A look back: The best and worst of 2019

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 884 views 

Depending on your perspective, the news was good, bad or ugly in 2019. Here are some observations about the news as compiled by our editorial staff, our annual compilation of the “Best and Worst” of 2019.

Best Paycheck News
It was certainly not a surprise, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in late November that average wages in Benton County during the second quarter posted the largest gain of any of the 355 largest U.S. counties.

At $1,197, the average weekly paycheck in the state’s second-largest county by population is well above the state and national average at $862 and $1,095 per week, respectively. In Benton County, average weekly wages rose by a whopping 35%, or $557, as white-collar positions in the professional and business services made the largest contribution to the spike in payrolls.

To be sure, poverty and homelessness remains a problem in Northwest Arkansas, but there may be an advantage in addressing those issues when wages are rising.

Best Partnership
In July, several hundred people gathered inside the Great Hall at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville to celebrate the launch of Plug and Play Tech Center’s supply chain and logistics accelerator program. Plug and Play is a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based venture capital firm and business accelerator, with a global network of corporate partnerships in various industry verticals.

The Northwest Arkansas program is a partnership with the region’s “Big Three” companies — J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Tyson Foods and Walmart — and a signing ceremony for the partnership was held May 17 in California.

The effort is also supported by the Walton Family Foundation and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The program is coordinated locally by the Northwest Arkansas Council.

“As long as we have the commitment from Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson Foods to collaborate with these startups, I am confident we are going to bring the best startups here,” Plug and Play Founder and CEO Saeed Amidi said at Crystal Bridges. “With their support and their customers’ and suppliers’ support, we are going to light up innovation in Northwest Arkansas.”

Worst Attempt at an Apology
Bobby Petrino, sans the neck brace and brazen ego, told the Little Rock Touchdown Club in early September he was sorry for “the way it ended.”

The former Razorback head football coach who put the program in the ditch along with his motorcycle and mistress in early 2012, also said he wants to coach again.

No thanks, Bob. We’re not ready to hug it out. It’ll take more than a weak, if not vague, apology to make up for your selfish actions. Check with your kindred spirit Kiffin in Oxford. Maybe he’s got a job for you.

Best Regional Rename
Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) in Highfill changed its name to Northwest Arkansas National Airport after hearing from passengers on social media who had asked about making the change. XNA board members voted Dec. 11 to rename the airport that opened for commercial service Nov. 1, 1998.

Andrew Branch, chief business development officer for XNA, said changing the name would better communicate to where passengers can travel. He noted that XNA offers flights nationwide, including to 19 destinations and seasonal routes. The name change would also help from a perception standpoint when trying to recruit new service, he said.

Between January and November, enplanements — or people flying out — have risen 16.2% to 844,849, from the same period in 2018.

Worst Plant Layoffs
Vehicle wheel manufacturer Superior Industries announced in September it will lay off about 250 employees at its Fayetteville plant. That’s about 85% of the plant’s workforce. The jobs were expected to end between Nov. 16, 2019, and June 1, 2020.

Bentonville-based retailer Walmart said in July it would lay off about 3% of its employees who work in pharmacy and related positions.

Steel can manufacturer Ball Metalpack announced in November it would close its Springdale plant and cut 76 full-time positions there by the end of the second quarter of 2020.

Best Haul in Worst Strike
Tontitown-based carrier P.A.M. Transportation Services Inc. started to handle new freight to make up for the shipments that had stopped during the General Motors strike.

P.A.M. executives said the automotive manufacturer is the carrier’s largest customer, accounting for less than 20% of its business. The carrier runs 400 trucks in the General Motors market and didn’t lay off any drivers or office employees as a result of the strike.

Members of United Automobile Workers were on strike for 40 days. It affected about 48,000 workers and was projected to cost General Motors nearly $2 billion.

David Ables, vice president of operations for P.A.M., said the new freight accounted for $2.2 million in new business that the carrier didn’t have before the strike. He said he hoped the carrier would be able to continue to haul the freight after the strike.

Worst Character Attack
Amid the filings in the NanoMech bankruptcy case are some strong words against Jim Phillips, the former chairman and CEO of the company.

In Phillips’ July 16 objection to NanoMech seeking an examination of Phillips, it shows the person NanoMech hired to help find investors was actually leading a campaign to remove Phillips as CEO of NanoMech.

In summer 2018, Alfonso Alejo of Austerlitz Capital was hired at the recommendation of New York-based lender Michaelson Captial Partners, which in February sued NanoMech for not paying on $7 million in loans. The filing included a string of emails Alejo sent to Rick Barrows, who sent them to Phillips. Barrows, president of Multi-Craft Contractors Inc. in Springdale, was a shareholder who Alejo sought to join the campaign, according to the filing.

The emails show Alejo had met with multiple NanoMech investors, including Scott Murphy of American Capital Partners and Jim Sledzik of Saudi Aramco.

“Both Advantage and Aramco are hard committed to eliminating Phillips,” Alejo wrote to Barrows. “At this point, it isn’t about money. It’s about principle. Scott feels that Jim is a very high functioning sociopath. The devil incarnate.”

