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.

In 1994, the year after he graduated from Vanderbilt Law School, Cauley read a Forbes profile of Bell Lerach, a premier practitioner of class-action securities law. Eleven years later, and still only 37, Cauley was among the National Law Journal's top 40 lawyers under age 40 for 2005.

Cauley diversified his courtroom spoils by investing in real estate and banking.

7. John A. Cooper Sr.
It all began with Cherokee Village.

John A. Cooper formed Cherokee Village Development Co. in 1954 with the intent of creating a planned community. The community proved successful with retirees, and in 1971, Cooper Communities Inc. was created to build similar communities. Arkansas now boasts three such: Cherokee Village, Bella Vista Village and Hot Springs Village.

Cooper was president and chairman until 1968, when his son, John A. Cooper Jr., took over. Cooper remained active in the company until 1998, and helped build it into an entity that boasted of $139.5 million in 2007 revenue.

Jack and Witt Stephens, of Little Rock's Stephens Inc., established the John A. Cooper Sr. Chair of Diplomatic History at the University of Arkansas in his honor.

8. Dennis C. Cossey
"We tell investors that this is no overnight, get-rich-quick investment," Dennis C. Cossey, CEO and chairman of ThermoEnergy Corp., said years ago.

Call him a dreamer, or perhaps a fool, but after more than 20 years of running a company that has never made a profit, it just may be his dream is about to come true.

The wastewater technology company, which has managed to live off various grants and private equity investments for 21 years, recently inked a deal to use ThermoEnergy's proprietary Ammonia Recovery Process technology at a New York City water pollution control plant.

Cossey helped start Innotek Corp. in Little Rock in 1988 and changed its name to ThermoEnergy Corp. in 1990.

9. George Gleason
George Gleason took over the Bank of Ozark in 1979 after working as a securities lawyer at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.

Gleason, just 24, bought a controlling interest in the bank, which had 28 employees and $28 million in total assets. He implemented a strategy of aggressive branching, renamed his baby Bank of the Ozarks and took it public in 1997. Today Bank of the Ozarks has 74 branches in four states and assets of $3.3 billion, making it second only to Arvest among Arkansas-chartered banks. It is routinely recognized as one of the most efficient banks in the country.

10. Heifer International
Heifer pioneered two fundraising techniques that helped it grow from a $7 million nonprofit in 1992 to a $132 million one in 2008. The methods? "Alternative giving" and an appealing Web site that allowed donors to give online.

Heifer seeks to alleviate hunger and help poor people become self-reliant through the gift of income- and food-producing animals such as cattle, pigs and ducks – even honeybees.

In the early '90s, Heifer started publishing a gift catalog that offered donors the opportunity to "buy" an animal for people in the countries where Heifer worked. "The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World" also allowed people to buy an animal in the name of a friend or loved one. Instead of getting Uncle Joe another ugly tie, you could buy a flock of chicks in his name, helping lift a family in the Philippines out of poverty.

In the fine print, Heifer did state that the gift went to serve the mission of the entire organization and would be used "where needed most." In other words, the money didn't necessarily send those chicks directly to that Filipino family. Most givers, however, understood that the gift was symbolic.

By '98, Heifer had a Web site,, which made donating even easier, and the money came rolling in. In 2005, the Association of Fundraising Professionals called it "the most successful online donation system in the nonprofit sector." The association gave Heifer its 2004 Award for Outstanding Achievement in Internet Fundraising.

11. Lu Hardin
Yes, yes, we know all that and we've covered it pretty thoroughly in our "Downfalls" list elsewhere in this issue. But the end of Lu Hardin's career as president of the University of Central Arkansas doesn't change the fact that he (and Little Rock ad man Ben Combs) harnessed the power of advertising to a product called a college education in a way that is remaking higher education in Arkansas.

As director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, Hardin recruited Razorbacks Football Coach Houston Nutt to appear in television ads encouraging students to apply for the state-sponsored Academic Challenge Scholarship. The instant and overwhelming success of that campaign persuaded Hardin to greatly expand the marketing budget at UCA when he arrived there as president in 2002. Enrollment exploded, forcing virtually every college and university in Arkansas to follow suit.  

