Then & Now: Aaron Burkes works to improve efficiency as ADFA leader

by Jeff Della Rosa ( 573 views 

EDITOR’S NOTEThe following story appeared in the March 6 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s  Forty Under 40 class.


Opportunity has knocked a lot for Aaron Burkes over the past decade, and when the governor came knocking, Burkes didn’t balk.

In March 2015, Burkes had just been named associate vice chancellor for business affairs at the University of Arkansas. But instead of starting that position, he began his current job as president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. While it was a surprise, he said the UA “completely understood” after providing the news.

The week before, he met with some people he’d become acquainted with while serving in the state legislature. Soon afterward, he had an interview with the governor’s deputy chief of staff and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who offered him the job. When he announced the appointment, Hutchinson said Burkes’ “varied experience and educational background” made him ideal to lead the agency.

“Our agency is a weird collection of things,” Burkes said. He leads an agency that offers “low-cost financing” for affordable housing development, “small industries, government, education and public facilities and healthcare,” according to the agency’s website. He’s worked in mortgage lending, making loans, and was responsible for issuing bonds while working at a Wisconsin college.

He’s also a licensed attorney and earned a law degree at Baylor University. His wife, Rebecca, who also earned a law degree there, is deputy director/general counsel for the Department of Arkansas Heritage. The ADFA provided financing for the Department of Arkansas Heritage’s new building.

Burkes said being a licensed attorney has helped him in the position because the work is “fairly complex,” often working on state code, bond issues and mortgages. While the agency has four licensed attorneys, he it’s helpful to have his background when making decisions requiring legal knowledge. It also helps to run the agency more efficiently.

Since Burkes started in the position, he’s worked to increase efficiency in the ADFA, saving the agency at least $1 million largely by bringing in-house two contracts, cutting expenses and reducing staff. The agency has 54 employees, eight fewer than when he started in the position. “The governor has a lot of people looking at efficiencies,” Burkes said.

In 2007, Burkes, a Northwest Arkansas native, was named to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class. At the time, he was serving as a Republican state representative for District 95 in Lowell. He also owned The Burkes Co., a real estate construction and property management company with ownership interest in Village Building Co., a home builder in Northwest Arkansas. He and his wife still own the company. Burkes, a proponent of limited government, said he chose to not run again for office. “We have too many laws,” he said.

In 2010, he accepted a position as executive director of Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission in Decorah, Iowa, where he focused on economic development and housing needs of five Iowa counties. He remained there for two years before taking a position as interim vice president for administration at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. “It was just a great opportunity,” Burkes said.

After four months on the job, he was promoted to assistant vice president of economic and workforce development. He was responsible for opening a campus health clinic, generating revenue from underused college-owned facilities and starting an Enterprise Resource Planning system, bringing better and more inexpensive services to the college. This was his first experience as an administrator in higher education, but he previously worked in the sector for three years as an adjunct professor at NorthWest Arkansas Community College teaching economics, statistics and law. Burkes, who graduated from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor’s degree, also has a master’s degree in economics from Clemson University.

He worked at the Wisconsin college for about three years before he accepted the position at the University of Arkansas. But instead of relocating to Northwest Arkansas, he moved to central Arkansas, while his children completed school in Wisconsin.

He and his wife have two sons, Nathan, who is a freshman at Baylor University, and Nicholas, who’s attending Catholic High School in Little Rock. Burkes’ hobbies include mountain biking, climbing Pinnacle Mountain and traveling.