncommon among the other players he encountered.

“Bernard had been doing it for a long time as an NBA player, and you didn’t see that. You see it now because it’s the ‘in’ thing to do, but when he was doing it and I was collecting art, that was not the ‘in’ thing to do,” he said. “He and I would talk art, talked about all the great African American artists that were out there in the world. We’d go visit this studio, go visit this artist, go to this museum.

“I also read a lot; I really read a lot about art and stayed in tune with it every day. Over time, my collection just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

When asked what it was that captured his attention about what King was selling him about art, Walker said he has always been captivated by the creativity it takes to move an idea to the canvas, camera or clay.

“Some people can be so creative to do abstract work, to do photography, to do sculpture, to do figurative work,” he said. “Everybody in my collection, I have some relationship with the artist. That makes it even better when you have a relationship with them and are able to go to the studio and hang out with them, go to dinner with them, share a glass of wine.

“Art, to me, you get to wake up in the morning and look at it, but it’s also preserving my history as an African American man in this country. My collection is strictly an African American collection of photographers, sculptors,

painters — you name it. I’m also cultivating and preserving my history for myself and for my kids and for my grandkids.”

Walker’s collection, which now numbers about 90 works, has developed as his knowledge and his understanding of given schools of expression has deepened significantly.

“As a young collector, you tend to look at the figurative because that’s what you see is the people,” he said. “I gravitated toward figurative works first and then I graduated toward abstracts after I became a more educated art collector. I got better, kept reading to understand abstracts.

“You’ve got the great Sam Gilliam, who’s one of the most unbelievable abstract painters who ever lived. Norman Lewis was another abstract painter who was in the same group with Jackson Pollock and all those other abstract painters. In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, he was the only African American in Life magazine photographed sitting at the table with all the abstract expressionists. There are so many good artists out there and so many good artists in my collection, but I really, really like those two.”

Walker said the decision to join the AMFA Foundation came in part from how impressed he was with the new museum building christened last year. He said the downtown Little Rock jewel can hold its own against museums in much larger cities.

“The museum is spectacular,” he said. “All the people that went out fundraising and gave their money to get this project done, it’s one of the jewels of central Arkansas. For me to be able to be on the board of this museum is a huge, huge honor.”

In the same way he was mentored, Walker has

“ Art, to me, you get to wake up in the morning and look at it, but it’s also preserving my history as an African American man in this country. My collection is strictly an African American collection of photographers, sculptors, painters — you name it.

taken steps to introduce the next generation to the art world. He recently took his Trojans to view a Whitfield Lovell exhibition at AMFA. He said there’s common ground between his two great loves — art and basketball — which he sees in the final product of a well-orchestrated team.

“Sometimes you can see when your team plays basketball correctly, there’s a beauty and a creativity of getting on a fast break, and the ball doesn’t touch the floor,” he said. “All that stuff is creativity — how the ball moves around through to the open man, the open shot. All that has its own creativity.”

The AMFA Foundation is a nonprofit entity that

owns the 14,000 works of art in the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection. The foundation board manages the endowment’s investments, supporting the museum’s ongoing operations and growth, and oversees art acquisitions and care of the collection.

In addition to Walker, the AMFA Foundation directors include Warren Stephens, chair; Ben Hussman, vice-chair; George O’Connor, treasurer; Victoria Ramirez, secretary; Terri Erwin; Michael Mayton; Harriet Stephens; Robert W. Tucker, past chair; and Stan Hastings, AMFA Board of Trustees president.

Walker and the Trojans basketball team at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.


Hope’s Klipsch Auditorium

The entire second floor of Hope’s magnificent City Hall is taken up by a 400-seat auditorium that looks like it fell right off the silver screen.

Walking into the auditorium for the first time, a visitor might easily envision it as the setting for a Woody Allen movie or imagine a nascent Louisiana-Hayride-era Elvis Presley on stage, reinventing how teenagers experienced music. On his way to Viva Las Vegas and Blue Hawaii, that very version of Elvis played the hall in the mid-1950s, after all.

The Paul W. Klipsch Auditorium was christened in honor of its namesake, a global audio pioneer, in 1995. Along with a pair of former Arkansas governors, one who went on to be elected president, Klipsch helped put Hope on the global map, and the auditorium helps keep his legacy alive.

A living postcard from the past, the auditorium and balcony look much the same as they did when Elvis took the stage. Maintained by the Klipsch Heritage Museum Association, the auditorium sits mostly empty these days while light restoration plans are realized in preparation for a full future schedule of concerts, lectures and other community events. When City Hall was renovated in 1995, the auditorium received some updates, but it remains true to how it looked

Hope’s Klipsch Auditorium (Photos by Jamison Mosley)

when the building was constructed in 1926.

“It is original for the most part, although the first three or four center rows of seats were removed many years ago,” said Jim Hunter, curator of the Klipsch Museum of Audio History. “The balcony is essentially complete but is not used due to a lack of a fire escape. Due to both, it seats about 400.”

Hunter said the seats even include the original wire fixtures underneath for hanging one’s hat.

The company Klipsch founded at the old U.S. Army Southwestern Proving Ground in Hope in 1946, the year after receiving a U.S. patent for his loudspeaker design, would become one of the world’s leading manufacturers of speakers. For audiophiles, the name Klipsch became synonymous with the best listening experience possible. The company’s legacy remains intact close to 30 years after the founder sold the company to a Klipsch cousin, who moved the headquarters to Indianapolis. (The company is now owned by Voxx International.)

Self-proclaimed audiophiles from across the globe visit the Klipsch Museum of Audio History inside the building where Klipsch designed his first speaker, along with the Klipsch Heritage Museum Association Visitors Center in downtown Hope. The museum association also operates an education center at the Hope Municipal Airport on the old Army base and has exclusive rights to use of the auditorium.

