Year in Review: Ranking the top 10 NWA stories of 2022

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,205 views 

Dr. Charles Robinson is welcomed back to campus in Fayetteville on Nov. 16 after being named the seventh chancellor of the University of Arkansas.

The state’s flagship college got a new chancellor. Regional healthcare initiatives drew continued investment and one of Northwest Arkansas’ Fortune 500 companies made a significant jobs announcement.

Those were some of the top business stories of 2022. In the year’s first issue, the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal looks back at some of those headlines in our annual top 10 list, highlighting the news that had the most impact on the region’s business community last year.

In November, after holding the job on an interim basis for 15 months, Dr. Charles Robinson, previously the school’s provost, officially became the chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

The vote was unanimous by the UA System board of trustees during its regular meeting in Monticello.

Robinson is a Houston native who’s been at the state’s flagship campus for more than 20 years. He is also the first Black person to lead the campus.

Robinson’s appointment to succeed Joseph Steinmetz was anything but a smooth ride. He was one of four finalists announced on Sept. 2 but on Oct. 14, the UA System announced that the process was down to two candidates because the board could not reach a consensus.

The UA System announcement did not name them, but it was later learned that Dr. Daniel Reed, a computational science professor at the University of Utah, and Robinson were the top two.

An FOIA request from the Arkansas Times uncovered a message from Robinson to UA System President Donald Bobbitt. It showed that Bobbitt wanted to hire Reed, with Robinson being promised a return to his former job as provost but with unspecified extra duties and a salary equal to or greater than his interim chancellor pay. Robinson rejected the offer.

Whether through quiet conversations or public campaigning, several of the state’s notable business and political leaders weighed in.

Reed was the preferred candidate of the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart Inc. fortune and a longtime university benefactor. Bentonville entrepreneur Steuart Walton, Sam Walton’s grandson, penned an op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette voicing the family’s support.

To keep up with Northwest Arkansas’ rapid growth, St. Louis-based health system Mercy upped its investment in 2022 and restructured its leadership.

St. Louis-based health system Mercy will invest $500 million in the second phase of its healthcare expansion in Northwest Arkansas.

Mercy will invest $500 million in a state-of-the-art cancer center, emergency department and isolation room expansion, additional clinic locations and outpatient care facilities and hiring more than 100 primary care physicians and specialists. That will nearly double the current number.

As of December, Mercy officials were still in the process of finalizing the cancer center location.

Those plans bring Mercy’s Northwest Arkansas investment to nearly $1 billion in less than a decade. In 2016, Mercy announced the $300 million phase one expansion, which included a 275,000-square-foot patient tower in Rogers, 1,000 new healthcare jobs and primary care and specialty clinics in Benton and Washington counties.

Mercy also reorganized its leadership structure in 2022, naming Ryan Gehrig to lead operations across the state — including its two major hospitals in Rogers and Fort Smith — in a newly expanded role. Gehrig had been Mercy’s Fort Smith system president for a decade.

Eric Pianalto, formerly president of the Rogers hospital, assumed a role as Mercy Arkansas’ chief strategic growth officer.

Fayetteville bank executive Will Gladden summarized it best in the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal earlier this year.

“If we don’t have affordable housing, we’re not going to be able to continue attracting larger businesses, especially manufacturing and those types of businesses. It impacts everybody.”

Analysts point to lack of inventory and continued population growth as housing market strains. According to research by the Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, the average home sales price in Northwest Arkansas rose by 26.8% in the first half of 2022 from the same period in 2021.

CBER director Mervin Jebaraj said offering more affordable housing than other desirable metros is a competitive advantage Northwest Arkansas is beginning to lose.

“We simply have to increase the amount of housing options for current and new residents if we are to continue growing,” he said.

Meanwhile, as mortgage rates continue rising, year-to-date home sales through the third quarter in Northwest Arkansas’ two most populous counties slipped 4.3% from the same period in 2021.