12. Don Keathley
It's been 25 years since Don Keathley, an Arkansan raised in the antiques business in California, bought a wrecking yard beside U.S. Highway 65 in Van Buren County and opened Antique Warehouse.

"The old local fella I bought the land from laughed and laughed," Keathley told Arkansas Business. "In fact, he laughed up until he died about how I'd never make it. You know, some kid from California thinks he's going to come back home and sell European antiques up here in the middle of nowhere."

For the first-time visitor, building after building crammed full of antiques is a breathtaking experience. Keathley's business plan is almost as awe-inspiring since it has depended on careful tracking of foreign currency, increasingly efficient methods of packing and shipping and cultivation of the online market.

13. Danny Lattin
A team of University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences researchers, led by Danny Lattin, discovered that cetylpyridinium chloride is a highly effective biocide against salmonella on chicken. That discovery led to the creation of Cecure, for which UAMS received the patent in 1994, and to the incorporation of Safe Foods Corp. of North Little Rock to market Cecure to the food industry.

Curtis Coleman, president and CEO of Safe Foods, received good news in 2004 when the Food & Drug Administration approved Cecure to spray on poultry. Safe Foods' food safety interventions now are used in more than 20 U.S. food processing companies and in meat and poultry companies around the world.

14. Haeng Ung Lee
His title, eternal grand master, referred to his prowess in the martial art of Taekwondo, which he began studying as a youth in Seoul, but H.U.Lee also proved to be master marketer.

Lee founded the American Taekwondo Association – a for-profit business despite its name – in Omaha, Neb., in 1969 and relocated its headquarters to Little Rock in 1977. By the time of his death in 2000, ATA was (and still is) the largest martial arts organization in the world. It currently claims more than 1,500 franchises and 350,000 students on five continents. 

15. Margo Low & Dorcas Prince
Why would a store in Brinkley, population 3,200, be the go-to place for brides-to-be from all over the South? The success of Low's Bridal & Formal can't be merely luck or location or timing.

In 1977, Margo Low ordered six wedding dresses to supplement the china registry for brides that her husband's Main Street drugstore offered. In the three decades since, Low's – now 25,000 SF and operated by Low's daughter, Dorcas Prince – has built its reputation on its vast selection, personal service and a firm belief in regional advertising.

16. Justin Roy Morris
In 2002, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville patented the Morris-Oldridge system of vineyard mechanization. The brainchild of Professor Justin Morris incorporates more than 40 different machines to enhance the productivity of a vineyard.

Total mechanization has been a concept in the making at the UA for more than 35 years. Studies show that vineyards using the Morris-Oldridge system can produce a more consistent annual crop without compromising the integrity of the fruit. Grape growers can save thousands of manhours once spent pruning, managing canopies and thinning fruit by hand.

17. Jimmy Moses
Jimmy Moses isn't the only booster with a vision for revitalizing downtown Little Rock through a combination of redeveloping old properties and building new ones. But his status grew to new heights during the past eight years with the construction of the seven-story Capital Commerce Center, 14-story First Security Center, 18-story 300 Third Tower and 20-story River Market Tower.

Each succeeding project featured a mix of more commercial and residential space that added to the Little Rock skyline. The new downtown buildings developed with partner Rett Tucker broaden a résumé of renovation projects with other partners that go back more than a quarter century.

18. Donald W. Reynolds
Donald W. Reynolds began what would become Donrey Media Group before World War II, when he bought the Okmulgee Daily Times in Oklahoma and the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. The company eventually encompassed more than 100 businesses in the newspaper, radio, television, cable and outdoor advertising industries.

On Reynolds' death in 1993, the Stephens Group Inc. of Little Rock bought Donrey, and it is now Stephens Media. The proceeds of the sale created the endowment for the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which, though located in Las Vegas, has provided funding for multiple projects at colleges and cities throughout Arkansas.

