Acumen owners seek Walton, Hunt, Tyson success

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 216 views 

It’s been an incredible ride for entrepreneurs John James M.D., and partner Terry Turpin, who started and sold five companies between them before their 35th birthdays. So it should come as no surprise that their venture together, Fayetteville-based Acumen Brands, is expected to do great things in short-order fashion.

In February, the stakes and expectations were raised higher when Alex Dillard and Dillard’s Inc. took notice of the rapidly growing e-commerce start-up. Armed with a recent $5-million capital infusion led by Dillard’s Inc., a solid foundation with key people and infrastructure in place, James said “we are about 12 months away from doing something pretty great.”

In the three years since Acumen was formed, James and Turpin have grown their e-commerce startup from four employees to 70. They began selling medical scrubs online, and today operate 10 different online stores that are supported by proprietary software and state-of-the-art warehouse systems all from the confines of their Fayetteville office.

James said he got a call from Alex Dillard out of the blue the week before Thanksgiving.

“A week later he showed up in my office,” James said. “We had a nice informal meeting, and before he left, I told him I thought Acumen could help him ramp up and that he should invest in Acumen. I was somewhat taken back when he said, ‘Yes, on both.’”

Within 10 days, James said he had a term sheet for the $5 million Series B capital round — $4 million invested from Dillard’s and additional participation from existing investors Noro-Moseley Partners, BHL Ventures, Gravity Ventures and the Arkansas Risk Capital Matching Fund.

Acumen declines to disclose revenue or profit information for their e-commerce ventures. But if one’s ability to raise capital is any indication of potential worth, Acumen Brands is a sure bet.

“When John and Terry started Acumen in 2009, they were strongly considering self-financing their operation. They totally had the self-confidence and wherewithal to do so. But it didn’t take long for them to realize their massive growth potential if they brought in outside capital,” said Jeff Amerine, an original investor who also introduced them to the venture capital firm Noro-Moseley Partners.

Amerine works as the technology licensing offices and adjunct instructor of entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Alan Taetle, general partner with Atlanta-based Noro-Moseley, sits on Acumen’s board of directors and led the series A venture capital investment with the company in December 2010. That $5 million round was the first institutional investment in an Arkansas start-up in five years, Taetle said.

“The whole state is watching to see where Acumen goes from here, the possibilities are exciting to think about,” Taetle said.

James, Acumen CEO, considers himself a serial entrepreneur, though he’s a full-fledged doctor who completed his residency in family medicine.

“I started my first company — an online question database for quiz bowl — during my second year of college at the University of Arkansas. I sold that company and paid my way through college and medical school,” James said.

He began and sold two more online companies by the time he finished medical school. But shortly after entering into family practice in Farmington, he surrendered his medical career for his first love: the thrill of building something big.

James said it’s been way too long since a local entrepreneur grew their start-up to a publicly traded global enterprise.

“You have to go back to Sam Walton, Don Tyson and J.B. Hunt. Acumen wants to be the next one,” James said.

Turpin, a lawyer and chief operating officer is the other half of Acumen’s dynamic duo. He was a key partner in retail ad agency Thompson-Murray overseeing that agency’s growth from three people to its public sale to Saatchi and Saatchi in 2004. Turpin stayed on at Saatchi & Saatchi X as chief operating officer until 2007.

Taetle said these savvy partners have “the right stuff” to take Acumen to unbelievable heights.

The next retail frontier is e-commerce and while big box giants such as Walmart and Best Buy scramble to get up-to-speed in e-retail, Acumen has been busy launching 10 different virtual stores in niche market categories selling roughly 300 brands from medical scrubs to art supplies, hiking gear and baby furnishings.

Acumen fills those online orders with an advanced robotic system and ships them within 36 hours from the warehouse in Fayetteville. Turpin said Acumen strives for great customer service and timely delivery of merchandise which helps the company establish a loyal following from online shoppers.

E-commerce sales in the United States totaled $161.51 billion in 2011, up 13.3% from the prior year, according to comScore Inc.

Since 2007, e-commerce sales in the U.S. have grown by $38.79 billion or 31.6%. Gian Fulgoni, comScore chairman, recently stated in a release, “In the face of continuing uncertainty regarding the U.S. economy, consumers increasingly went online for their shopping needs. Price and convenience continue to be the critical value drivers for e-commerce, and unless those conditions change, we can expect to see more channel-shifting to online in 2012 and perhaps even an acceleration in the current growth trend.”

“What better place for an e-commerce model to excel than in the cradle of the retail and supply chain mecca here in northwest Arkansas. There is a wealth of talent in these fields readily available,” Amerine said.

He said now that Acumen has teamed up with Dillard’s they also have access to amazing retail management insight from seasoned veterans.

Turpin said Acumen and Dillard’s are still a few months away from putting in place the strategies to enhance, but it is coming.

“It’s definitely a win for, this new relationship with Acumen,” Amerine said.

Dillard’s said in February that the deal with Acumen Brands was exciting. “We are impressed with this young company’s accomplishments in the e-commerce arena to date. We look forward to collaborating with this highly-talented team as we further develop our online presence,” Alex Dillard, president, said.

Turpin said the $10 million raised in capital is enough to allow Acumen to really focus on vertically growing its 10 branded storefronts. He does not anticipate adding any new online stores in the near term.

We just feel there is a lot of untapped potential left to capture in the stores we already have up and running. So that is our focus for now,” Turpin said.

Acumen Brands provides 70 tech-related jobs to the northwest Arkansas economy, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for James and Turpin.

“These guys are involved in hiring top talent and then mentoring these folks, many of whom will someday launch their own companies, perhaps spin-offs of Acumen Brands,” Amerine said.

James and Turpin actively invest their own money into other start-up ventures in addition to mentoring, collaborating with and networking with dozens of local entrepreneurs through the Northwest Arkansas Entrepreneurship Alliance and its programs.

“It’s truly a pay-it-forward culture at Acumen and, in time, that will hopefully help this region and state establish not only a rich pool of capital but also become a destination and hub for enterprising entrepreneurs,” Amerine said.

He said someone has to eventually follow Sam Walton, Don Tyson and J.B. Hunt.