Best & Worst: A look back at some of the more interesting stories from 2021 in NWA

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 936 views 

Matt Waller

BEST DECISION
In May, University of Arkansas provost and executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs Charles Robinson described Matt Waller as a “respected and transformational leader.”

Robinson, who is now the university’s interim chancellor, made the remarks in announcing that Waller had been reappointed to a second five-year term as dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business.

We certainly agree with Robinson’s assessment.

BEST GROWTH TRAJECTORY
Northwest Arkansas is the fastest-growing metro area in the state, according to 2020 Census numbers released Aug. 12 by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Between 2010 and 2020, the area’s population rose by 24.2% to 546,725, from 440,121. Meanwhile, Bentonville is the fastest-growing city in the state among cities with a population of at least 50,000. Its population rose by 53.4% to 54,164 in 2020, from 35,301 in 2010.

Of note, Fayetteville has become the state’s second-most populous city, leapfrogging Fort Smith. Fayetteville’s population increased by 27.6% to 93,949 in 2020, from 73,580 in 2010. Over the same period, Fort Smith’s population rose by 3.4% to 89,142, from 86,209.

WORST BANKING CATEGORY TO LEAD
Fayetteville-chartered Arvest Bank closed more bank branches than any other Arkansas bank in 2021. Fortunately, that’s attributed to the company’s focus on digital transformation than performance.

Arvest announced in March plans to close nearly 12% of its more than 270 branch locations. The closure included 15 branches in Oklahoma, 12 in Arkansas and four in Missouri. The 31 branches closed at 5 p.m. June 30.

The changes affected “a limited number of associates.” A company spokesman declined to provide a more specific number.

More than one-third of the closed branches were limited-service branches. Most of them were in markets with other nearby Arvest branches.

Changes in customer banking preferences led the bank to change its branch network in 2021. The bank has experienced a shift in the balance between branch transactions and digital banking. That pattern accelerated over the past year.

WORST COLD SNAP
Extremely cold weather in February disrupted the energy sector and contributed to rolling blackouts, power conservation requests and a spike in oil and gas prices amid strong demand for electricity and natural gas for heating.

The price jump also reflected expectations of increasing oil demand in light of rising COVID-19 vaccination rates and a global economic recovery.

BEST ‘PET’ PROJECT
Axis Product Group, a CPG (consumer packaged goods) manufacturer and distributor in Rogers, launched the Trisha Yearwood Pet Collection in April to select retailers, both brick-and-mortar and online.

Yearwood is a three-time Grammy Award-winning country artist, actress, author, chef, television personality and entrepreneur.

Products include collars, leashes, bags, grooming supplies, washable bedding, supplies and 100% natural dog treats and chews.

Retail and product sourcing veterans Berry Jones (chairman), Rodney Redman (CEO), Clay Bell (chief commercial officer), Joe Bonds (chief marketing officer) and Jonathan Rabinowitz (chief sourcing officer) founded Axis in January 2020 and are the managing partners.

“The pet category is growing like crazy,” said Bell, who’s worked in the region’s retail and CPG sector for two decades. “COVID accelerated the growth. When you can’t be around people, you’re going to spend a lot of time with your pets. That translates to people upgrading a little bit of everything as it relates to their pets. They’re like family.”

WORST TRANSPARENCY RELATED TO A UNIVERSITY CHANCELLOR RESIGNATION
Joseph Steinmetz, the sixth chancellor at the University of Arkansas, suddenly resigned June 18 after serving in the position for more than five years. Steinmetz announced his decision in a June 17 letter to faculty, staff and students.

The announcement also came after the University of Arkansas System board of trustees went into executive session on June 17. Asked why the board went into executive session, Nate Hinkel, director of communications for the UA System, said “for the purpose of considering employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of public officers or employees for the various campuses of the University of Arkansas System.”

Leadership at the state’s publicly funded flagship university is, apparently, none of the public’s business.

WORST PRE-CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
U.S. Marshals Museum President and CEO Patrick Weeks was arrested Dec. 21 by the Fort Smith Police Department on a charge of aggravated assault with a firearm. According to a Fort Smith Police Department report, Weeks refused to allow two OG&E workers into his yard to work on street lights.

The workers called the police when Weeks followed them with a pistol and pointed the pistol at them. He was released Dec. 22 from the Sebastian County Adult Detention Center on a $3,000 bond.

