DriveSmart chooses Arkansas for call center

DriveSmart plans 200 jobs, $5M investment in Newport

Left to right: Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Clint O'Neal, Jackson County Judge Jeff Phillips, DriveSmart CEO Daniel Rodd, Newport Mayor Derrick Ratliffe, Newport Economic Development Commission Director of Economic Development Jon Chadwell, DriveSmart President of Sales Chris Doyle and NASCAR driver Kyle Weatherman pose Sunday after an announcement that the New Jersey company plans to open a facility set to employ around 200 workers in the northeast Arkansas city of around 8,000.

NEWPORT -- New Jersey Shore-based DriveSmart, which sells extended vehicle warranties directly to consumers and in coordination with hundreds of North American car dealerships, is planning to invest up to $5 million into a new call center in Newport, focusing on vehicle-service contracts.

"We are thrilled to welcome DriveSmart to Arkansas and are excited for their plan to add 200 new jobs to Newport," said Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement. "We're cutting taxes, improving schools and cracking down on crime to bring even more great companies like DriveSmart to the Natural State."

In an interview ahead of the Sunday announcement of its plans in northeast Arkansas, company President of Sales Chris Doyle described it as "an ancillary warranty company" that does refinancing and began operations in 2015.

"Every vehicle's different. The risk involved bases the price," he said, naming mileage among the actuarial factors considered. "The process is very similar in reference to enrollment, completion of the process and the fulfillment of the product."

The company's headquarters will remain in New Jersey, where 50 employees currently work, though some, including Doyle, are relocating to Newport. He said he wants to hire most of the 200 positions to be filled in the coming years locally, in departments such as sales, accounting, customer service, information technology, administration, software-development and marketing.

Doyle said his business struggled during New Jersey's period of covid-related building occupancy restrictions, employment declining from 250 to 50 during the pandemic.

"With the amount of space we had in the office, I wasn't able to keep 250 employees. Because to meet all of the strict guidelines that we had to meet, it was not possible to employ 250 people in the same location," he said. "To meet the guidelines, we had to downsize by four-fifths."

Doyle doesn't believe in work-from-home policies, even amid the company's post-pandemic continuance, saying, "I believe in building a culture, building an environment in which everyone succeeds together. So we are in-office. I'm more of the 'work-play-live' model, where I want you to work in the area, I want you to live in the area and I want you to play in the area."

"Who knows what the future holds?" he said. "If we ever get into a situation where states and local communities have to make a decision on if you're allowed to work or not, we wanted to come to a state that has a track record of allowing you to work as long as you did it responsibly."

Newport Mayor Derrick Ratliffe, in office since January, said the town has a good economic base: agriculture, which includes cannabis farming as well as soybeans, rice and cotton, alongside an aluminum foil factory owned by Swedish company Gränges, Northeast Ohio-based Shearer's Foods' corn chip factory and the Arkansas Department of Corrections' Grimes Unit. Southwest Steel Processing is headquartered and has a mill in Jackson County, too.

"This coming in, hiring 100 people off the bat and 100 down the road -- this is big for Newport. This is big for our community," Ratliffe said.

In an interview, Jon Chadwell with the Newport Economic Development Commission said the town's half-cent sales tax for economic development initiatives has paid significant dividends in its 20-odd years of existence. Newport voters recently approved its continuation for another decade with 72% of the vote.

"Our leadership is extremely strong: we all work together, we're all on the same team. City, county, school, college -- everybody's on the same page, everybody wants the same thing," Chadwell said. "Second, we have this half-cent sales tax, and we have invested it for 20 years, and it's making a difference."

"On top of that, you just look at the citizens of Newport," he said, as residents gathered on Sunday outside of the commission's 13,000-square-foot headquarters, which is to become DriveSmart's facility in around six months, pending the commission's receipt of a grant to ready the space. "They get excited about things like this."

NASCAR driver Kyle Weatherman, who has DriveSmart and Newport's logos on his car, signed autographs before the announcement, and DriveSmart accepted applications.