Arkansas Business' 25 for the Future (25th Anniversary)

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Mar. 23, 2009 12:00 am  

Cliff Beckham, President and CEO of USA Truck, Inc. of Van Buren

More than 25 people will shape Arkansas over the coming decades. It's hard to narrow down the names of those changers of the future. But that doesn't mean we can't try.

This list contains names of both established and lesser-known Arkansans who will likely make headlines in years to come. Of course, more are out there.

These, however, are likely to impact the state based on their family wealth and position, and others have just exhibited a spark of potential.

1. Eddie Armstrong
Eddie Armstrong of North Little Rock has no trouble dreaming big. At 30, he already has his name on a nonprofit, the Eddie Armstrong Scholarship Foundation. He also has a consulting firm, Armstrong & Davis, and lobbies and has lobbied the state government for several companies, including Tyson Foods Inc. and Alltel Arena.

Armstrong formerly was state government affairs manager for Tyson and monitored state legislative and regulatory issues for almost 20 states. Armstrong has said his goal is to become mayor of his hometown, North Little Rock. He was elected student government president at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, only the second African-American to hold the office.

2. Curtis Arnold
He began educating the public on credit cards in 1998. As a man formerly hobbled by credit card debt, Curtis Arnold knows what he's talking about. Almost every major media organization has used him a source on the matter.

The author of several books and proprietor of, Arnold educates people on how to benefit from credit cards without falling into personal debt. His site offers reports on credit cards and methods for rebuilding credit and getting out of debt. Too bad he doesn't counsel the banking industry.

3. Ben Beaumont
Only in his late 20s, Ben Beaumont already holds the title of communications director for both the University of Arkansas System and the Clinton School of Public Service.

He has handled such high-profile projects as coordinating the travel media's coverage of the Clinton Presidential Library while he worked for the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau. At the UA System, Beaumont successfully helped coordinate the statewide campaign for a $250 million higher education bond initiative in 2006.

Beaumont was named 2008 Community Big Brother of the Year by the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas.

4. Cliff Beckham
Clifton Beckham has a history of getting quick results. His career at USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren has seen him rise from a lowly accountant in 1994 to president and CEO in 2007. For fiscal 2007, the company posted a profit of only $140,000. In 2008, he put a 3 in front of that number: $3.140 million.

5. William Clark
In 1987, Bill Clark formed CDI Contractors LLC, a joint venture with Dillard's Inc. By 2008, CDI was among the state's largest contractors, and his son, William, was heading the operation.

Now it's William Clark's turn to start his own venture, Clark Contractors LLC of Little Rock. It'll be interesting to see if it also ranks among the state's largest contractors in a few years.

6. Jay Chesshir
Now the head of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, Jay Chesshir previously headed the Hot Springs Chamber. His economic development credentials are proven, with 2007, 2008 and 2009 each containing significant job creation announcements. Most recently, Caterpillar Inc. announced it would locate a 600-employee factory in North Little Rock.

Chesshir and crew have worked with many of the communities surrounding Little Rock to bring and develop business in central Arkansas.

7. Jay Cranford
Jay Cranford joined CJRW, the Little Rock ad agency founded by his father, Wayne, in 2007. He previously worked at Stone Ward, a competing Little Rock agency. At both, Cranford worked on campaigns for many national clients.

As creative director at Stone Ward, Cranford helped develop award-winning campaigns for Terminex and Meineke. Since joining CJRW, he has worked with many of the company's existing clients and is currently working with Pollo Campero, a fast-casual restaurant chain, to develop a presence in the United States.

Cranford recently was named senior vice president and creative director at CJRW.

8. Heather Larkin Eason
Heather Larkin Eason joined the Arkansas Community Foundation in 1998, after earning a law degree from the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Eason had planned on becoming a tax attorney – having previously worked at Ernst & Young LLP as a CPA, she had the background. An opportunity at the foundation presented itself, however, and Eason has not looked back. The Hendrix College Sports Hall of Honor inductee succeeded Pat Lile as the nonprofit's president and CEO in 2008. Eason now oversees the foundation's $1 million annual budget, $136 million in assets and 26 offices spread across the state.

