Talk Business & Politics recognizes NEA outstanding businesses

by George Jared ([email protected]) 651 views 

Eddie Mae Herron Center founder Pat Johnson (right) and board member Mary Clark.

Editor’s note: In school, you get an “A” if you do an excellent job with the work you’re presented. You get an A+ if you exceed expectations and show you’re the leader of the curve set for others.

This year, Talk Business & Politics showcases a new award for Northeast Arkansas to highlight the businesses in the region that have not only led this corner of the state through a traumatic and tumultuous period, but have also been an example for the rest of the state to follow.

Northeast Arkansas’ influence on the entire state of Arkansas continues to increase and impress. Our Outstanding Business of the Year awards go to four deserving companies in the following categories: Large business (over 500 employees), small business, non-profit business, and startup business (less than 3 years old).

Congratulations to this year’s honorees: St. Bernards Healthcare, S&H Systems, The Eddie Mae Herron Center, and Native Brew Works. We look forward to their leadership and growth in the future. We also want to thank our presenting sponsor for this new annual event: QualChoice.


Businessman C.C. Scott endeavored to do what many Black men in the South couldn’t do in the post-Civil War era. The Alabama native wanted to own a farm and businesses.

He moved to Randolph County and acquired more than 1,000 cropland acres. He started a church and a school. He started a ferry service on the Current River. Little was known about Scott, who died in 1926, until Eddie Mae Herron Center founder Pat Johnson and board member Mary Clark started to conduct research.

It’s this effort, along with others, that compelled Talk Business & Politics to select the Eddie Mae Herron Center as 2021 Non-profit Business of the Year in Northeast Arkansas.

The Eddie Mae Herron Center was known as the Pocahontas Colored School during segregation and Johnson attended school there starting in 1954. First opened in November of 2000, the center commemorates black history in Randolph County, a history that dates back to slaves being brought there with the first settlers of European descent in the early 1800s. The Center is named for one of Johnson’s first mentors.

“Mrs. Eddie Mae Herron. She was our teacher. She taught us everything. She taught us how to read, write and how to do math. She was a wonderful person. I admired her very much,” Johnson told Talk Business & Politics.

Several thousand visitors come to the museum each year, according to sign-in rolls.

One mission for the organization is to bring to light unknown Black history in this part of the state, Clark said. Part of that will be a proposed history trail that they are working on and it is centered around the exploits of Scott, Johnson added. His tombstone has been in the museum for years after it was discarded into a ditch when the cemetery he was buried in was plowed by a farmer. Johnson said they plan to place the stone along this history trail path that will include historic plaques detailing other local Black people’s accomplishments.

One is businessman Elmer “Smokey” James who owned a car dealership and sold vehicles throughout the region, Johnson said. Finding information on Black people in Randolph County is an arduous task, Clark said. Blacks are rarely mentioned in the newspapers and other literature from the time, so researchers have to dig through tax records and others to find information, she added.

“If we don’t record this history now, we may lose it forever,” Johnson said.

Large Business
St. Bernards Healthcare was founded July 5, 1900, during a malaria epidemic that enveloped Northeast Arkansas. A group of nuns bought a six-room house on East Mathews. They named their makeshift hospital St. Bernards in honor of a monk by the same name who helped to treat victims of the bubonic plague in Italy during the 13th Century.

A modern pandemic, COVID-19, has challenged the healthcare system for more than 19 months, and the organization is taking steps to aid and comfort its staff during the most significant healthcare crisis in a century, St. Bernards Employee Engagement Manager Tiffany Horton said.

What started in a small house has become the largest employer in the Jonesboro area by a wide margin. The healthcare system employs nearly 4,000 workers, nearly 1,100 more than the next largest employer which is Arkansas State University, according to Jonesboro Unlimited, a non-profit economic development organization.

St. Bernards embarked on an ambitious plan more than half a decade ago to upgrade its facilities. Several years ago, administrators at St. Bernards decided to renovate their facilities and build a medical campus. Four areas were targeted: cancer care, heart care, surgery and intensive care. The $137.5 million project was completed in 2020, and increased the building space on the campus by 25% to 1.026 million square feet. The upgrades were completed just as the pandemic set began.

Workers in all capacities have had to work longer and harder hours to deal with the influx of patients, Horton said. At the start of the pandemic, St. Bernards opened a daycare that provided free childcare for employees.

That effort morphed into others including “Food Fests” where local food vendors are brought onto the campus. The organization started a campaign, “Together we Can’’ and has monthly events planned for employees, which included a movie night on the ASU football field. A two-day, holiday present wrapping event is slated where employees can bring in gifts that need to be wrapped and the entire administration will wrap them free of charge. Other events are slated too, Horton added.

“We’re trying to let them know how much we appreciate them through the pandemic … we love doing these types of things for our employees,” she said.

Small Business
There are a few businesses that are perfectly positioned when a paradigm shift occurs in society and S&H Systems belongs in that category. Founded in 2002 in Jonesboro, the company specializes in “material handling” systems. Some of those systems include conveyors, S&H CFO Mark Donovan said.

E-commerce industry growth has fueled the need for material systems changes and upgrades for many companies, he said. Customers are buying everything online now – food, cars, clothes, electronics and others – and it has propelled the conveyor system market. In 2019, the conveyor system sector market reached $7.75 billion, according to Research and Markets. It’s projected to grow 3.83% annually and reach more than $10 billion by 2026.

Donovan said he didn’t know exactly how much S&H’s business volume had increased in recent years, but it has been significant.

“The industry has certainly jumped. We’re up dramatically,” he said.

S&H customs designs and builds material handling systems. The size of a company’s building, allocated space, needs and other factors have to be vetted when building the system. The company is dependent on third party vendors to provide equipment and machinery used in these systems, and that may provide challenges in the near future as world-wide supply chain issues continue, he added.

Friends Jackson Spencer, Heath Gammill, and Dustin and Ellen Hundley decided to open a restaurant/brewery during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Jonesboro. Native Brew Works opened this summer on Gee Street. The partners all agreed the business has met their expectations, but the process is still evolving.

“We’re learning how to run a restaurant and brewery,” he said.

It began as a hobby and a shared idea. As a hobby, Hundley liked to brew beer. Spencer wanted to operate his own business. Hundley’s wife, Ellen, Spencer’s wife, Lindsey decided to get involved. Add in Gammill and Native Brew Works was born.

The partners found a building on Gee Street and began the renovation process. They’ve done a lot of the work themselves and it has saved them an enormous amount of money, he said. Part of the reason they chose the building is that it sits in a part of town that needs to be economically revitalized and the partners hope to be a part of those efforts.

The décor is themed from the 1960s. Native Brew has multiple taps that offer various kinds of beer and they could also offer ciders and seltzers at some point, Dustin Hundley said. They offer a wide array of tacos. Hundley said that educating customers about the offerings and pairings has been a point of emphasis.

Gammill said the company has been fortunate to hire the right staff members. At least 22 people are employed at Native Brews, and they have had input on all aspects of operations, Jackson added.

Patrons order from the bar and tips are shared with the entire paid staff. This allows them to pay the wait staff minimum wage and allows for all employees to reap the benefits of good service provided in the form of tips, Gammill said.

One unique feature is the open kitchen, Gammill said. Patrons can watch their food being made.

The partners don’t have a lot of data to analyze, or to project at this time, but the crowds have been good and customers are returning for more. The partners haven’t put much thought into franchising the concept at this point. Their focus is this mico-brewery, Jackson added.

“We know what we don’t know at this point,” he said.