Third generation leaders from families who built top businesses in Arkansas shared how they see the future of the state at a Rotary Club of Little Rock meeting at the Clinton Center on Tuesday.
The three executives took part in a panel on emerging leadership moderated by WEHCO Media Inc. Publisher Eliza Hussman Gaines, a fourth generation newspaper publisher from the Hussman family. The media company publishes 11 daily newspapers, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and eight weekly newspapers, in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
The leaders imparted different visions for how Arkansas could be a better place to live and work.
Steuart Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, is co-founder of Runway Group holding company, which invests in real estate, hospitality and other Northwest Arkansas businesses and is founder and chairman of Game Composites, LLC., which designs and builds small composite aircraft.
Walton detailed how investments in hospitality and retail have shaped and developed northwest Arkansas; he said it will be important to make Arkansas an attractive place to live and visit.
Walton also emphasized the importance of investing in education, arts and culture.
"What I see here is an opportunity for Arkansas, and across the state, to really lead the conversation about economic development and educational improvement and attainment, bringing arts into the heartland and bringing arts into communities," Walton said.
"Arkansas really has a chance to lead the heartland and to show a way forward as to how to prosper," he said. "I think we have a tremendous opportunity to be leaders in this way."
Walton is on the board of directors of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Walton said it will be important for business leaders to work together to make improvements and build Arkansas into a better place to live and work.
"I think one of the biggest risks in Arkansas is that everybody can kind of put their blinders on, focusing on their business or their town or their county and forgets that we're all in this together," Walton said.
Walton said he invested in building trails around Pinnacle Mountain as a tourism tool to make Arkansas' natural elements more accessible to visitors.
Walton said there are 66 million people who live within a day's drive of Arkansas.
"When you think about the populations of people that could drive to our state within a day and you think about what's going to attract them here and combine that with the idea that the Ozarks and the Ouachitas are the most isolated mountain ranges in the United States, between the northeast and the southwest, you've got a lot of flat land before you hit another hill," Walton said.
"So you've got an outdoor recreation opportunity of a lifetime right here in the state that can be leveraged to drive our economy."
John Stephens, senior vice president and member of the mergers and acquisitions group for Stephens Inc., one of the largest privately owned investment banks in the U.S., noted a few priorities that could transform Arkansas: creating employment opportunities and investing in healthcare, tourism and education. Stephens also mentioned efforts by members of the Stephens family to support charter schools in Arkansas.
Stephens Capital Partners acquired Highmark School Development, a facilities solutions provider for charter schools, in 2008. Stephens Capital Partners is the private equity investment arm of Stephens Inc.
Stephens added it will be important to capitalize "on the natural beauty of the state" via tourism and to create opportunities for residents and visitors to participate in activities like hunting, hiking, camping and more.
Annemarie Dillard Jazic is vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing for Dillard's Inc. and has over two decades of retail and marketing experience.
Jazic utilized her background with marketing as a committee member on former Gov. Asa Hutchinson's Economic Recovery Task Force during the pandemic.
"It was very sad to me when I lived in California, to hear Arkansas being called a flyover state, which meant no one went here, no one stopped," Jazic said.
"I just think that it's so tragic for [people] to live a lifetime in the United States of America and not see this great state and the great things that we have to offer so I ended up being an unofficial marketer."
Walton also participated on the task force and was appointed chairman in 2020, leading efforts to reopen businesses as part of the state's pandemic crisis response.
Arkansas now has the youngest governor in the country -- Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders -- and Gaines noted this marks the ushering in of younger leaders in business and politics in Arkansas; Jazic said new leaders can take valuable lessons from previous generations.
"These hundred year old companies, there's value in that experience and in that pragmatism that got these companies where they are," Jazic said.
"So I think the key for us, we have to partner with the generation before us and take with us their pragmatism, their thoughtfulness, their ingenuity, their work ethic, their determination and then layer on top of that our new ideas and our enthusiasm."