Walton, Dillard, Stephens discuss third generation Arkansas at LR Rotary

by Ronak Patel ([email protected]) 5,343 views 

Left to right: John Stephens, Annamarie Dillard, Steuart Walton, and Eliza Hussman Gaines.

Third generation heirs of three of the state’s biggest businesses spoke with the Rotary Club of Little Rock Tuesday (Feb. 21) to discuss the future of Arkansas.

They were interviewed as part of a Rotary Club panel discussion by Eliza Hussman Gaines, daughter of Walter Hussman, who was just elevated to publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after her father’s retirement. Gaines is a fourth generation operator of her family’s business.

Steuart Walton of Walmart, Annemarie Dillard Jazic of Dillards, and John Stephens of Stephens Inc. all moved away from Arkansas, but told the audience they decided to move back and all seemed pleased with their decisions.

Walton said his reason for moving back to the state was wanting to create an impact and help improve his home state.

“The communities that outperform are inevitably communities where resources are being reinvested,” he said.

Walton said he is trying to make this impact through the Runway Group LLC, which he founded. Runway is a holding company that invests in real estate, outdoor initiatives, hospitality and businesses that advance Northwest Arkansas.

Dillard, who grew up in Little Rock, left the state to attend college at the University of Southern California, where she didn’t feel a sense of community.

“I became disenchanted with Los Angeles,” she said.

She said she didn’t want to come back to Arkansas but her husband talked her into it. Dillard said Arkansas has provided her with the sense of community she was looking for.

Stephens said the birth of his child brought him back to Arkansas. He had worked in London for three years.

When asked how to improve the state, the three panelists agreed art and tourism can be a key factor.

Stephens, whose family helped with the renovations of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, said he is inspired by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Northwest Arkansas and wants to recreate that success in Little Rock. He said art is important because it helps shape how young people see the world.

Walton, whose family created Crystal Bridges, provided advice on why the museum has been successful for the northwest region.

“What Crystal Bridges does beautifully is it doesn’t give answers, it asks questions,” Walton said.

He explained the museum doesn’t force points of view onto its visitors, which he credits to its success.

Walton said the state needs to continue to build infrastructure that will allow people to access the lakes, mountains and terrains of Arkansas. He said the tens of millions of people who live within 500 miles of Arkansas would be interested in taking a trip to access the outdoor attractions the state has to offer.

“It [outdoors] can be leveraged to drive our economy,” he said.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, outdoor recreation added 2.4% to the state’s GDP in 2021.

Walton, Dillard and Stephens credited the business community and their predecessors for working together, even if they didn’t work in the same industries.

Dillard and Stephens knew one another since they both live in Little Rock and Dillard introduced him to Walton. She said she met Walton when they both worked on the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force, which was created by former Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The best outcome was to the people who I met. Those relationships were important and blossomed,” Walton said.

Walton said it is easy for people to get blinded and only focus on the region they live in. He added everyone needs to work together if Arkansas is to reach its potential.

Dillard said her time on the task force helped her realize she can play an important role in recruiting businesses to the state. She said she met Hutchinson for the first time and was given the unofficial role of being a marketer for the state.

“It’s sad to me for Arkansas to be called a flyover state,” she said.

Whenever she is at conferences outside of the state, she said she lets people know how great of a state Arkansas is.

During questions from the audience, Anna Beth Gorman, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas and former Democratic nominee for Secretary of State, asked Walton, Stephens and Dillard about SB71, which is a bill filed by Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, that Sullivan has described as a way to end affirmative action.

Gorman wanted to know if they saw SB71 as a potential barrier to economic growth. Stephens and Dillard said they didn’t know enough about the specific bill. Walton said there is a healthy debate to have about where drivers of economic growth come from.

In an interview after the event, Gorman said she asked about SB71 because it would affect the funding and targeted initiatives state agencies have created to help marginalized communities like women and minorities.