This year’s Talk Business & Politics annual State of the State executive roundtable participants are ready for a new start in 2021.
AT&T Arkansas President and Arkansas State Chamber chairman Ronnie Dedman, First Security Bank NWA President Adam Rutledge, and Mollie Munro, EVP at Munro and Co., were this year’s participants. With backgrounds in telecommunications, banking and manufacturing, their insights offered a variety of opinions.
COVID-19 dominated the business landscape last year. For some, it pushed their business plans forward at a faster rate, for others it meant major pivots, and for others it added another layer of complexity to an already challenging business environment.
“It was of course an interesting year, a year that was filled with a lot of challenges,” said Dedman, who is also past chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and is the chairman of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.
“For us, we had made significant investments here in our Arkansas network and across the country. We spent about $615 million upgrading our wireline and our wireless network. And I think last year in 2020 that it actually paid off. Last year, if you look at the way things rolled out – people started working from home and virtual education. We saw significant increases – about 25% increases in our wireless traffic on our network.”
“2020 was definitely a different year,” said Rutledge. “We really enjoy as a community bank being face-to-face with our customers, so it’s made for a different way of going about servicing our customers. Fortunately, we have a great staff that pivoted, and we’ve really been surprised how little disruption with our lobbies closed that we still have been able to take care of our customers and our customers’ financial needs.”
Rutledge oversees the Northwest Arkansas market for First Security Bank and is plugged into the bank’s statewide footprint. Payroll Protection Program loans were a major undertaking for the bank and its peers.
“There are definitely some sectors in there that have had struggles and we’ve just tried to come alongside them and help them where we can,” he said. “But 2020 has been a different year. All in all, I would say we ended ‘20 not as bad as we thought it might look when the pandemic first hit in the first quarter.”
Munro has been involved with the shoe company her family founded for decades. 2020 was a rough ride since Munro & Co. had already been struggling due to the tariff wars with China instigated by the Trump administration.
“The tariffs were something we’d been dealing with for quite a few years. The shoe industry pretty much moved overseas a long, long time ago; therefore, all of our suppliers are overseas,” Munro said.
“When the tariffs started on China, everybody scrambled over to Vietnam – which by the way is a 100th of the manufacturing capacity that China is, so everybody couldn’t go racing over there,” she said, noting the company and other manufacturers took a 30% hit by switching to Vietnam. “Everybody suffered.”
Beyond tariffs, Munro said the fashion industry is driven by the entertainment industry, and the 2020 pandemic shut down the entertainment industry. “Those little dominoes fall down and keep falling,” she said.
Expectations are great for 2021. All three roundtable guests have a hope for a stronger year for the Arkansas and American economy.
“Hope is truly, for us, in the vaccine. The vaccine and the potential success of the vaccine is going to determine what 2021 looks like for most industries,” Rutledge said. “All in all, the stimulus and PPP through 2020 have somewhat propped us up for 2021… I would foresee that a second round of PPP in 2021 will help, although there may be different regulations.”
“For us, 2021 will start off with the legislative session and that’s always interesting,” Dedman said. “We’ll continue to make major investments in our wireline and wireless network, which of course will lead to expanding broadband.”
He also noted that AT&T would be heavily involved in social justice issues as a corporation.
“AT&T is one of a hundred businesses that are in support of hate crimes legislation here in the state of Arkansas. That has so many positives it can do for our state. It impacts economic development, so we’re going to push forward for that,” Dedman said.
Munro is counting on personal spending, which maintained good levels in 2020, to further prop up the economy in the new year.
“We are a consumer society. When things die down – due to the vaccines and pandemic relief – people are going to want to return to their normal lives. For our industry, it will come back. It takes about 12-15 months to modify fashion, so we work way ahead of when our product is actually going to hit the store,” Munro said.
You can watch the full roundtable interview in the video below.