story by Jamie Smith
When a local business owner or local representative of a national company visits the Northwest Arkansas Business Expo, that person has the potential of finding a local business to fulfill a need rather than discovering similar services or products from outside the region.
The art of networking and the ability to showcase business products and services is the focus of the annual Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce event, which was held Tuesday (Aug. 12) in Rogers. The expo has taken on several forms in the more than 10 years that the chamber has been sponsoring the expo. Some years it has included an intense, one-day conference schedule with the business expo happening concurrently in the same location.
This year, said Steve Cox, vice president of economic development for the Rogers-Lowell Chamber, the focus was on the expo with three technology-related workshops in the afternoon. The event concluded with a Business After Hours networking event.
“We wanted to focus on the business community,” Cox said.
Instead of one day of conference sessions, the chamber created the Chamber University program, which features seminars throughout the year. Created in conjunction with the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center at the University of Arkansas’s Walton College, these “University” sessions help small businesses develop and grow.
“It’s a continual schedule of business (workshops) instead of just one shot in one day,” Cox said.
This year’s expo featured about 150 vendors with many industries represented. The NWA Business Expo is known as the biggest and best in the area, Cox said.
While the success of the expo is not considered an economic indicator in of itself, several factors do indicate that Northwest Arkansas’ economy is improved. For example, in July 2012, NWA had the same number of employed people as it did before the recession. The national figures could only claim that about three months ago, Cox said.
According to the 2012 State of the Northwest Arkansas Region Report from The Center for Business and Economic Research at the Sam M. Walton College of Business and the NWA Council, the economy was already starting to show signs of improvement several years ago.
“Since the beginning of the recession in 2008, Northwest Arkansas employment declined 2.3%, a smaller loss than all but one peer region,” the report reads. “However, the recovery of the Northwest Arkansas region was evident in the growth in employment between June 2011 and June 2012, when the region added 7,200 jobs. The total nonfarm employment in Northwest Arkansas in June 2012 stood at 211,100, which represents a new peak employment.”
Continuing, the report noted: “The region added an additional 8,800 jobs between June 2012 and June 2013. Employment in the region reached a new peak level of 219,300 in April 2013 before seasonally dropping to 218,700 in June 2013,” the report reads.
Cox said a growing number of companies are seeking trained labor workers, which means that the approximately 500 workers from Superior Industries in Rogers who recently learned they plant was closing will be able to find jobs.
“There’s a dramatic need for skilled labor in Northwest Arkansas,” he said. “These families will be able to find (employment).”
Steve DeMent, president of New Life Graphics in Rogers, said he’s beginning to see more economic growth and people have more disposable income again. The printing company began two years ago as a faith-based graphic tee company and it’s now a full print shop. They offer a startup business package it’s been a popular choice for the many new businesses coming into the area, he said.
Tuesday (Aug. 12) was the company’s first time to participate in the Expo. Previously, they had operated on word of mouth but wanted to have more business-to-business contacts. DeMent said he found more success by going to each booth and networking with other business leaders.
Java Dave’s Coffee is based in Tulsa, Okla., and has warehouses in Jopin, Mo., and Rogers. Ashley Massey works in the company’s water sales department and she was one of several representatives from the company at the expo. She said the expo provides the opportunity to support a local economy that supports their business and for them to interact with some of their clients. They also usually earn new business from the expo each year, she added.
The RoArk Group sponsored all of the signage at the expo and they had a booth at the event. The company is celebrating 40 years of being in business and they’ve participated in the expo for several years. Dawn Stewart is a marketing and promotional products specialist with the company and she agreed that the expo is an excellent networking tool.
Stewart also said she’s seeing signs of overall business growth in the region. She said while some may say “print is dead,” RoArk is seeing that businesses are finding ways to utilize print services and incorporating those with other services.