Mortgage News Daily reports that a 30-year fixed rate began the year at 3.3% but ended the third quarter at 6.7%. The average rate is now north of 7%.

Board members of a new four-year medical school in Bentonville held their first meeting in June and disclosed their choices for the project’s next steps, including a new name, building plans and location.

The independent, nonprofit medical school is the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine, named for Walmart Inc. heiress and philanthropist Alice Walton. It will combine conventional medicine with holistic principles and self-care practices. When Walton originally announced plans for the medical school in March 2021, it was called Whole Health School of Medicine and Health Sciences. The board of directors voted unanimously to approve the name change.

School officials also announced that they would build the school on approximately 20 acres of Walton-owned land east of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art along Northeast J Street, north of First Presbyterian Church.

Construction of the 154,000-square-foot building will begin in the spring of 2023. The college hopes to welcome its first class in the fall of 2025. Officials are working through the lengthy accreditation process, a requirement the school must have in hand when it graduates its inaugural class in 2029.

5. OneTyson
In early October, Springdale-based Tyson Foods released details of a plan to consolidate corporate operations.

The company’s “OneTyson” initiative aims to relocate all corporate employees to Northwest Arkansas, requiring workers in Dakota Dunes, S.D., Chicago and Downers Grove, Ill., to either move to Northwest Arkansas or opt for a severance package, determined on an individual basis.

That impacts roughly 1,000 jobs from the Tyson Fresh Meats business in Dakota Dunes and the Hillshire Brands offices and marketing positions in the Chicagoland area.

Whether the employees choose relocation or severance — multiple sources tell the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal the relocation rate will be less than 10% — the actual jobs are coming to Northwest Arkansas in 2023. To make room, Tyson Foods also is planning to expand its home office on Don Tyson Parkway over several years.

To help bridge the gap, the company paid $19.3 million for a turnkey office building in Springdale that can house up to 1,000 workers. The 130,000-square-foot building previously belonged to Walmart, which invested millions in turning the former Sam’s Club store into a state-of-the-art call center. It opened in August 2019 but closed the following spring with the pandemic’s arrival.

Shelley Simpson became president of Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services on Aug. 1. She joined the company in 1994.

Shelley Simpson

She’s been an executive for 15 years and has been the company’s chief commercial officer since 2017 and executive vice president of people and human resources since November 2020.

As president, she oversees management duties and performance for all company business segments, emerging technology, developing services and people and human resources.

In 2007, Simpson became president of the company’s brokerage segment that she helped establish. She added the roles of chief marketing officer in 2011 and president of the truckload segment in 2014. In 2017, she became chief commercial officer and president of highway services, a position that combined the executive management of the brokerage and truckload segments.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings showed that Simpson’s base salary rose on Aug. 1 by 16% to $725,000 from $625,000. She also received $5 million in shares and a bonus plan in line with CEO John Roberts, ranging from 75% to 125% of her annual base salary.

Roberts had been president and CEO since Jan. 1, 2011, and joined the J.B. Hunt Board of Directors in 2010. He remains the CEO and a board member.

Bentonville nonprofit Alice L. Walton Foundation and Fayetteville-based Washington Regional Medical System began collaborating on plans to create a new regional health system that will involve Cleveland Clinic.

In mid-December, Natalie Hardin, director of marketing and public relations for Washington Regional, said, “all three organizations have come together and formed a working group to explore the best path forward. Those explorations are ongoing, and we’ll share more information as plans are solidified.”

In April, the foundation and Washington Regional announced their intent to develop operational strategies for their new partnership and looked to identify the next steps by the end of 2022.

“This partnership is all about access, ensuring that residents of our thriving region have ready access to world-class healthcare services, including specialty care,” philanthropist Alice Walton said in April. “We’re bringing together three organizations with unique strengths – including Washington Regional’s excellence in serving this community, Cleveland Clinic’s innovative care and my foundation’s focus on enhancing access – to offer a broader scope and scale of services to our region and beyond.”