9. Conner Eldridge
Originally, Conner Eldridge planned a law career, but he was pulled toward banking by his father-in-law, Ross Whipple, founder of Summit Bank of Arkadelphia. Eldridge became president in 2005 and joined the board in 2006.

Last year, he succeeded Whipple as CEO. It's hard to choose billable hours over running your own bank, particularly when it has nearly $1 billion in assets.

10. Jay Howard
Still under 30, Jay Howard of Rogers already has had a successful career. Howard founded and owns I.O. Metro, an import furniture store with 13 stores in seven states.

Before starting the company, Howard was a national sales manager for Jimco Lighting Co. He handled account management for Target Corp. and eventually was recruited by Lebanon Seaboard Corp. to Rogers, where he handled the Wal-Mart and Sam's Club accounts. The Lebanon account grew from $1.8 million to $5.2 million in just one year. The successes gave Howard a chance to open his own company in 2005 with the help of Bill and Helen Benton, who are equal partners with Howard.

11. Brad Lacy
The city of Conway has announced a series of achievements lately. And in most, Brad Lacy has played a central role. Lacy is president and CEO of both the Conway Development Corp. and Chamber of Commerce.

The recent announcement of Hewlett-Packard locating a $48 million facility in the town owes quite a bit to Lacy's work behind the scenes. Expect the string of announcements to continue for Conway and Lacy. And expect Lacy & Co. to roll out the dog-and-pony PR show every time another company moves to Conway.

12. Stephen I. LaFrance Jr.
At 13, Stephen LeFrance began his career in the warehouse of USA Drug, the Pine Bluff company founded by his father. LaFrance now holds the title of executive vice president and has worked on several big deals during his career.

In 1997 he assisted in the acquisition and integration into USA Drug of 87-store Super D Drugs Inc. He and his brother, Jason, also bought a five-store Missouri-based chain and operate the stores under the USA Drug name. The 2003-04 acquisition of May's Drug Stores Inc. and Med-X, with 61 stores between them, also bore his fingerprints.

13. Jeff Long
Perhaps not even the governor undergoes the scrutiny Jeff Long receives as director of athletics at the University of Arkansas. Hog-crazed Arkansans can get testy when a team underperforms, and Long is the man who has to fade the heat.

Long, who came from the University of Pittsburgh, took on the job of reshaping the athletic department after decades of rule under the legendary Frank Broyles. Already some of the old guard has been pushed aside. If the current coaches win, expect Long to have a long tenure. A few losing seasons – especially in football – and he'll be gone.

14. Dustin McDaniel
The Arkansas Attorney General's office tends to produce politicians that go on to larger roles. Former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Mike Beebe and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor all paid their dues in the post. Dustin McDaniel began his first term in the attorney general's office in 2007 and has progressed so far without a major hitch.

McDaniel spent time in the Arkansas House of Representatives before running for the statewide office. He has even helped negotiate an animal cruelty bill and banished payday lenders from the state since taking the job.

Gov. Beebe appears to hold a lock on a second term, but expect McDaniel to jockey for the position in 2014.

15. Greg Penner
He married into Wal-Mart's ruling family and The Wall Street Journal speculated that he's being groomed to replace his father-in-law, S. Robson Walton, as the company's chairman.

Penner has some chops of his own. The Stanford University grad has been a general partner at Madrone Capital Partners, a California investment management company, since 2005. He also served as senior vice president and chief financial officer for Wal-Mart's Japan operations.

16. Mark Pryor
He's the junior senator from Arkansas and fresh off a successful re-election campaign. In fact, no Democrat challenged him in the 2008 primary and no Republican stepped up for the general election.

Pryor has managed to land seats on the Appropriations, Commerce and Small Business & Entrepreneurship committees. His father, David, served three terms in the Senate, and Mark Pryor shows every intention of matching or surpassing that feat.

17. Blake Rutherford
In 2006, Blake Rutherford joined Stone Ward, a Little Rock advertising and public relations firm, as director of public communications. Rutherford oversees much of the company's public relations efforts and has worked with many national accounts.