19. Reese Rowland
Reese Rowland, a partner in Polk Stanley Rowland Curzon Porter Architects Ltd., led the design of several of the most recognizable structures built in downtown Little Rock in the past decade, including the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce building and the headquarters of Acxiom Corp. and Heifer International.

Rowland's innovative work incorporates many curves, adding a sleek and modern look to the area. Rowland told Arkansas Business in 2003 that the curve of the Acxiom building allows it to maximize the use of natural light. Similar techniques appear in the Heifer building.

20. Mary Gay Shipley
How can an independent bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas, of all places, lure some of the nation's best-selling authors to give a talk or participate in a book signing?

Former schoolteacher Mary Gay Shipley opened what became That Bookstore in Blytheville on Main Street in the early '70s. Through a combination of hard work, a knack for knowing what people will like and energy, Shipley has built That Bookstore into a must-stop for readers – and for authors, including  John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

In 2008, the Associated Press travel editor listed That Bookstore among nine "destination" bookstores, putting it in the company of the legendary The Strand in New York.

 21. Scott Stevens
Scott Stevens learned about the pizza industry by making and delivering pizzas after school in Columbus, Ohio. He founded Pizza Pro Inc. in Jacksonville in 1985 and, in 1992, began franchising Pizza Pros for a fraction of the fees charged by Little Caesar's or Pizza Hut.

The company now claims more than 550 franchise locations in 19 states. Most of the Pizza Pro sites are in what the pizza industry called "non-traditional locations" from hospitals to bowling alleys.

22. Herman Udouj
After building and selling children's wagons in his family's garage, Herman Joseph Udouj positioned himself to profit from the baby boom that followed the return of veterans from World War II.

Udouj borrowed $5,000 to help build a $16,000 capital base and founded Riverside Furniture. The company built baby beds at its factory in Fort Smith. The company added bunk beds to its offerings and eventually a full line of wooden furniture.

In 1966, Udouj joined forces with Arkansas Best Freight Systems under the name of Arkansas Best Corp. Arkansas Best Corp. went public in 1966. Udouj passed the presidency on to his nephew, Richard Udouj, in the early 1970s.

About that time, Udouj and Al Nolte, a brother-in-law, invested in land southwest of Fort Smith. The land eventually became Fianna Hills Country Club, 25 subdivisions and adjoining commercial projects. Bradford & Udouj Realtors of Fort Smith was born. Udouj died in 1998 at 81.

Riverside, now a stand-alone private company, continues to make furniture in Fort Smith.

23. Ron Tyne
In the middle part of this decade, everyone and his dog seemed to be a homebuilder. Well, we all know how well that worked out. Ron Tyne, president of Rocket Properties of Little Rock, was building houses before it was cool and was incorporating green space and low-impact concepts into his subdivisions before those were cool, too.

His crowning achievement is the Woodlands Edge development in west Little Rock.

24 .Gus Vratsinas
Gus Vratsinas, son of a Greek immigrant, worked his way from project manager to president of Kelley-Nelson Construction Co. Then, in 1986, he started his own company, Vratsinas Construction Co. of Little Rock. He is now chairman of Arkansas' largest construction company, which reported 2007 revenue of $710 million.

Vratsinas, a trained civil engineer, earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he was named to the Engineering Hall of Fame.

25. Sam Walton
After years of running stores for other people, Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart in 1962 and laid the groundwork for what has become the world's dominant retail chain, usually – in terms of revenue – the world's largest company and the world's largest corporate employer.

Walton recognized that a niche existed for discount retailers, and he alone saw the potential of bringing big retail to small towns. By reducing prices and accepting lower margins, retailers could increase sales volume and profit. Along the way, Walton and his organization either invented or adopted methods for reducing overhead or increasing revenue. Wal-Mart was among the first to use UPC bar codes to track inventory, and in 1983, the company set up a private satellite system for tracking trucks, processing credit card transactions and transmitting sales information.

Wal-Mart has also used its market clout to force waste out the manufacturing process of its suppliers, a two-edged sword that has been called "The Wal-Mart Effect."

(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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