By the BF Staff
From the January/February 2021 Issue
Why Arkansas? Leaders from companies such as Walmart, Stephens and Dillard’s can answer that question.
It has been almost a year since the country was hit with the pandemic. Thanks to thoughtful, pragmatic leadership, Arkansas’ economy has fared well and continues to grow. Most businesses in the state have remained opened throughout the pandemic and most that did temporarily close are coming back to life. The bottom line: just like in the recession of 2008, there are many reasons for the state’s ability to come back.
Every Fortune 500 company headquartered in Arkansas began as a small, family-owned startup. Walmart, Dillard’s, Murphy USA, JB Hunt and Tyson Foods were all nurtured by the environment of hard work and the great people Arkansas has always provided. It is why recruiting people from across the world to live here has not been difficult.
“We want businesses to come here. And so, when people do come here, we’re glad and we do our very best to help them,” said Warren Stephens, the chairman, president and CEO of Stephens Inc., about how Arkansas’ state and local leaders reach out to nurture businesses large and small. With more than 1,200 employees, Stephens Inc. is one of the largest privately owned investment banks in the country. “I think there are a lot of states that don’t have a very good environment for businesses. And you can see that around the country now.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s hands-on approach to economic development has instilled the necessary confidence in numerous executives for Arkansas to compete on an international stage. Sig Sauer CEO Ron Cohen recounted the phone call he received from the governor on Inauguration Day. “‘I’m the governor of the great state of Arkansas. And I want you to come to Arkansas,’ the governor told me. When you get a phone call like that, you don’t say no,” Cohen said. “And then from that moment, a process started. People tell me that business is just business. You know what? Not at Sig Sauer; business for me is personal. There’s no such thing as just business. I don’t tell an employee it’s just business. It’s the lives of employees. Everything is personal to me and to Sig Sauer. Arkansas has been exceptional, good people to work with. I’ve been in business for over 30 years. I’ve never witnessed something like this in a state in the United States. I’ve never witnessed it. When we came here, we thought we’d start with maybe 40, 50 people, maybe 60, maybe 70. We have 160 people now. And we’re just starting.”
Through a pandemic, Arkansas has defined resiliency, remaining open and ready for business. Arkansas’ unemployment has not only run consistently below the national average, but the state also beat its own balanced budget forecasts. Arkansas’ consistent growth has allowed for continued tax cuts under the leadership of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, including the term that took effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
Arkansas does not see workforce development as an optional endeavor. When recruiting economic development projects to the state, the advantage of having a robust workforce with a deep-rooted culture of loyalty, pride and work ethic is a key driver for many top company leaders. Thanks to Arkansas’ workforce, the United States is now “perfectly positioned to continue to defend the nation against new and evolving threats,” said Mark Tucker, chief operating officer at Aerojet Rocketdyne, a leading missile defense manufacturer that has invested heavily in the company’s solid rocket center of excellence in Camden. The facility has successfully developed, manufactured and built military missile systems like Javelin, GMLRS, A3 and the Tactical Tomahawk. “We have an incredible level of confidence in [our employees], so much so that we decided to take an existing program that we were producing in our Sacramento operations and move it here in the middle of what is a full-rate production cycle. You have to recognize the contribution and the dedication of the Aerojet Rocketdyne employees, the men and women who come here every day to do this incredible work. They contribute to this mission.”
Hytrol President David Peacock summarized it perfectly by saying, “When it came time to expand with an additional production facility, it was an easy decision to stay in Arkansas. The workforce in Arkansas is second to none; the business climate supports our growth; and our values of faith, family, gratitude, empathy, commitment and community align perfectly with Arkansas.”
Annemarie Dillard Jazic is a vice-president at retail giant Dillard’s, and she believes it is not only the great workforce, but also a diverse economic base. “We do just over $6.2 billion in annual sales a year. We operate in 29 states, but we’re headquartered right here in Arkansas. Arkansas is really a best kept secret. While we’re well known for our beautiful outdoors as the natural state, what many people don’t know is that we’re also home to many wildly successful companies, whether it be in retail or trucking or agriculture or investment banking. The diversity of businesses in Arkansas really sets us apart as we’re not beholden to one particular industry.”
DIVERSITY STRENGTHENS ARKANSAS ECONOMY
Arkansas’ diverse economy is what has kept the state in the black every fiscal year. The state’s main exports are aviation and related parts and service, defense, manufacturing, agriculture and food production. Steel, rice and timber have continued to be main pillars of the state’s economy and are showing unwavering production despite the pandemic. The manufacturing sector is following suit, ranking sixth in the country for percentage of workers who are employed.
But that does not mean the people in Arkansas don’t know how to unwind. They may work hard, but they also play hard.
Steuart Walton, founder of The Runway Group and a member of the Walmart board of directors, explains that Arkansas is not just about business. “I think the quality of life in Arkansas is very high. We have four perfectly balanced seasons. They each last about three months. Not too hot in the summer, not too cold in the winter. We have the pine forest. We have the hardwood forest. We have the most beautiful rivers of almost any state in the country, I’d argue. And where else are you going to find the mountain biking capital of the world? Up in Bentonville, Arkansas. We have access to nature that is close in proximity to centers of commerce and it provides just a wonderful experience for the people who choose to call Arkansas home.”
If you listen to the champions the Natural State has produced, they will all tell you Arkansas is a must-see on your list of potential business partners. If you are looking for a state that cuts taxes, balances their own budget, has the natural resources and infrastructure to make your logistics easier and more cost efficient, has a ready workforce that has weathered the worst of the pandemic and also has a pro-business government ready to partner in your success, Arkansas is waiting for your call, that is, if the governor doesn’t call you first!
Gov. Hutchinson credits all the team members of economic development in the state, including the legislature. As a new session began in January, the governor harkened back to the last session that made a big difference in the business climate in the state.
“It’s because we raised teacher pay, we cut our income tax rate, we funded highways and growth in the state of Arkansas. And then we transformed state government by passing a bill that will help us to manage state government, transform it to be more efficient and save taxpayer dollars,” the governor said. We’ve had an incredible session and it all centers around an agenda that will help our state to grow, to build the workforce that we need and to make sure that we can serve companies in the future.”
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