The U.S. arm of a Czech Republic gun manufacturer has chosen Little Rock for its North American headquarters and its first U.S.-based production facility as part of a $90 million investment that is to employ nearly 600 people within six years.
Preliminary work on CZ-USA's 265,000-square-foot facility already has begun on a 73-acre site off Zeuber and Fletcher roads east of Interstate 30 on land owned by the Port of Little Rock.
The headquarters and factory will mean new jobs for assemblers, test firers, machine operators, packers and loaders, skilled laborers, warehouse workers, engineers and production supervisors who will be paid an average of $22 per hour, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during the announcement Tuesday.
Some hiring is expected to begin as soon as this fall with more hiring in the spring of 2020, according to a CZ-USA page on the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce's website.
Landing the project is "the result of everything that we have to offer in Arkansas -- from a skilled workforce to a business-friendly environment to our central location to the beauty of our great state," Hutchinson said at the news conference in the governor's conference room of the state Capitol.
Mike Preston, the executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said the CZ-USA project checks off several boxes on the type of industry state officials have tried to attract.
The project "and what it brings to the table" are unique, Preston said. "It's a targeted industry that we've sought and recruited. ... It represents foreign direct investment that've been going after for years now."
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. called CZ-USA's decision "the largest jobs announcement in many, many years" for the city.
CZ-USA will join a number of custom firearms-makers, air-gun suppliers and ammunition companies that already call Arkansas home.
In Fort Smith are Umarex USA and Walther Arms, both under the umbrella of Arnsberg, Germany-based PW Group. The parent company of Daisy Outdoor Products -- Gamo Outdoor USA -- moved its U.S. headquarters to Rogers a few years ago and expanded the facility there.
Custom gun-makers Wilson Combat and Nighthawk Custom call Berryville home.
Newington, N.H.-based Sig Sauer -- part of a worldwide group of firearms-makers, including J.P. Sauer and Sohn and Blaser, GmbH in Germany and Swiss Arms AG in Switzerland -- has its sole U.S. ammunition plant in Jacksonville. North Carolina-based Remington Arms operates a large ammunition plant in Lonoke.
CZ-USA's parent company, Ceska zbrojovka a.s. Uhersky Brod, has been in operation for 83 years. CZ-USA's line of weaponry -- from handguns to rifles and shotguns -- "are considered some of the highest quality firearms in defense, competition and sport shooting around the world," Hutchinson said.
The project, which was a year in the making, has several moving parts and involved incentives to help make the deal possible, to which Hutchinson, Scott and Pulaski County's County Judge Barry Hyde alluded in their remarks.
"All of the leadership and partnership in recruiting this world-class company has paid off for the people and the families that will be impacted positively by this investment," the governor said.
The city of Little Rock, Pulaski County and Hutchinson have committed $4.9 million to improve Zeuber Road to handle the increased traffic that the new facility will produce.
The city and county each have committed $500,000 toward the road with the balance being provided by the governor's action fund, said Jay Chesshir, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.
Port officials also have agreed to transfer the deed for the 75-acre industrial property to CZ-USA once the promised employment level is reached, Chesshir said.
Details about other incentives that helped draw the company to Arkansas will be released in time, Preston said.
The Little Rock Port Authority board of directors is to hold a special meeting at 7:45 a.m. Friday to formalize the agreement. The Little Rock city board of directors also must approve it.
Officials also credited J. Michael Mullis, a Memphis-based site location specialist retained by CZ-USA.
When CZ-USA wanted to look for a location in Missouri or Kansas, where it already has a distribution facility, Mullis recommended expanding the search to see what other states could offer, particularly states in the South. Mullis was familiar with the port property, having visited with other prospects.
Hutchinson said a "key moment" was a breakfast meeting he had with CZ-USA officials at the annual Shot Show, the largest firearms industry show in North America. This year's show was held Jan. 22-25 in Las Vegas.
"It was at that breakfast that we got things moving," the governor said. "We really saw eye to eye, and I think they understood then the interest that Arkansas had, the commitment we have, the relationship you can have with our state. From that meeting grew some very tense negotiations, competition and discussions.
"But through all of that and through many personal visits to our state, CZ-USA chose Arkansas."
The factory will be the company's second. Its only other factory is in the Czech Republic, said Bogdan Heczko, chairman of the board for CZ-USA and its vice president for growth.
"We are very excited today because this is a new, big chapter for our company," he said.
The company decided more than a year ago to establish production in the U.S. market, where Heczko said its firearms are "growing more and more popular." The company, which employs 2,000 people worldwide, exports its firearms to 90 countries.
"We decided that the most important market, the American market, deserved not only a distribution center but production," he said.
One visit to Little Rock was all it took.
"We were really astonished," Heczko said.
Company officials received what he said was a "warm welcome" from "a big team really dedicated in the process. We were really surprised. This visit changed our minds. We really started to feel we can accomplish the mission."
Arkansas has a similar ethos to his country, which Heczko said he hoped is reflected in the workforce.
"Producing a gun is like craftsmanship," he said. "You don't just punch a button on a machine. You put your heart into it."
The recruiting effort also received assists from Rajesh Chokhani, chief operating officer for operation of Welspun Tubular LLC in the Americas, and Antoine Ajarrista, general manager for the Little Rock operations of Dassault Falcon Jet, the French aircraft manufacturer.
Welspun makes pipes for the oil and gas industry. Its facility at the port employs an estimated 1,000 people. Dassault's completion center at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field finishes corporate jets to customer specifications.
Chokhani and Ajarrista helped ease concerns about the workforce and a foreign company basing operations in Arkansas, Chesshir said.
Heczko also singled out the Welspun and Dassault executives.
"They told us this friendship and this relationship is not only at the beginning," he said. "It will last for many, many years. I hope that is the case for the next 80 years like we've had 80 years in the Czech Republic."
It also doesn't hurt that Little Rock was home to Czech restaurants, Heczko said. "What's more important is they have Czech beer on tap."
Information for this article was contributed by John Magsam of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 04/24/2019