The key to business success in Fort Smith is “community, community, community,” Trent Goins, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based OK Foods, told a group of about 75 who gathered for the PRIME River Valley Professional Summit on Thursday (May 9).
This was the second meeting for the newly formed young professionals group in downtown Fort Smith. PRIME hosted its inaugural all-day summit last September. The group’s theme this year is “Create. Engage. Disrupt,” and Goins shared how OK Foods does just that, and how other businesses in Fort Smith can do the same.
“If we can build the infrastructure of Fort Smith and build our community, then the jobs that we need, the labor force we need, it will come,” Goins said.
Key components that make Fort Smith already attractive to a young workforce are in place and getting stronger by the day, he said, pointing out Fort Smith has quality education and healthcare facilities, plentiful parks and opportunities for outdoor activities and entertainment.
When it comes to entertainment, Goins specifically noted the Steel Horse Rally, The Unexpected Project and Peacemaker Festival as events not around five or 10 years ago. They all now combine to bring thousands of visitors to Fort Smith.
“This shows we’re a community on the rise. These events have outsiders wanting to come into Fort Smith and invest. That is a sign that Fort Smith is not in a recession,” Goins said, noting $100,000 worth of tickets have already been sold for this year’s Peacemaker Festival, which will be July 26-27. Three-fourths of those tickets are to people out of state, he added.
“We’re giving kids the same opportunities they would have in Denver, Austin or Dallas,” Goins said. “Used to, kids found a job and moved to where it was. These days, kids are moving to where they want to live and then finding a job. There are good reasons for them to move to Fort Smith.”
For these reasons, Goins encouraged business owners to invest in the festivals and other events and activities in Fort Smith, noting that if you build what people want in a community, the young professionals you want for your jobs will come to your community.
He also said companies have to work to incentivize employees to stay with them.
“I want our employees to be happy, healthy, come to work, enjoy work and make it a fun atmosphere,” Goins said of employees at OK Foods.
Some of the ways OK Foods is working to retain employees are creative. In the fourth quarter of 2018, OK Foods began giving away a car at each of its plants. The only thing an employee has to do to be entered into the drawing for the car is to show up at work and work all their assigned shifts during the quarter. In the Albertville, Ala., plant 67 employees qualified for the first drawing. In the second drawing, held the end of the first quarter of 2019, 250 were eligible, he said.
“That shows this is working,” he said.
Another program OK Foods started is the Emerging Leadership Academy, much like Leadership Fort Smith, but Leadership OK Foods. Employees are nominated for the class by other employees. It’s open to anyone who wants to move into management.
“There are probably 100 people who want my job, and I want that,” Goins said. “We are beginning an amazing transformation to make leaders for our company.”
The company also started an internship for students to learn about IT, human resources, quality assurance, research and development and many other areas of the operations at OK Foods.
“We are very selective about who is offered an internship. We want to invest in you, so later you’ll come back to invest in us,” Goins said, noting this year the company has 19 internships.
It all comes back to drawing a young skilled workforce to Fort Smith and keeping them there, be it with things companies do within its walls or what it helps to do for the community as a whole, he said.
“We need to reach the 18- to 24-year-olds. We need to make them want to come to Fort Smith. And we’re really starting to do that,” Goins said.