Best Retirement Ad
Multiple long-time business leaders announced their retirement in 2019, but Fayetteville attorney and philanthropist Jim Blair notified the masses of his decision to retire in the most unique way. Blair, who turned 84 in October, purchased a half-page ad in the Dec. 1 edition of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with “I Quit” as the headline. The following is from the ad:

“On Dec. 1, 2019, I will have practiced law 62 years, 7 months and 13 days. Enough practice, I’ve finally got it right. I can’t get any better. It’s time to quit, so effective Dec. 1, 2019, I am placing my law licenses on retired status.

“It’s been fun, it’s been absolutely wonderful, and I think I did more good than harm.”

Best Timing
In August, the University of Arkansas announced it would expand the sale of beer and wine to the general public at football games at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

Alcoholic beverages at Razorback football games had previously been available since 2014 only in suites and private club areas.

The timing could not have been better to help the general public (age 21 and up, of course) drown its collective sorrow throughout the dreadful 2019 season. The Hogs went 2-4 in Fayetteville, with losses to San Jose State and Western Kentucky, and were outscored 228-152.

Total alcohol sales revenue, according to the UA, was $705,323, which works out to $117,553 per game. The revenue was split between the university and its concessions vendor, Levy.

Best Game Show Answer
When you’re a “Jeopardy!” answer, you know you’ve made it.

On an episode of the long-running game show that aired April 4, one question had Bentonville residents shouting at their televisions in unison.

The $2,000 question, in a category with questions about museums, was as follows:

“The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is in this Walmart company town.”

That seems like an extremely easy question for the highest dollar amount in a category. Sure, there may be some people who aren’t familiar with Crystal Bridges — but in this age of information and social media, who doesn’t know where Walmart is?

Congratulations, Bentonville, on your “Jeopardy!” debut.

Worst Trend
The trucking industry, despite shortage critics, ranked a driver shortage as the top industry issue in 2019. American Transportation Research Institute, the research organization of trade group American Trucking Associations, released in October its annual list of top industry issues, and the driver shortage was No. 1 on the list for the third consecutive year. The driver shortage also was the top industry issue in Arkansas.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released in March a report showing the labor market for truck drivers works about as good as the labor markets for other blue-collar occupations. Also, a transportation executive for Bentonville-based retailer Walmart said in October it pays a median salary of nearly $90,000 to maintain its fleet of 9,000 truck drivers and doesn’t have an issue retaining drivers, according to a Business Insider article. The salary is twice the U.S. median salary for truck drivers. And, Kansas City, Mo.-based trade group Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association believes the shortage is more of a high turnover problem in the truckload sector, and the solution would be to pay the drivers for their work.

Best Art Move
Internationally recognized artist Gerry Snyder started July 1 as the first executive director of the School of Art at the University of Arkansas. Snyder, who has artwork in public collections at museums worldwide and more than 30 years of experience in higher education, was the first dean of the School of Art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn when he was named the executive director of the first art school in Arkansas.

Snyder said the unique opportunity led him to join the UA School of Art.

Best Tech Build
Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. opened in August a 132,883-square-foot Training and Technology Center about a half-mile east of the company’s corporate office building. The center at 215 J.B. Hunt Corporate Drive has room from more than 1,000 occupants, including employees in training, information technology and technology support. Nabholz Construction Corp. of Rogers was the general contractor and Miller Boskus Lack Architects of Fayetteville was the designer.

Best Spelling Correction
Benton County’s oldest bank got a new name in 2019 — sort of.

Bank of Gravett, founded in 1898, is now Bank of Gravette. Company officials unveiled a new logo in August with the extra “e” and started a major remodel of the bank’s headquarters on Main Street in Gravette.

Bank of Gravett had historically caused confusion because of the spelling discrepancy between the bank’s name and the city.

According to Michael von Ree of the Gravette Historical Museum, who writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture: “With E.T. Gravett managing the project, the land was platted for the original town, and papers were filed July 26, 1893. The town of Gravette received its charter on Aug. 9, 1893. No one is sure how or when the town got the extra ‘e’ at the end of its name. The most popular story involves confusion within the postal service and a town with a similar name.”

That extra “e” was likely added sometime after Bank of Gravett was chartered in 1898. Thus, the bank retained the original spelling in its commercial name.

Springdale-based Legacy BancShares, also the holding company for Legacy National Bank, bought the Bank of Gravette in July 2018. The two banks operate separately and independently of each other.

Worst Delay
Construction projects can be notorious for their delays, but one, in particular, stood out in 2019.

When Texas-based Transplace announced in March a new $46 million Northwest Arkansas operations center along Interstate 49 in Rogers, a press release issued by the company included this sentence: “Construction on the new facility is set to begin immediately, and Transplace is expected to move in by early 2021.”

With the calendar flipped to 2020, the grass parcel of the construction site remains untouched. The three-story building is still planned — city officials have already approved the development plan — with one significant change.

HCH Consulting of Rogers, the original development group led by Hunter Haynes, has conveyed the land and development rights for the 148,000-square-foot building to Dallas-based Cawley Partners. When the project is finished, Cawley Partners will own the building, and it will still be leased to Transplace, one of the country’s largest providers of third-party logistics services.

In Northwest Arkansas, Transplace is currently based at 509 Enterprise Drive, just off I-49 in Lowell, where it employs about 600 workers in approximately 80,000 square feet of office space.

The move to Rogers is expected to increase the number of workers in Northwest Arkansas to between 1,100 and 1,200, with an estimated $60 million in payroll.

Transplace officials reported to us in November that construction was imminent and still on track to be finished by the end of the first quarter of 2021. Stay tuned.

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