Klipsch died in 2002 in Hope at age 98. Many of his renowned speakers, which amassed something of a cult following, are still manufactured in Hope in the original building on the proving ground that Klipsch bought from the Army. Klipsch Auditorium serves as the ideal medium for the fine-tuned craftsmanship behind the speakers, which deliver an aesthetic many audiophiles have equated to a religious experience.

Hope Mayor Don Still, who sits on the museum board, said the auditorium can serve as part of the Klipsch legacy in Hope and one day attract audiophiles visiting Hope to learn more about Klipsch.

“He really was a genius,” he said. “We were lucky to have him, and not just as a longtime employer. He and the company have been so important to us in many ways.”

Still said he visited California about a decade ago and was asked by a group of natives where he was from. He expected his response of, “Hope, Ark.,” to be met with a reference to Bill Clinton, the former hometown governor turned commander in chief. Instead, Klipsch was mentioned.

“That’s when I realized how broad the Klipsch name and brand really are. It’s amazing how far the reach is,” he said. “If anybody’s going to visit Hope, they have plenty of [Klipsch-related] things to visit.”

Hunter, a former decades-long employee of Klipsch, said the auditorium will realize its full former life again.

“It was recently outfitted with Klipsch professional movie theater speakers, left and right,” he said. “The acoustics are excellent, so it provides a first-rate experience. It is our intention

to eventually add a screen for movie presentations.”

Once Hempstead Hall opened on the campus of the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana in 2013, Klipsch Auditorium “fell into a period of very little use,” Hunter said.

Those wishing to experience the audio and visual aesthetics of Klipsch Auditorium need not fret, Hunter assured.

“The Klipsch Museum of Audio History secured exclusive rental of the space in 2018,” he said. “We hope to correct that lack of use going forward.”

Above, workers set up for a Christmas program inside the auditorium (photo provided), and a Klipsch La Scala speaker presides over the auditorium stage.



The 1970 Topps Pete Rose No. 580 baseball card was a popular one when I was a kid in northern Minnesota.

It wasn’t because Rose was a favorite player of my gang or that he epitomized his nickname “Charlie Hustle” when he bowled over Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse in the All-Star game that year.

Instead, it was because his card featured just his big crew cut head adorned with the Cincinnati Reds cap. Most of the other baseball cards of that year showed stars swinging their bats, preparing to throw a fastball off the pitcher’s mound or poised in a defensive position.

Rose’s No. 580 just showed his noggin, and because of that, the card was not the most favored one when we bought packs for 40 cents back then, but it did have an important purpose. Whenever we’d find one of his cards between the slab of chewing gum and the other more prized cards, it immediately went into service.

We’d clip the card onto the frame of our bicycle with a clothespin, making sure the card fit between the spokes of the bike’s wheel. Whenever we peddled the bike, the spokes would hit the card and make the “flap, flap” noise that, to a kid, sounded like the engine of a revving motorcycle. We could turn our Schwinns and Huffys into Suzukis and Harleys.

Now more than a half century later, I see that a Topps No. 580 card sells from $250 to even $1,000.

Such is the nature of sports cards. Yesterday’s spoke flappers are today’s collectibles.

A sports collectors’ website recently noted that card fans will spend more than $600 million this year buying those cardboard pictures. What was once a part of the joy of being a boy and discovering pictures of our heroes that we could hang on our walls is now a thriving business.

I, like so many others, probably had thousands of dollars worth of cards in shoeboxes that my mother threw away when we moved. I’m sure buried in some Minnesota landfill are the Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson cards I once owned, and there are probably scores of Pete Rose No. 580s,

all creased in the middle and frayed on the edges from bicycle spokes.

I never was much for card collecting other than keeping cards of my beloved Minnesota Twins back in the day. The one time I thought of investing in cards, I bought scores of cards of Teemu Selanne, a Finnish hockey legend who played in the NHL, mostly with the Winnipeg Jets and the Anaheim Ducks. The year I got serious with his cards, Selanne cut his Achilles heel in a game and was never quite the same after.

I saw it was a sign for me to merely enjoy sports memorabilia and not delve into the business end.

A collector on eBay is asking $2,499 for a Topps Pete Rose No. 580 baseball card.

Now, as we near opening day of baseball, I find I tend to look back to the baseball days of old, rather than ahead to the present season, and I’ve got the memorabilia to prove that. On a bookshelf at home is a framed autographed photo of Henry Aaron, my favorite player. There’s an autographed picture of Joe DiMaggio on the other side, my father’s favorite player.

My wife has a signed baseball by Ernie Banks, and displayed prominently atop the bookshelf is a picture signed by Ball Four author and former pitcher Jim Bouton.

Perhaps my best autograph really shows my impression on sports collectibles and puts the heart into what it is really about.

When I was 10, the same year we were putting the Rose cards on our bicycles, I wrote a letter to Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr. I wrote that the Minnesota Vikings were my favorite team, but I liked Starr the best of all the NFL players. I asked him for an autograph and enclosed a 5-by-7 index card in a self-addressed envelope.

Months later, in the summer of 1971, a letter dropped through the mail slot, and I recognized my own handwriting. Starr wrote back! He signed the card and added a thank you note.

I placed the card in my 1971 NFL football guide book and eventually forgot about it.

When my mother passed away in 1998, I was going through boxes of things at her house and found one containing a lot of my old books. I saw that 1971 football guide and wondered.

Yes, 27 years later, still tucked in the book by the Packers’ team page, was the card. I could sell it, I guess, but the memories of how I got it and later found it are worth more than whatever I could claim from a collector.

I do know, however, that it’s worth more to me than the Pete Rose No. 580 — and I won’t clip the Starr autograph to my bicycle.


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