Roughly 1,000 in the business and education sectors assembled in Springdale on Monday (Oct. 7) to recognize Gary George and Mark Simmons and their respective family-owned companies as free enterprise award winners of Economics Arkansas.
Dr. Jim Rollins, superintendent of Springdale Schools, was also honored for 35 years of service to Economics Arkansas, a nonprofit, non-partisan educational organization founded in 1962 to promote economic literacy across the Natural State.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who delivered the keynote address at the luncheon, said he got an early dose of how the free enterprise system worked growing up in Northwest Arkansas. In his youth, he ran a shoe-shine business in downtown Gravette. Hutchinson said he worked to build the business and then sold it for a $25 profit.
“That’s where I got a true appreciation of the free enterprise system at the tender age of 11 years old,” he said.
Hutchinson also said a great mentor of his – President Ronald Reagan – preached about the importance of freedom in the marketplace. Hutchinson said businesses must remain free from cumbersome government interference.
“We have to make sure free enterprise remains alive and well for future generations,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said free enterprise is crucial to the state’s economic health. He just returned from an economic development trip to India and said he met with an entrepreneur in Mumbai. He said the entrepreneur skipped college to start a business that manufactured towels and textiles and then expanded into steel pipes. The company is known as Welspun. It was founded by B.K. Goenka 34 years ago in India, and today the business employs 1,000 people in central Arkansas.
Hutchinson said while abroad he was able to see Arkansas-based First Orion open its first satellite office in Dubai. First Orion is a technology company run by former Axicom CEO Charles Morgan.
Hutchinson said it is fitting to honor the George and Simmons families because like many others in the region they have been pillars of entrepreneurship that can only flourish in a free enterprise system. Gary George and Mark Simmons and their families join a list of former award winners like Sam Walton, Johnelle and J.B. Hunt and Don Tyson.
George is a third-generation poultry executive, local banker and philanthropist. His family started George’s Inc. in the 1920s and over the years the business has grown into a top 10 poultry enterprise. George has served on the boards of J.B. Hunt Transport Services, University of Arkansas, National Chicken Council and is co-founder and chairman of Springdale-based Legacy National Bank. The George family was also the lead donor in funding Arkansas Children’s Northwest in Springdale, donating the land and advocating for the specialty hospital to build in the region.
He took over leadership of the family chicken business in the 1980s and helped the company expand through acquisition. Don Gibson, former CEO of Legacy National Bank, said, “Gary is extremely competitive in everything he does. The game is not over until Gary wins.” Gibson said George has a big heart for the community and continues to invest heavily in future generations.
George told the group that he and Mark Simmons were competitors in business but also close friends and it has been that way for more than 40 years as the families grew up together.
“We were competitive in everything from card games to business but when it comes to who would go bald first, I will call it a tie,” George joked.
Choking back emotions, he said it has been wonderful to be 30 miles apart from the Simmons family. He also said his family business was just a family story of success which includes the extended family or employees of of the Springdale-based company.
“We have five generations of George’s today, and it’s hard to survive anymore. We could not do it without our extended family, our employees,” he said.
George told Talk Business & Politics after the event, the award was special because it was about the family success and he could not take any personal credit for it.
Mark Simmons accepted the free enterprise award on behalf of Simmons Foods, a company started by his parents more than 70 years ago. Simmons took over leadership of Simmons Foods in his mid-20s after the untimely death of his father. He led the business through many challenges and today it employs 7,000 people with revenues of more than $1 billion a year.
Simmons is a poultry competitor with George’s, but he said competition is at the heart of the free enterprise. He told Talk Business & Politics he was humbled by the award. Simmons is a former chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council and a longtime board member at John Brown University in Siloam Springs.
“We are blessed to have so many people who from years ago wanted to work together on regional issues. While we love our hometowns, they are all still relatively small on a national scale. But regionally, we can compete with areas much larger than ours. The entrepreneurial spirit here is the foundation of the growth yesterday and tomorrow. Without free enterprise entrepreneurs cannot be successful,” Simmons said in a short interview.
When asked about his growth predictions for the region during the next 20 years, Simmons said it will be big.
“I would love to drive my mom and dad around Northwest Arkansas today; they would be blown away with the growth. I hope it’s that way for generations to come. That’s what we are working toward,” he said.
The event also featured three students from George Elementary in Springdale who highlighted some of the economic lessons learned because of efforts from Rollins, a staunch advocate for economic literacy in the classroom across the Springdale district.
Janell Atliano said she was able to participate in the stick horse rodeo that taught her about charity, supply and demand, and cowboy needs. She said the children made stick horses and then participated in rodeo games at the district-wide event.
Charlotte Young said her fourth-grade class participated in a stock market game that taught financial fundamentals and personal finance and investing strategies. She said the students created an investment portfolio and tracked the success. While her team did not win, Young said the experience was fun.
Ben Lamphere said his fourth-grade class read the book “Lemonade War” about competing stands. The students learned about competition, supply and demand, savings and budgeting. The students then set up a lemonade stand and sold drinks at the family night. Profits were used to buy supplies for the class.
Rollins said during his acceptance speech economic literacy has to be central to lesson planning if future generations are to carry on the growth and entrepreneurial spirit that is Northwest Arkansas.