Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the May 25 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.
Mike Malone has spent his professional career in Northwest Arkansas driving initiatives to make the region the most attractive place to live and work in the country.
In his current job, having the backing of the wealthiest family in the United States goes a long way.
Malone, 51, is vice president of community and corporate affairs for Runway Group, a private but growing business team based in Bentonville led by Steuart Walton and his younger brother, Tom Walton. They are grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and the sons of Jim Walton, chairman and CEO of Arvest Bank Group Inc.
Runway Group is a holding company that makes strategic investments in several areas including real estate, hospitality, cycling and aviation.
The idea behind all of it?
“To move the state forward by building a healthy-focused, outdoor lifestyle for those who want to live here,” Malone said.
In September, it will be four years since Malone went to work for the Walton brothers — before the holding company “Runway Group” even existed.
Before that, Malone spent a decade (2006-2016) heading up one of the region’s most influential nonprofits, the Northwest Arkansas Council. About 30 business leaders, including industry titans Sam Walton, Don Tyson, John Tyson, J.B. Hunt and Mark Simmons, started the council in 1990. Malone was just the organization’s second leader, following Uvalde Lindsey.
Malone, a member of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class in 2007, advocated for regional infrastructure, economic development and education initiatives in Northwest Arkansas.
Accepting the job was a homecoming. A Fayetteville native, Malone earned a political science degree from Hendrix College in 1992. By 1994, he was in Washington, D.C., working within President Bill Clinton’s office of management and administration. Malone then worked for the U.S. Senate Rules Committee for a year and then the House for the Committee on Appropriations for several years before returning to Northwest Arkansas.
Malone, who earned a master’s degree in public policy in 1999 from the University of Minnesota, said accepting a job offer from the Walton brothers didn’t require much persuasion.
“I enjoyed my time at the council, but the goals Tom and Steuart had for the region really excited me,” Malone said. “It was an easy sell to get me excited and convince me this was the team I wanted to be on.
“I still work with a lot of the same community partners, including the council, on an almost daily basis. It’s a different team, but a lot of the focus areas are the same. It’s all aimed at the same goal of building Northwest Arkansas into the best region it can be.”
Malone said the work done in the past decade to build quality of life amenities should position Northwest Arkansas favorably to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger than other regions. He referenced a recent Harris Poll, which indicated nearly 40% of people surveyed are considering where they live in light of the pandemic.
“I think we are incredibly well-positioned to get a lot of looks from people in larger markets,” he said. “I think they could come here, live in a less dense setting and see the stars at night. But also have a rich and full professional life at the same time.”
Malone said continuing to work on the region’s perception is a goal of his efforts with Runway Group. That is related to overcoming the region’s reputational issues to attract talent and grow the workforce.
“For some, [Arkansas] is a bit of a blank slate,” he explained. “For others, Arkansas has been made fun of as a state for more than a century in different ways. We aren’t the only state, but we get a disproportionate share. And it’s not fair, and I’m tired of it. We need to do everything we can to change that perception. Or correct the record.”
From 2009 to 2013, Malone served on the Arkansas Lottery Commission, a public board that established and oversaw the operations of lotteries in the state of Arkansas.
Currently, he’s a board member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Arvest Bank in Fayetteville and Hendrix College.
Malone is also an avid pinball player, who even plays in tournaments. He has three machines at his home, including a “Tommy”-themed machine. It’s based on The Who’s 1969 rock opera album of the same name and featuring the hit song, “Pinball Wizard,” which tells the story of a “deaf, dumb and blind kid [named Tommy] who sure plays a mean pinball.”