Best & Worst: A look back at some of the more interesting stories from 2020 in NWA

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 923 views 

Tyson Foods fired seven management employees at its Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant in December after an investigation into wagering allegations. Tyson Foods learned that top leadership at the plant made light of the COVID-19 pandemic by operating a betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive.

Rogers-based America’s Car-Mart ditched its “Drive easy” motto in exchange for “Keeping you on the road.” The rebranding was accompanied by a new logo that showcases the “A” in America’s Car-Mart with a rendition of a two-lane road.

In short, it works.

Northwest Arkansas is known for blurring city and corporate lines in an effort to promote the region. There may be no better example of this collaboration at work than the regional health community’s collective cooperation during the pandemic.

From the C-suite to marketing to frontline workers, the region put forth unified messaging on a daily basis in the face of the deadly crisis.

When might work life return to normal? Bentonville-based Walmart may have offered the best barometer for that timeline. The retail giant said its corporate workforce in the U.S. will not return to their offices until July 5 at the earliest. A memo from Donna Morris, chief people officer at Walmart, went out to employees on Nov. 20.

Walmart said COVID-19 cases have continued to rise across the U.S. including areas where a majority of the retail giant’s corporate employees work — Arkansas, California, New Jersey and New York. Morris acknowledged the positive news regarding successful vaccines in recent weeks, but said health experts seem to think broad access to the vaccines will take a number of months. She said that is the main reason Walmart will continue have its corporate employees work remotely for the next several months. Morris said if circumstances change before then, the company will be flexible about returning earlier.


“My wife jokes with me sometimes when we go to parties, ‘Tell people you do water treatment. Leave out the waste part.’ But that’s the best part of it. That’s the part that is protecting the environment for our children and us moving forward.”

Chris Milligan, who is the president and CEO of BlueInGreen LLC, an emerging technology company based in Fayetteville focusing on water and wastewater treatment. Georgia-based global manufacturer Chart Industries bought the company in November in an all-stock deal worth $20 million.

Milligan will continue to run the company as a standalone business in the Chart Industries portfolio. BlueInGreen will maintain its corporate headquarters in Fayetteville.

If Northwest Arkansas ever struggles with a perception of elitism, an initiative revealed in early November by the Northwest Arkansas Council — however good the intentions — was met with some negative reaction in and out of the region.

The council launched a pilot program called Life Works Here to attract remote workers to Northwest Arkansas by offering $10,000 in cash to move to the region. The effort will invest more than $1 million over six months for the initiative, made possible by philanthropic support from the Walton Family Foundation at the recommendation of brothers Steuart Walton and Tom Walton.

In theory, Life Works Here hopes to recruit the most in-demand talent in the region — STEAM professionals and entrepreneurs.

While intentions are surely noble, some longtime area residents questioned what sort of message the cash offer implied. Others suggested the money could be spent on existing professionals or other worthwhile causes, while many questioned who was going to sift through the criteria to decide who would be allowed to receive the $10,000 and move to NWA.

It was one of the most read Northwest Arkansas Business Journal stories of 2020, and it certainly had its fair share of fans and detractors.

The Rose Law Firm, headquartered in Little Rock but with a presence in Fayetteville, celebrated its 200th birthday in 2020. With two centuries under its belt, it is the oldest continuous business based in Arkansas.

The prestigious law firm also boasts some powerful former members. Former Rose Law Firm members include two Chief Justices and two Associate Justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court, one president of the American Bar Association, seven presidents of the Arkansas Bar Association, two namesakes of counties in Arkansas, two U.S. Senators, and one First Lady of the United States and U.S. Secretary of State.

Any guess as to who that last Rose Law Firm alumna is?

As if the scenic natural beauty of Northwest Arkansas wasn’t enough, a new development may set a high standard for future outdoor attractions.

The Walton Family Foundation is providing $95% of the money for the $33 million WOKA Whitewater Park.

The city of Siloam Springs and Oklahoma-based utility Grand River Dam Authority broke ground Oct. 29 on a 30-acre whitewater park on the Illinois River, and the Walton Family Foundation is providing 95% of the money for the $33 million project.

WOKA Whitewater Park will be built at the old spillway of Lake Frances in Oklahoma and near Watts, which is about 7 miles southwest of Siloam Springs. The main attraction features a nearly 1,200-foot-long, 100-foot-wide side channel off the Illinois River with eight drop-features offering recreation and waves for kayakers, surfers and tubers of all skill levels, a news release shows. WOKA was formed from a combination of the words water, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Now, if only we could get a beach and a surf wave pool.

Social media has upended many a stable business or industry. We’ve seen new technology disrupt everything from the financial sector to retail space to the entertainment industry, and even to our trusty media circles.

President Donald Trump took on social media upstart TikTok in 2020, calling the Chinese-based company a threat to national security. The popular worldwide video sharing app is primarily used by youth and young adults to share dance moves, funny stories and personal videos.

Trump’s call for the company to sell its U.S. base to American owners led to Walmart pursuing a potential stake in TikTok. Many market observers see potential for Walmart to have access to trends and shopping habits of younger consumers, which TikTok could provide.

