Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal selected Scott Dillard as a member of the publication’s Forty Under 40 class in 2011. His career since then with Central Research Inc. (CRI) has been marked by tremendous growth but also significant loss.
Nine years ago, Dillard was the vice president in charge of operations at CRI, a business he co-founded with his father, Dr. Johnny Dillard. Established in 2002, CRI provides records management, research, debt collection and data and IT services to a variety of federal agencies and organizations.
The company incorporated in Lowell in 2007 with three employees. Revenue ballooned to $7.3 million by 2014, according to Inc. magazine, which included CRI on its annual Inc. 5000 list that year as one of America’s fastest-growing companies. Thanks to several lucrative federal government contracts, CRI topped the $100 million revenue mark in 2019, and now has roughly 280 employees in Northwest Arkansas.
Dillard, 44, said it’s taken a lot of hard work from many people to make the business a success. Chief among those people, he said, was his father, who died in the spring of 2018 from complications due to kidney disease. Johnny Dillard was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam veteran, Army National Guard Lt. Col. and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) staff member before founding CRI.
“He and I were business partners, and [his death] was a very tough time,” Dillard recalled during a recent interview. “We worked extremely well together. But the good news was he got to see a lot of the [company] success before he passed.”
Under Scott’s leadership as CEO, the company has continued to grow. Since his father’s death, the company has created and filled several key leadership positions in the areas of human resources, finance and marketing. Most recently, CRI also hired its first president, Bobby McKinnon.
Dillard said the most critical quality of hiring leadership is investing in people you can trust.
“[Hiring a president] was a big stepping stone for me,” he said. “It had just been dad and me for so long. Honesty, integrity and finding people you can trust is essential, and I felt like this was someone that fits that mold.”
Dillard said the company has 11 active government contracts. To service the largest of those, CRI opened a 5,500-square-foot call center at Ozark Center Point Place in Springdale in November 2018. It handles student loan debt collection for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). CRI also services the ED contract at a 12,000-square-foot call center in Gallatin, Tenn., just outside Nashville. It opened this past summer. The ED contract lasts for another five years.
“We have reinvested constantly through the first five years of that contract,” Dillard said. He said that’s helped the company grow, but now is the time to diversify the portfolio. A four-year contract with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, worth between $20 million and $30 million annually, wrapped up in November.
“We can’t have all our eggs in one basket,” Dillard said, adding that company growth will come either organically or, possibly, through acquisition.
CRI completed one notable acquisition last year — a land acquisition. Through a limited liability company, the company paid $4.2 million for roughly 33 acres at the southwest corner of West Monroe Avenue and Interstate 49 in Lowell. CRI plans to combine its Lowell and Springdale operations by moving into a proposed 50,000-square-foot, two-story building. It will be part of a planned development at the site, which will potentially include a mixture of office, retail and hotel properties.
Dillard said the large-scale development plan for the building should earn approval in February, and infrastructure work would begin later this spring. The goal is to have the office online by the summer of 2021.
“As CRI continues to experience growth, the timing felt right for us to find a larger, more permanent location for our operations,” Dillard said in a statement. “Northwest Arkansas has been a great location for our business. The new space will give us the flexibility to expand current and future business in this area and across the United States.”