BEST DO-OVER DECISION
In a questionable vote that a Circuit Court Judge surprisingly ruled did not violate Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act, the Fort Smith Board of Directors set Feb. 8 for a vote on an estimated $300 million in sales tax extensions.

After receiving considerable pushback on the decision, mainly around the lack of public input, the board changed course and is now looking at a May 24 election and a plan to gather public input.

BEST STRETCH OF CONCRETE
The Arkansas Department of Transportation on Oct. 1 opened the Bella Vista Bypass, or Missouri-Arkansas Connector. The new Interstate 49 segment consisted of six projects totaling more than $220 million beginning in February 2011. The connector links 265 miles of interstate from Fort Smith to Kansas City, Mo.

More importantly, the new road takes pressure off the traffic through the heart of Bella Vista.

BEST IT’S-ABOUT-DANG-TIME DECISION
An agreement to keep Arkansas Razorback football games at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock includes a long-awaited matchup with the Arkansas State University Red Wolves in 2025, and two games with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). The deal, announced Feb. 3, will see the Hogs face ASU on Sept. 6, 2025.

No matter the score, Arkansas wins.

BEST ANNIVERSARY WE HELD
The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal has recognized 1,000 professionals under the age of 40 since 1997 through its Forty Under 40 program. A luncheon to celebrate the 25th anniversary Forty Under 40 class was held Aug. 17 at Embassy Suites in Rogers, and sponsored by Intrust Bank.

We are honored to manage a program that has recognized and continues to recognize incredibly talented and accomplished folks in one of the most dynamic metro areas in the United States.

BEST JOB IF YOU CAN GET IT
Walmart’s top six executives cumulatively received total compensation of $79.93 million in fiscal 2021, which ended Feb. 1. The combined salaries and benefits equate to $9,124 for every hour of the year.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon saw his pay improve slightly in 2021 to $22.57 million, up 2.2% from the $22.1 million reported in fiscal 2020. Also, McMillon’s $22.57 million was 1,078 times that of the $20,942 the median Walmart employee earned last year.

WORST CITY DESIGNATION
Fort Smith’s recognition in early July from the United Nations was likely little more than an elaborate scam, according to a UN spokesman for the office of Secretary-General.

Fort Smith officials announced July 6 the city had received recognition as a United Nations international city for artistic and cultural innovation, becoming the 10th city in the world to be so designated by Ibiyinka Alao, an arts ambassador to the United Nations from Nigeria.

Unfortunately, Alao was not who he said he was. Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, said he was unaware of the existence of a United Nations ambassador of the arts.

“Furthermore, the United Nations does not designate cities ‘United Nations international city for artistic and cultural innovation in peace building and economic growth.’ This has all the hallmarks of a scam.”

Whoops.

BEST GROWTH EQUITY INVESTMENT
Fayetteville-based tax software company Zenwork announced in November it closed on a $163 million minority growth equity transaction led by Spectrum Equity, a growth equity firm focused on internet-enabled software and information services companies.

The investment is the largest growth equity funding in Arkansas in recent years, according to Spectrum Equity, which is based in Boston and San Francisco. Founded in 2009, Zenwork provides digital tax compliance and regulatory reporting software. The investment will allow Zenwork to accelerate product innovation and meet growing business demand for modern, automated technology addressing regulatory compliance and power electronic filing and information management.

BEST BUILDING PERMIT BOOST
The new headquarters for Bentonville-based retailer Walmart Inc. accounted for $435 million in commercial building permits issued in the first half of 2021. The new headquarters is responsible for nearly two-thirds of the record value in commercial building permits issued in Northwest Arkansas in the first half of the year, according to the Skyline Report released in September by Fayetteville-chartered Arvest Bank.

The value rose by 242.7% to a record high of $647.05 million in the first half of 2021, from $188.8 million in the second half of 2020.

BEST LEISURE TRAVEL LIFT
Leisure travel has rebounded more quickly than business travel at Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill. Andrew Branch, chief business development officer, said 10 new routes XNA added in 2021 will be provided by low-cost carriers, including Breeze Airways, which announced three nonstop flights in May.

XNA’s nonstop flights have expanded to 27 unique destinations, up from 14 unique destinations in 2019. Eight are to Florida.