Top 5 Arkansas business stories of the decade

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 2,049 views 

Arkansas’ economy was a tad wobbly entering the 2010 decade. The Great Recession continued to be a little too great, with the state’s jobless rate at 8.2% in January 2010 and an estimated 110,272 unemployed.

But a recovering national economy eventually filtered into Arkansas, and the December 2019 jobless rate was 3.6%, with just 48,776 unemployed. Following are what we suggest — after some debate — were the top five business stories of the decade of recovery.

1: The Walmart evolution
Very few in Bentonville were talking e-commerce in 2010, much less investing billions of dollars into not only adapting to the changing nature of retail but creating some of the changes.

On Feb. 1, 2014, Doug McMillon took over for the retiring Mike Duke as president and CEO of Walmart, the world’s largest company. Just two years later, McMillon would sign a check for $3.3 billion to acquire Jet.com. That would lead to other acquisitions of online companies, to include Bonobos, ModCloth, Hayneedle, Moosejaw, Eloquii, Shoes.com and Bare Necessities.

In the six years since McMillon took the reins, the morphing retailer placed online grocery pickup in more than 3,000 U.S. stores, added almost 1,000 pickup towers in the stores and now offers delivery service from about 1,000 stores.

The decade also included a massive renovation and reinvention — mainly under the guidance of former Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran — of Walmart’s more than 4,000 stores. The decade began with Walmart being threatened by Amazon. Still, with billions in tech investments — some of which have yet to generate returns — the company ended the decade proving it can go toe-to-toe with Amazon and other pure online retail players.

2: Rise and fall of Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale Play
The Fayetteville Shale Play, a North-Central Arkansas major natural gas region, introduced a new layer into the state’s mining economy with new jobs and billions of dollars of investments.
But almost as soon as the Play became an economic player, it faded.

A two-year-old study conducted by then-University of Arkansas economist Kathy Deck projected the economic activity from the gas shale play at $12.7 billion from 2008 to 2012. It initially accounted for more than 16,000 new jobs — many of which came during the national recession, which kept Arkansas’ economy from cratering.

Natural gas production climbed over the 1 trillion cubic feet of production mark between 2011 and 2014 when Southwestern, BHP, ExxonMobil and other producers pushed Arkansas’ rig count to its highest level in the state’s history. However, there has been little to no rig activity in Arkansas since Southwestern mothballed its drilling operations in late 2015.

Arkansas’ severance tax revenue peaked at $78.634 million in fiscal year 2015, falling to $38.347 million in fiscal year 2019.

3: Banking sector boom
Arkansas’ bank scene underwent a fundamental transformation that began in 2013 and continued through the decade. Conway-based Home Bancshares, the parent company of Centennial Bank, bought Jonesboro-based Liberty Bancshares in a $285 million blockbuster deal. Pine Bluff-based Simmons First shocked the banking world when it outbid Bentonville-based Arvest Bank and a Dallas investment group for Little Rock-based Metropolitan National Bank, which was undergoing bankruptcy.

Other bank deals abounded, including Arvest’s acquisition of National Bank of Arkansas, Bank OZK’s national expansion, and Harrison-based First Federal’s quiet move to acquire banks in Hot Springs and Jonesboro.

There were 91 bank institutions in Arkansas as of Sept. 30, 2019, below the 130 at the end of 2010 — a clear sign of consolidation in the industry. Bank assets of all Arkansas banks as of Sept. 30 was $112.076 billion, up an impressive 92.5% from the $58.206 billion at the end of 2010.

4: Deaths in the business community
• Don Tyson, a college dropout who grew his father’s chicken production business to a Fortune 500 conglomerate, died Jan. 6, 2011. The 80-year old Springdale native was responsible for taking Tyson Foods from sales of $1 million in 1952 to the world’s largest poultry producer with sales of almost $8 billion internationally when he retired.

Following are some of the notable deaths in the past decade among Arkansas business leaders.
• Jack Shewmaker, retired Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive and philanthropist, died at his Benton County home Nov. 17, 2010. He was 72.
• Gene George, chairman of George’s Inc., died Dec. 1, 2010. He was 88. George helped transform the small family produce business that began in the 1920s into a multi-division poultry corporation that then employed more than 4,000 people and produced approximately
5 million broilers per week.
• Stanley Reed, president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau and member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, died July 15, 2011.
• Sam M. Sicard, president of First National Bank of Fort Smith and bank operations in Northwest Arkansas, died Aug. 7, 2011. He was 70.
• Bob Lamb, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and prominent lobbyist, died Oct. 25, 2014. He was 82.
• Tom Coughlin, an early executive hire by Sam Walton who rose to the No. 2 spot at Walmart Inc. before being forced to resign in 2005, died in April 2016. He was 67.
• Donald “Buddy” Wray, retired Tyson Foods Inc. president and a legendary figure with the Springdale-based company, died Jan. 18, 2016. He was 78.
• Don Soderquist, former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive, died July 21, 2016. Soderquist also was founding executive of Soderquist Leadership in Siloam Springs. He was 82.
• Amy “Pat” Walker, one of the state’s most generous philanthropists, died Sept. 2, 2016. She was 97. Walker and her late husband, Willard Walker, were the co-founders of the nonprofit Willard & Pat Walker Charitable Foundation.
• Frank Broyles, the football coach who led the University of Arkansas to its only football national championship in 1964, died Aug. 14, 2017. He was 92.
• Dr. Mary Good, founding dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Donaghey College of Engineering and former chairwoman of the Little Rock Technology Authority, died Nov. 20, 2019. She was 88.

5: Big moves by Tyson Foods
Springdale-based Tyson Foods announced more than $15 billion in acquisitions during the decade that pushed the company beyond just being a commodity-driven business. The biggest deal came in July 2014 when Tyson Foods agreed to buy Hillshire Brands for $8.5 billion after winning a bidding war against Pilgrim’s Pride.

In June 2017, Tyson Foods spent $4.2 billion to acquire AdvancePierre Foods. That company produces ready-to-eat lunch and dinner sandwiches, sandwich ingredients, and snacks. Barber Foods is one of AdvancePierre’s most recognizable brands.

The Springdale-based meat giant announced in August 2018 it would pay $2.16 billion to acquire Pennsylvania-based Keystone Foods, a deal expected to grow the company’s prepared foods and international segments. Keystone, which had $2.5 billion in revenue in 2017, is a significant supplier to quick-serve restaurant chains such as McDonald’s.

On Feb. 7, 2019, Tyson Foods announced a deal to acquire the Thai and European operations of Brazil Foods for $340 million. The deal will expand Tyson’s global footprint and include four processing facilities in Thailand, a processing facility in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Talk Business & Politics annual State of the State magazine.

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