The following are partnership goals:

  • Increase access to specialty care
  • Expand clinical services
  • Build a regional health system providing whole-person services
  • Strengthen transformation to value-based care
  • Develop a partnership with the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine to establish a regional academic health system
  • Train the next generation of clinicians, advanced practice providers, nurses and caregivers
  • Bolster Washington Regional’s research capabilities.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services announced plans to expand its intermodal fleet by more than 40% to as many as 150,000 containers in three to five years. The Lowell-based carrier included its goals in a March news release about an initiative with Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway to improve intermodal service.

In March, J.B. Hunt Transport Services released plans to expand its intermodal fleet by more than 40% to as many as 150,000 containers in three to five years.

According to J.B. Hunt’s third-quarter earnings report, it had 113,066 intermodal containers and trailers at the end of the period, up 10.5% from 102,230 at the same time in 2021. Through three quarters, the intermodal segment comprised 59% of the company’s operating income and 47% of its revenue, up from 56% and 45% in the same period in 2021.

In a third-quarter earnings preview, Stephens analysts said pent-up demand and growth resulting from the BNSF collaboration are expected to contribute to a 6.5% increase in intermodal volumes in 2023.

As part of the initiative, BNSF is expected to increase capability at multiple intermodal facilities and provide several properties around key intermodal hubs to increase terminal efficiency. Also, BNSF plans to add about 1,200 well cars carrying nearly 2,500 containers.

John R. Tyson became the chief financial officer for Springdale-based Tyson Foods in October. The following month, Fayetteville police arrested him on misdemeanor charges of public intoxication and criminal trespass.

John R. Tyson

Police arrested him after a woman found him asleep in her home near Dickson Street in downtown Fayetteville. According to the police report, an alcohol odor was on his breath and body. Tyson pleaded innocent to the charges in December, and his next court date is set for Feb. 15 in Fayetteville District Court.

Tyson, 34, is the great-grandson of company founder John W. Tyson and son of board chairman John H. Tyson. He’s also an executive vice president, leads strategy and sustainability for the meat giant and is president of Tyson Ventures, a venture capital fund investing in companies developing new technologies, business models and products to sustainability feed the growing world population.

In the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call on Nov. 14, the fourth-generation Tyson executive apologized for his arrest.

According to Tyson Foods’ Dec. 1 statement, the company and a committee of independent directors reviewed the incident. “This review process was conducted pursuant to the company’s internal procedures, best practices in corporate governance and resulted in actions consistent with those procedures. The board supports Mr. Tyson and has continued confidence in his ability to lead Tyson Foods as CFO.”

Van Buren-based carrier USA Truck Inc. was acquired by Germany-based global logistics company DB Schenker in a $435 million deal.

Global logistics company DB Schenker acquired Van Buren-based USA Truck in a $435 million deal.

Joe Jaska, executive vice president of land transport for the Americas region for DB Schenker, took responsibility for its expanded operations.

According to responses sent on Jaska’s behalf, USA Truck, which is no longer a public company, is operating as USAT Capacity Solutions, a DB Schenker Co. All USAT employees joined DB Schenker on Sept. 15, and the company’s Van Buren location will remain as is and serve as its central office and administration. At the end of September, President and CEO James Reed left the company “to pursue other interests.”

A news release showed USA Truck’s nearly 1,900-truck fleet, 2,100 employees, partnerships with more than 36,000 carriers, eastern U.S. terminals and third-party logistics operations were added to DB Schenker’s capacity. As a result, its U.S. operations comprised more than 9,000 employees in over 40 locations and 55 logistics centers and more than 21 million square feet of distribution space.

On its last trading day, shares of USA Truck (NASDAQ: USAK) opened Sept. 14 at $31.72 and closed that day 1 cent lower. USA Truck was founded in 1983 and traded on the market for more than 30 years.