A Little Rock native and son of Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, Rutherford worked for the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign and handled ticketing and political affairs for the 53rd Presidential Inaugural.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 2003, Rutherford joined the Wright Lindsey & Jennings law firm in 2003 and served as counsel to the Gen. Wesley Clark for President Campaign, the William J. Clinton Foundation and the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

18. Warwick Sabin
What hasn't Warwick Sabin done? The former director of development for the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, Sabin served as communications director for U.S. Rep. Marion Berry and was a speechwriter for an ambassador. As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a master's degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. He even paid his dues as a reporter for the Arkansas Times.

Sabin currently is associate vice president for communications at the University of Central Arkansas, which became one of the hardest jobs in the state during the flood of crises and scandals that began in mid-2008. He also took on the job of publisher of UCA's ailing Oxford American magazine, working through the financial crisis caused by an embezzlement by a now-former employee and taking four consecutive issues to press on time – for the first time in its history.

19. Todd Simmons
On Simmons Foods' Web page, Todd Simmons and his father, Mark, stand together. Mark stands in the foreground, and Todd is positioned slightly behind and above his father. The positioning is similar to the company's leadership structure. Mark Simmons is chairman and oversees the Siloam Springs company he has helped shape, while Todd Simmons is the newest generation of Simmonses to take the helm.

Todd has already made a name for himself. Mark Simmons vertically integrated the company after taking control and also initiated a series of acquisitions. Todd Simmons recently oversaw a deal to buy the broiler division of Peterson Farms of Decatur. Simmons Foods reported 2007 revenue of $652 million.

20. Susan F. "Susie" Smith
Susan F. "Susie" Smith began her career with Worthen Bank as an accountant. The graduate of Washington University at St. Louis became chief financial officer and then executive vice president after the bank had been acquired by Boatmen's Bank.

Smith moved to Metropolitan National Bank in 1997 as controller and quickly moved up the ladder at the Little Rock bank. She now holds the title of senior executive vice president and chief operating officer, overseeing many of the bank's divisions.

U.S. Banker  magazine named Smith among the Top 25 Women to Watch in 2007.

21. Warren Stephens
He has built a top-tier golf course, renovated a historic hotel, started the ball rolling on a new home for the Arkansas Travelers and runs investment bank Stephens Inc. in his spare time. He has put his own mark on the company founded by his uncle and father and continued the Stephens family's philanthropic tradition.

Because he's barely in his 50s, we expect to be watching Warren Stephens for many more years.

22. Witt Stephens Jr./Elizabeth Stephens Campbell
The brother and sister pair split with their cousin, Warren Stephens, and Stephens Inc. in 2006. The two formed Stephens Group LLC and have funded hundreds of millions of dollars in private equity ventures. During the first 12 months of operations alone, the firm exceeded $200 million in investments.

23. Robbie Wills
It took a couple of tries to win his first elected office, Faulkner County Justice of the Peace, but since then, state Rep. Robbie Wills, D-Conway, has been on a march upwards.

In his third, and last, term as a state representative, Wills has become a very visible Speaker of the House, writing frequently about the day's legislation on his blog.

What term-limited Wills will do next is unknown, though one issue during the current session will ensure he'll have an impact on the state for years to come. He gave himself the job of shepherding House legislation to establish the state lottery and to distribute the scholarship money it generates.

24. David Wood
After Claiborne Deming stepped down as Murphy Oil Corp.'s CEO, David Wood stepped into the role. Wood formerly was executive vice president of worldwide exploration and production operations. Wood, 51, is the first new head of the oil and gas company in 14 years.

25. Christina Yarnell
Although she is not overseeing the day-to-day operations at Yarnell's Ice Cream of Searcy, Christina Yarnell continues the tradition of keeping the company in the family.

Yarnell does not appear to be letting the ice cream melt on her watch. She has already played a role in developing new flavors, like Woo Pig Chewy, that have proven to be hits.

The company continues to innovate, and Christina Yarnell, executive vice president and treasurer, will continue to be a part of that. Sounds like a sweet deal.

(Click here to see all the stories in our anniversary edition. Or click here to flip through each page of the edition in this special free electronic version.) 



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