Steuart Walton: Task force objective not when to reopen economy, but how

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 11,481 views 

Steuart Walton, co-founder of Bentonville holding company Runway Group, speaks in his Bentonville office Wednesday.

Steuart Walton has a message for citizens who may be eager to reopen the state’s economy sooner rather than later.

“They’re not alone,” Walton said. “I think everybody is at some level of that feeling.”

Walton, a grandson of Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton and a son of Arvest Bank Group chairman and CEO Jim Walton, is in his first week as chairman of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force. The governor announced the group and Walton’s appointment last weekend in Little Rock, just one day after pinning May 4 as the target date to start lifting some restrictions on the state’s economy.

Walton has May 4 circled on his calendar. He said the task force hopes to have some ideas to the governor on that date, with follow up reports by the end of May and June. May 4 is also Walton’s 39th birthday.

“[Turning] 39 will give you heartburn in and of itself,” he joked. “When it’s [also] the date the governor says we’ve got to reopen the state, it’s a double-whammy.”

Walton, an attorney and pilot, is the co-founder of Runway Group, a Bentonville holding company that invests in real estate, hospitality and other businesses in Northwest Arkansas. He is also the founder and chairman of Game Composites, a company based at Bentonville Municipal Airport that designs and builds small composite aircraft. Before starting that company in 2013, Walton worked in Walmart’s mergers and acquisitions department. Before working at Walmart, he was an associate for three years in the London office of Allen & Overy LLP, a law firm.

Walton headed up his first task force meeting Tuesday (April 21). On Wednesday, he spoke exclusively with the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal/Talk Business & Politics to discuss the process and a number of other topics related to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak. He said the task force is focused on the economic aspect of the pandemic while making sure any actions they recommend don’t cause more significant health challenges.

“There’s a lot of concern out there about what this is going to look like,” he said. “We’re starting to get better data. It’s not perfect. I wouldn’t even say it’s what we would like to have. But it’s getting better.”

Walton also addressed some criticism in Arkansas and nationally that limited testing and contact tracing do not paint an accurate picture of the true nature of the pandemic. Walton said he is not concerned that officials are attempting to lift social distancing guidelines too soon to reopen the economy.

“There’s a lot of data,” he said. “The problem, at least that I have seen, is not that it’s wrong or inaccurate. It’s just there is a tremendous amount of nuance in the data. Things like hospitalizations. Are you talking about new, or total or released? And all of those numbers are quite important, but figuring out which numbers are the most important given the circumstances that Arkansas is in — which is unique from other states — is tricky.

“For me, the challenge of the data is drilling into the key indicators for the state’s progress against the virus. The department of health is driving this forward, and they have good enough data that indicates, directionally, where we are and where we’re headed, I think, to begin having serious conversations about the economy. Again, it’s not our [task force] call when. It’s more about the how.”

Walton said the task force, which has nearly 30 members, will meet again next week. Three smaller subcommittees will meet more frequently. Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst will lead the committee on tourism, community and healthcare; Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston will lead the committee on commerce; and Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward will lead the committee on agriculture, grocery and education.

For guidance from outside the task force, Walton said the members all have connections they can call on to provide perspectives on their areas of expertise. Walton, a Walmart Inc. board member for the past four years, said the retailer has been supportive of the task force’s efforts already and will continue to do so.

“I’ve had several people reach out to other members of the task force or me, offering help in any way they can,” he said. “There’s a lot of willingness to help the task force as we shape our work. It’d be crazy for us not to pay attention to that and to get a wide variety of points of view on our work and the best way forward.”

Walton also commented on the federal government’s response to the pandemic by providing massive economic support through programs that so far total roughly $6 trillion. He said, hopefully, the money is finding its way to people who need it the most. Stopping short of second-guessing, Walton did say he was concerned about “unintended consequences” of the financial stimulus efforts.

“It’s impossible to be the armchair quarterback,” he said. “At this point with a crisis like this, that’s having such material and consequential impact on the entire country, you need the federal government to do something. Am I glad that they stepped in? Yeah. Am I worried about the scale of their intervention, and there’s maybe some potential long term consequences we can’t even imagine? Yeah.”

Walton also addressed the mental health risks associated with the coronavirus. He said one of the biggest lessons to emerge from China – which is generally 2 to 3 months ahead of the U.S. in the lifecycle of the pandemic – is that aside from the health and economic issues, the mental and emotional strain on the population at large is just as real.

“The country really needs to have our antenna up on that issue as this crisis moves along in the U.S.,” he said. “I’d say not only the country, but I think all of us do. Arkansans, Northwest Arkansans, central Arkansans, Bentonvilleians — all of us need to be thinking about our neighbors and our communities and be sensitive to the fact that there’s a strain in the economy, strain in the health system and that doesn’t happen without generating a fair bit of strain in people’s homes, as well.”

Walton also commented on the response by Walmart during the outbreak. The retail giant has made several operational changes to keep up with unprecedented consumer demand. The company also committed to creating 150,000 new jobs and plans to pay U.S. hourly workers a special cash bonus as part of a $550 million package in support of extra efforts to serve customers during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nobody in the country thinks that this is an easy situation or even a simple situation,” Walton said. “It’s the exact opposite of both of those words. It’s complex, and it’s hard. Under some pretty tough circumstances, they’ve made a bunch of tough choices, and they’ve been good choices. Choices I’ve been proud of.”