We have many entrepreneurs in Northwest Arkansas. Of course, the best-known entrepreneurs from our recent past are Sam Walton, Don Tyson and J.B. Hunt. Others are lesser-known, but entrepreneurs nevertheless. A few of those — people I know — have done some pretty impressive things with the businesses they created.
Mike Stennett grew up in southwest Missouri and played baseball in college. His dad was a manager and eventual owner of Steak ’n Shake restaurants and a steak house in Branson. When Mike decided to break out on his own in 2005, he and his wife had $50,000 saved up. They built their first Steak ’n Shake in Fayetteville 16 years ago. A few years later, they opened their second Steak ’n Shake in Rogers. Next, they bought and turned around a third Steak ’n Shake in Joplin. A few years ago, Mike acquired three closed Dickey’s Barbecue Pit restaurants to reopen in our area. Today, he has bold plans to grow his restaurant empire with more to come. Mike is a no-nonsense, unpretentious manager and business builder who cares deeply about his people. He will accomplish great things.
Another local entrepreneur is Rolf Wilkin, owner of the Eureka Pizza chain of restaurants. He started his business by buying a failing pizza shop in Fayetteville back in 1992. Today, Rolf has 11 Eureka Pizza locations throughout the region and continues to grow. Rolf is a relentless marketer who is continuously experimenting with his product offerings, locations, marketing and promotion tactics.
Rolf is also highly involved with his business. He does every job, from taking orders, making pizzas, delivering meals and painting bathrooms in his restaurants. He is a can-do entrepreneur who never sees an obstacle he cannot overcome. Rolf was also one of the first people to have a Segway scooter in our area, and he’s known for riding it around town.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Burt Hanna. Burt grew up in Fayetteville and created his first business in the ’80s along with his then-wife, making potpourri from materials gathered from his back yard and selling it to Collier Drug Stores. Within a few years, they were selling several million dollars worth of product a year and decided to get into the candle business. He learned how to make candles by reading a book he checked out from the Fayetteville library. Burt then grew Hanna’s Candle Co. into a $65 million annual revenue business, with Walmart as his biggest customer. Burt also started and owns Greenland Composites, a company that uses recycled plastic bags and wood shavings to make weather-resistant wood products used in doors and raised-bed gardens.
Burt is a fantastic water skier and pilot. He even lands planes at his house and owns a tremendous amount of industrial real estate. Burt is a genius at business and thinks about it 24 hours a day, which is why he has overcome every obstacle thrown his way.
If I had time, I would talk about Ben Clark, owner of B Unlimited; Kirsten Blowers, founder of Riff-Raff and other unique brands; and Gary Head, founder and chairman of Signature Bank of Arkansas.
My point is this — we are lucky to have so many entrepreneurs here in Northwest Arkansas. They have met many needs in the marketplace and created a lot of good jobs. None of them started with a bunch of money, nor did they invent anything new, yet they created profitable, growing companies with tremendous value.
Mark Zweig is the founder of two Fayetteville-based Inc. 500/5000 companies. He is also an executive in-residence teaching entrepreneurship in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.