Deadlines came and went, and as of the close of the year, Trump’s directive still hasn’t been finalized. Chinese officials haven’t signed off on an agreement, legal challenges are on pause, and there hasn’t been much new news from the U.S. players who made headlines last fall. With the incoming Joe Biden administration, who knows what the final fate will be. The disruption may turn out to be much ado about nothing.

Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO), a utility of American Electric Power, will spend more than $1 billion to acquire 54.5%, or 810 megawatts, of a 1,485-megawatt wind farm project in north-central Oklahoma even though Texas regulators denied the project in July.

Because of the denial, SWEPCO will allocate more of the wind generating capacity to Arkansas and Louisiana, with about 268 megawatts for Arkansas customers and 464 megawatts for Louisiana customers. Wholesale customers will receive 78 megawatts.

Bentonville is one of three Arkansas cities that purchase electricity from SWEPCO at wholesale and sell it to customers at retail. The wind farms, which are being developed by Invenergy, are expected to start operating in 2021 and 2022.

Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA), the second-largest airport in the state, reported enplanements, or passengers flying out, fell 95.6% to 3,151 in April, from the same month in 2019.

By comparison, enplanements declined in April at similar rates at the largest and third-largest airports in Arkansas. Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock saw enplanements fall 93.3% to 5,911. Meanwhile, Fort Smith Regional Airport posted enplanements declined 94.5% to 399.

Between January and November, XNA enplanements fell 60.5% to 333,558, from 844,849 over the same period in 2019.

More than one year after seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, NanoMech Inc. was dismissed in May from the case that cleared its former CEO of any wrongdoing.

In April, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John Dorsey approved a $1.7 million settlement between the Springdale-based nanotechnology manufacturer, its directors and officers and New York-based lender Michaelson Capital Partners.

The settlement agreement resolved and eliminated any issues over why the company went into bankruptcy, according to a news release.

NanoMech had claimed former chairman and CEO Jim Phillips spent more than $750,000 of the company’s money on personal expenses and hired a company to investigate its operations and finances, including the eight years that Phillips oversaw the company. The company found that under Phillips’ leadership, NanoMech “appropriately addressed the many challenges it faced as an investment-stage company and that there was no wrongdoing associated with Mr. Phillips’ stewardship, the performance of Mr. Phillips and the other pre-bankruptcy directors and officers, or with Mr. Phillips’ retirement from the company.”

After announcing in June emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Fayetteville-based die casting company Pace Industries, a major supplier to the auto industry, looked to move its headquarters to Detroit, according to a source.

In mid-October, Jason Allen, chief marketing officer for Pace Industries, said to expect an announcement within two weeks but had been told to hold off “until we negotiate and confirm all items outstanding with the Michigan Economic Dev Council. Once finalized we can then release to [the] media the PR announcement.”

In late September, Allen said Pace Industries was working with marketing firm MBE Group in Michigan “with regard to messaging our Pace restructuring.” He noted that Frank Buscemi, CEO and chief creative officer of MBE Group, would provide “proper timing, but we are not released yet to speak direct to [the] media.”

Previously, on Sept. 24, Allen said “I have engaged our new CEO, Donnie Hampton, to address the key ‘communication’ points of our new relocation of the HQ. He is running traps through our new ownership’s ‘PR’ team to validate.”

In his first year as head coach of the University of Arkansas football team, Sam Pittman found a home in Fayetteville — literally and figuratively.

Sam Pittman

Pittman and his wife Jamie paid $2.5 million for a 3.84-acre property in the upscale Bridgewater Estates neighborhood. The deal closed Jan. 30, just a few weeks after the UA hired Pittman as the Hogs’ new coach.

The Pittmans’ new home will remain in the family, so to speak. They bought the property from former UA basketball coach Mike Anderson, who was fired in March 2019 after coaching the Hogs for eight seasons. The property includes an 8,400-square-foot Mediterranean-style house, 1,209-square-foot guest house, five-car garage and a swimming pool. It was built in 2013.

If Pittman’s debut season is an indication, he won’t be house hunting any time soon. The Razorbacks, an underdog in every game, energized their fan base by winning three games in 2020 — the team won four combined in the previous two years — and snapped a 20-game losing streak in the Southeastern Conference.

Simon Saw-Teong Ang, a former professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas, was indicted by a federal grand jury in June on 42 counts of wire fraud and two counts of passport fraud.

Ang was arrested in May and charged with one count of felony wire fraud. The UA terminated him shortly after that.

Ang, 63, had worked at the UA since 1988. He served as the director of the High Density Electronics Center until he was fired. During his employment, Ang was the investigator and co-investigator for many grant contracts that were funded by U.S. government agencies, including NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Each year, the UA required Ang to disclose any conflicts of interest, including outside employment.

Agents working with the FBI discovered that Ang received money and benefits from China and was closely associated with various companies based in China during the same time he was receiving grants from various U.S. government agencies. The indictment charges that from June 9, 2013, to May 8, 2020, Ang devised a scheme to defraud and to obtain money and property from the government, the UA and others by false pretenses.

If convicted, Ang faces a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison for each wire fraud count and 10 years in federal prison for each passport fraud count.

Our research says that math does not look good for Ang.