Aaron Burkes, president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, will be the next CEO and executive director for Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) in Highfill.
Burkes is expected to start Nov. 1. The airport’s 14-member governing board, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, offered Burkes the job, and he accepted it after the board completed a final round of interviews of the top three candidates in executive session Thursday (Sept. 27).
The other two top candidates were XNA Airport Director Kelly Johnson and Steve Hennigan, assistant general manager of operations for Bush Intercontinental Airport of the Houston Airport System.
“We had three amazingly strong candidates,” said board chairwoman Blake Woolsey, adding that if they were to all work together they would comprise a “dream team.”
When asked why the board selected Burkes, Woolsey said he has financial, business and construction experience, ability to drive growth, and is a “very dynamic leader.” The board was looking to fill the CEO role with someone who can be disruptive but not in a negative way.
“We are confident in our decision as a board,” she said.
XNA and Burkes will begin negotiating salary next week, said CEO Scott Van Laningham. The board might need to meet again to vote on salary following negotiations. After Burkes starts in the position, the board will look to select other airport executive positions, including chief financial officer, chief business development officer and chief operating officer.
This past week, the top three candidates attended breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings with board members. They also met with area stakeholders and business leaders. The meetings helped and made the decision that much more difficult, said Van Laningham, adding it was a “very thorough process.”
When asked if Johnson is expected to continue in her position, Van Laningham said XNA is focused on resolving the CEO position first and will look at the other executive roles following that. “Kelly is a highly valued member of the airport,” he said.
Burkes was one of the six candidates who were selected by the executive search consultant Russell Reynolds Associates from a pool of more than 100 people considered for the position. About 70 people applied for the position, and on Aug. 30, the airport board interviewed the six candidates before it narrowed down the number to three.
Burkes and Johnson were the only candidates with Arkansas ties, and Burkes was the only one of the six without aviation experience. Since 2015, Burkes, a licensed attorney, has led the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, and serves in the cabinet of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Burkes is a Northwest Arkansas native who had the opportunity to join the state agency after he was named associate vice chancellor for business affairs at the University of Arkansas in March 2015. Instead of starting in that position, he joined the Arkansas Development Finance Authority after Hutchinson asked him to lead it. Before interviewing for the XNA position, he had notified the governor of his interest in it.
In 2007, Burkes was named to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class. At the time, he was 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.
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 for five Iowa counties. Two years later, he accepted a position as interim vice president for administration at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. He was promoted to assistant vice president of economic and workforce development and was responsible for opening a campus health clinic, generating revenue from underused college-owned facilities and starting an Enterprise Resource Planning system to bring better and more inexpensive service to the college.
He worked for the college for about three years before accepting the position at the UA. Instead of relocating to Northwest Arkansas, he moved to central Arkansas and joined Hutchinson’s cabinet as president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, while his children completed school in Wisconsin. Afterward, his family relocated to Arkansas.
On Dec. 13, the XNA board approved spending up to $200,000 to hire Russell Reynolds to help find the airport’s next CEO and complete a structural review of airport administrative staff. In 2017, Van Laningham announced his plans to retire. Van Laningham said he is open to remain with XNA to assist in the leadership transition if needed. He plans to leave on vacation in late October, and it will run through mid-November.