Walton highlights Bentonville investments, what makes it great

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 6,385 views 

Paul Gatling, left, editor of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal and Steuart Walton, co-founder and chairman of Bentonville investment firm RZC Investments, spoke Thursday at at the second annual Midcontinent Venture Capital Summit at Ledger in downtown Bentonville.

Steuart Walton said investment into mountain biking trails north of downtown Bentonville led to additional investments to boost the city’s attractiveness as a place to live and visit. More trails look to be in the works after the recent deal to purchase about 2,700 acres in Bella Vista.

On Thursday (May 9), Paul Gatling, editor of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, interviewed Walton in a fireside chat at the second annual Midcontinent Venture Capital Summit at Ledger in downtown Bentonville. The 2024 event included 370 founders, investors and supporters of entrepreneurial ecosystems from 30 states, with $1.5 trillion in investable capital.

Cortado Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm in Oklahoma City with more than $110 million in assets under management (AUM), hosted the event.

A Bentonville native, Walton spoke about his educational and professional background as an attorney and working for Walmart. While living in London, he worked in the retailer’s mergers and acquisitions group before returning here to invest in Northwest Arkansas.

Walton is the founder and chairman of Bentonville investment firm RZC Investments. He and his brother, Tom Walton, co-founded Runway Group, a Bentonville holding company that invests in real estate, outdoor initiatives and hospitality. They are the grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and the sons of Jim Walton, chairman and CEO of Arvest Bank Group.

Steuart Walton, who serves on the Walmart Board of Directors, explained that his strategy into investing in Northwest Arkansas was informed by the 2002 book “The Rise of the Creative Class” by Richard Florida. The primary takeaway from the book was that companies will move to where the talent is instead of the other way around.

“It started to kind of dawn on us that Bentonville needed to kind of up its game,” he said. “The downtown at that time was sleepy, and that’s probably being generous. We just thought that the community needed to become a magnet for talent. We really didn’t have much of a strategy for that other than trying to make Bentonville cool.”

After opening the Slaughter Pen mountain bike trail system in 2007, Walton and his younger brother started purchasing downtown Bentonville properties and redeveloping them. From 2007 to 2015, they made multiple single-project investments in downtown.

By 2015, they were starting to see the impact of their investments into trails and businesses in Bentonville, leading to population growth and more activity downtown. He added that Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville in 2011 as another driving force of growth. Then, 21c Museum Hotel opened, and more hotels continue to be built. These developments will continue to drive visitors, retail and restaurants to downtown and “continue to put Bentonville on the map not only as a great place to live but a great place to visit,” Walton said.

He said he considers Bentonville a AAA-rated startup. It’s not as big as the largest cities or the up-and-coming ones, such as Austin, Texas, Denver or Nashville, Tenn. He said the trajectory of Bentonville isn’t known, but investing in AAA-startups “probably offer the most upside. And that is sort of driving belief that a lot of the investments that we make in Bentonville, which is that we think that not only can we help accelerate Bentonville’s trajectory and push up further up and to the right…in terms of what we’re doing, what we’re capable of and how we’re seen. But we also think that the upside of investing here is more exciting than some other potential options.”

Walton said he and his brother focus on investing in Northwest Arkansas and especially in Bentonville and Bella Vista. Also Thursday, Blue Crane, the real estate acquisition and development arm of Runway Group, announced buying about 2,700 acres of undeveloped land in Bella Vista from Rogers-based Cooper Communities. Development plans have yet to be set but are expected to build on the region’s burgeoning cycling and mountain biking infrastructure.

Walton cited other investments expected to have a big impact on Bentonville: the new Walmart Home Office, Alice Walton’s Heartland Whole Health Institute and a medical school likely to receive accreditation this year. He said the school will bring in more than 100 doctors to teach. He added that his aunt Alice Walton also has a hospital in the works.

“That’s just going to be an enormous tailwind for the community, for the economy and for Bentonville’s prospects going forward,” he said. “I think tripling down on the cycling, the outdoor recreation continues to build on that idea of making it a great place to live but also a great place to visit.”

Walton also discussed the airplane manufacturing business he started in 2013 that’s based in Bentonville. Game Composites, located at Bentonville Municipal Airport, makes the GB1 GameBird aerobatic airplane. The company builds one airplane biweekly.

“We’re currently designing our second aircraft right now, which is going to be a firefighter and crop duster,” Walton said.

Asked about what he looks for in entrepreneurs, Walton said someone who can overcome roadblocks and “get things done…They’re harder to find than you might imagine.” He explained the need to find a balance between making money and community. Those who only look to make money but lack purpose tend to struggle.

“For us the why has always been really clear,” Walton said. “Our why is all about making Bentonville a great place to live, great place to visit, an attractive place for people to move to that will underwrite, hopefully, the success of our region but also the success of Walmart.”