Andrew Branch, chief business development officer for Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA), is tasked with retaining and recruiting new carriers and air service for the Highfill airport.
Airport officials developed the new position with the help of consulting firm Russell Reynolds, which completed the search for XNA’s new CEO.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to be the first person in this position,” Branch said. “The airport’s growing. That’s exciting.”
XNA recently announced enplanements, or outbound passengers, rose 15% to a monthly record of 91,305 in June, from the same month in 2018. The previous record was set in May when enplanements increased 23% to 85,892, from the same month in 2018. When asked about projections for the remainder of the year, Branch said: “We feel very comfortable this will be another record year.”
For about two years, Branch worked for CEO Aaron Burkes at the Arkansas Finance Development Authority while living in central Arkansas. The airport hired Burkes as CEO in September 2018.
“He’s a great guy to work with,” Branch said. “Hearing him talk about his vision for the airport and the things he wants to happen and the growth is exciting.”
Branch, who’s a licensed attorney, and his wife relocated from central Arkansas, and he started April 29 at XNA.
Over the next year, he hopes to learn, listen, develop relationships and determine the direction for XNA. He plans to look at ways to enhance the customer experience, such as parking. One focus includes the airport’s concessions, citing the pricing was troubling. He wants to reduce the prices consumers pay.
In the long term, he will work to retain and attract air service. He explained that when a carrier starts a new service, it pulls an airplane from another airport to provide the service. He plans to take a broad approach to establish new air services. He noted that 60 people fly daily to Seattle, but XNA has no direct flights to the Pacific Northwest city of nearly 750,000 people.
According to the job description, a vital role for the chief business development officer is heading up the airport’s air service development efforts, including the recruitment of additional airlines and the expansion of routes for existing airlines. The goal of these efforts is to improve service to the region and increase competition to help lower airfares and grow the number of leisure travelers.
Branch also will work on government relations and advertising and build relationships with mayors, county judges, legislators and the Federal Aviation Administration. He plans to expand airport marketing, including increasing social media and digital marketing. He also oversees media relations.
Branch reports to Burkes and has no direct reports, but he could see hiring someone in marketing and public relations within the next two years. He also hopes to reduce the workload of other staff. He explained the work he will do is a combination of what has and has not been done previously.
“Andrew’s background and personality made him a perfect fit for carrying out the responsibilities we envisioned for the position,” Burkes said. “He is a smart, creative thinker. He is energetic and has a strong business-to-business sales background. His business background coupled with his legal training gives him the tools to negotiate a business deal and pull it all together in a legal agreement.”
STATE AGENCY WORK
Before he joined XNA, Branch served in a temporary role as the chief financial officer for the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs. He served in the position for five months to assist with personnel and cost issues. The state department owns several nursing homes and cemeteries and faced budget issues.
“I have an accounting and sales background in addition to my legal background,” Branch said. “The governor’s office felt that I could get in there and make an impact. So I went in there, and we made some personnel changes. We cut some costs.”
He served as vice president of housing for the Arkansas Development Finance Authority for two years, and he described the position as a business development and sales role.
“The state administers mortgage and down payment programs through banks around the state,” he said. “We were continually interacting with banks, trying to get them to utilize the program.” He also worked with builders and Realtors across the state.
Before Burkes became CEO of XNA, he was president of the state agency and worked there with Branch.
“He [Branch] did a great job there,” Burkes said. “He dramatically expanded our mortgage loan programs, increased revenue for the agency and greatly enhanced the level of service to lenders and borrowers.
“I am confident he will do a great job in helping us expand air service and bring jobs and development to XNA.”
Branch also worked as director of finance for special needs populations for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, and it was his first job with the state government. He served in that role for more than a year before Burkes hired him to work at the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. They met through social circles in Little Rock.
MOVE TO ARKANSAS
In 2012, Branch moved to Arkansas to attend law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He worked as a law clerk while in college and received a law degree in 2015. Before starting with the state, he worked for a Heber Springs law firm for a short time after passing the bar exam.
Aside from his time at the firm, he has practiced almost exclusively for friends and family doing pro bono work.
“I’ve done a lot of free and reduced-rate work just in my free time,” Branch said. “I don’t have as much free time now, so I haven’t done much lately. I handle legal matters internally for the airport on an ad hoc basis as stuff comes up. I do a lot of contract review. Everybody wears a lot of hats here.”
John Elrod of Conner & Winters is the airport’s outside general counsel. For issues that don’t need to be sent out, such as drafting a contract or reviewing an employment matter, Branch can handle some of those items in-house.
A Houston native, Branch received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, in 2002. He earned an MBA from Texas A&M University in 2003.
Before he moved from Texas to Arkansas, he was an account manager for Caterpillar Global Mining and sold mining equipment and services to mining companies, primarily in Texas.
Branch serves on the seven-person Arkansas Local Police & Fire Retirement System Board of Trustees. His wife, Yang Luo Branch, is the founder and president of the nonprofit Arkansas Association of Asian Businesses.