Arkansas Business' 25 Entrepreneurs & Innovators (25th Anniversary)

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

John A. McFarland, CEO of Baldor Electric Co. of Fort Smith.

Some invented a new product and some just knew how to capitalize on an opportunity. We hunted through our archives and found 25 people or entities – some household names in Arkansas and some you never heard of – who had ideas and ran with them. We've put them in alphabetical order, although that means that the most successful entrepreneur and innovator in Arkansas history – Sam Walton – is at the bottom.

The story of Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. of Springdale is not one of wild success, peppered as it is with plant fires, a patent dispute and a class-action lawsuit. But the Brooks family – Marjorie and her sons, Joe, Stephen and Douglas – deserve credit for a timely idea and a never-say-die approach to making it a reality. For the past 20 years, AERT has been combining recycled wood fiber and recycled polyethylene plastic to create a low-maintenance, insect-resistant building material that's now sold under the brand name Weyerhaeuser ChoiceDek.

2. Johnny Allison
John W. Allison made his name in the mobile home business as owner of Spirit Homes, which he formed in 1986 and sold for $9.8 million in 1995. "I made a lot of money buying repossessed mobile homes, and from there I started buying loans," he told Arkansas Business last year.

He entered banking with the help of Robert H. "Bunny" Adcock Jr.

The pair formed Home BancShares Inc. in 1998 along with several investors, with Allison serving as chairman and CEO and Adcock as vice chairman. The holding company grew, by acquisition and branching, to $2.6 billion in assets in six charters: First State Bank of Conway, Community Bank of Cabot, Twin City Bank of North Little Rock, Centennial Bank of Little Rock, Bank of Mountain View and Marine Bank of Marathon, Fla. Home BancShares went public in 2006, and Allison is collapsing the charters into a single bank called Centennial.

HBI's Florida assets took a hit in 2008, but Allison successfully avoided entanglement in the overbuilt northwest Arkansas market. He cashed out HBI's investment in Fayetteville-based Signature Bank of Arkansas in 2007. In 2004 he was already concerned that "someone's going to be the last person on the chain letter up there. ..."

Forgive a moment of self-indulgence. Arkansas is often one of the last places where trends land – the state didn't have a stand-alone Starbucks until 2003 – but in 2000, Arkansas Business Publishing Group launched and started delivering free daily business news by e-mail. The brainchild of Publisher Jeff Hankins, CIO Brent Birch and Internet Editor Lance Turner literally became a model for the rest of the country; ABPG's Flex360 Web design division has created the Web sites for other publishing companies from Los Angeles to Chicago to Florida.

4. Baldor Electric Co.
Baldor Electric Co. of Fort Smith paid $4 million for electricity in 1999, and CEO John A. McFarland was alarmed to see that figure projected at $7.5 million for 2000. The company, which manufactures energy-efficient motors, decided to get a handle on its own energy consumption. Baldor invested $1.5 million – most of it to replace overhead light fixtures – and adopted other aggressive energy-saving methods. The result was a reduction in electricity costs of more than $1 million a year and an innovative example of greening the bottom line. 

5. Jim Burton
In the early 1990s, Newport farmer Jim Burton started thinking that the new-fangled Global Positioning System could be used to automate one of the most mind-numbing, back-breaking chores in agriculture: soil sampling.

It took about 10 years just to get his AutoProbe into prototype, and then it took five more years (and the help of University of Arkansas business students, who won the 2006 Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup business plan competition) to work out a way to commercialize the invention.

Whether AgRobotics LLC's AutoProbe actually revolutionizes soil testing for the agriculture industry remains to be seen, but last year it was named one of the Top 10 New Products at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif.

6. S. Gene Cauley
Gene Cauley could be considered the godfather of class-action litigation in Arkansas. The Little Rock lawyer entered the local public spotlight when he sued two Arkansas companies, Beverly Enterprises Inc. of Fort Smith on Oct. 8, 1998, and StaffMark Inc. on March 12, 1999. More in-state suits focusing on alleged securities violations would join scores of others filed around the nation.



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