The Arkansas Business Best & Worst of 2008

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Dec. 22, 2008 12:00 am  

Worst Prognostication
For the second consecutive year, the worst prediction came from Page 1 of the year-end issue of Arkansas Business. The headline on the Dec. 24, 2007, issue read, "2008: Economy Should Improve by Year's End." No comment necessary. (The headline on the Dec. 25, 2006, issue: "Acxiom Transforms, Performs." As we said in 2007, it "seemed reasonable at the time.")

Best Museum-in-the-Making
That's easy: Crystal Bridges of American Art in Bentonville. And when it opens, whether in 2010 as scheduled or later, it will be the Best Museum in Arkansas, hands down. Arkansas has some fine museums, but Crystal Bridges – with the vast wealth of the Walton family, particularly Alice Walton, behind it – is poised to become the best museum of American art in the world. With works by John Singer Sargent, Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Eakins, an architecturally distinguished building and a beautiful natural setting, the museum is likely to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to northwest Arkansas annually and provide an unparalleled boost to the state's image.

Best Green Development
The year 2008 saw Arkansas becoming a force in the emerging wind-energy industry with windmill blade-maker LM Glasfiber's opening of two plants in Little Rock and the announcements that several other wind energy-related companies were locating in the state.

Best Comeback After a Betrayal
The Oxford American, based at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, gets that nod. The literary magazine's comeback: winning a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; releasing its 10th anniversary Southern Music Issue; publishing its first book, "The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing"; and finally figuring out how to meet deadlines. The means to these ends was the appointment of Warwick Sabin as publisher. The betrayal: An Oxford American employee who allegedly embezzled $104,000 from the magazine. Although the publication has a ways to go, its trajectory appears headed upward.

Worst Response Time
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services sent a letter to Arkansas Business in October asking if we still needed the public documents we requested under the Freedom of Information Act – in September 2004.

Worst Editorial Restraint
That was exercised by Roby Brock, the man behind the "Talk Business" TV show, Web site and quarterly magazine. After ArkansasBusiness.com reported that Hewlett-Packard Co. was coming to Conway, three days before what was supposed to be a surprise announcement, Brock wrote that he had known about the economic development coup in April but exercised "editorial restraint" because "advance reporting on the project could jeopardize one of the largest white-collar job announcements in state history." According to Brock's own reporting, HP had sealed the deal by June 6, meaning that our June 16 report didn't jeopardize anything.

Worst Argument Against Prison Delay
Frank Whitbeck tried to delay reporting to prison by saying he needed more time to pass along his management know-how to caretakers of his financially challenged Winrock Grass Farm. It was Whitbeck's questionable management skills that resulted in the financial insolvency of Signature Life Insurance of America and the bankruptcy of the grass farm.

Best Reward for Failing
Little Rock's Equity Media Holdings Corp. maintained its 10-year history of losing money before getting dragged toward bankruptcy court this year. Amazingly, insiders such as Greg Fess and Larry Morton have profited handsomely all along the way.

Worst Time to Be Home Alone
Aaron Jones, bound hand and foot with duct tape, emerged on a neighbor's doorstep with a wild story of surviving a murder attempt by gun-toting, fire-starting intruders during the wee hours of May 30. Federal investigators continue to examine the mysterious arson of his million-dollar manor in west Little Rock's Chenal Circle neighborhood.

Best Dispute to Unnerve City Hall
Battle lines have formed between one-time allies and civic boosters to support/oppose a proposed seven-story Aloft Hotel in Little Rock's River Market District. The planning commission and city board are the next two fields of combat that place City Hall in no-man's-land.

Best Affirmation of Real Estate Slowdown Residential
If Deltic Timber Corp. officials needed more convincing that the upscale housing market was slowing down in west Little Rock, they got it on Sept. 25. The opening of Accadia Court, with lot prices averaging about $90,000, attracted only one buyer. Not so long ago, most of the 32 lots in the Accadia Court neighborhood would have sold or gone under contract on the opening day.

Best Affirmation of Real Estate Slowdown Retail
On paper, about half the space in The Promenade at Chenal was leased as construction of the $64.5 million retail center in west Little Rock wound down in 2008. However, those deals haven't resulted in as many openings as expected at the 340,000-SF lifestyle center for RED Development of Kansas City, Mo. "It's no secret that a number of retailers have scaled back on the number of stores," said Ken Huge, general manager of the project.

Best Treasure Hunt
"Arkansas Sunset," a painting by Fayetteville native Jed Jackson, was located after a reader of ArkansasBusiness.com realized that a relative was the "prominent rice farmer" who owned the work that had been used as cover art for the Goo Goo Dolls' 1989 album, "Jed." The Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University in New York was seeking the painting for an exhibit of Jackson's work next spring.

Best Correspondence
Just when letter-writing seemed to have become a dead art, business journalists were treated to copious missives from the CEOs of New York investment funds Barington Capital Group and Clinton Group Inc., major investors in Dillard's Inc. Beginning in 2007 and accelerating in 2008, James A. Mitarotonda and George E. Hall wrote letters to CEO William Dillard II, to the entire Dillard's board of directors and to selected directors using language impossible to misunderstand.

"Atrocious" seemed to be a favorite adjective: "We are also concerned with the job the Board has done in overseeing the Company's corporate governance, which in our view is nothing short of atrocious," and "[T]he performance of the Company over the past ten years has been atrocious." Mitarotonda and Hall also like to use capital letters for emphasis: "[W]e therefore call upon you to work with the Board's Class A directors to IMMEDIATELY begin the process of looking for a new chief executive officer."

Best Correspondence (Runner-Up)
William Dillard II was also the intended recipient of the runner-up for best correspondence: a letter drafted for William Clark, CEO of CDI Contractors, by John Glasgow, the construction company's chief financial officer. The draft letter, completed on Jan. 25, expressed outrage over the treatment CDI managers received from James Freeman, CFO of Dillard's Inc., over what was later revealed to be an accounting disagreement.

"For Freeman to come down here and say we are dishonest, and for you [Dillard] to sit there and not say anything, hurt us to the core. We have never been so offended in our lives," Glasgow wrote for Clark.

It continued: "Now I'm concerned that our foundation is on shaky ground. I want to keep this partnership together and continue building on my dad's legacy, and I believe that is what he would want me to do. Will you please let me do that? If we can move forward, then I have a plan for how to do it. First, you have to call off the dogs."

Best Domain Name
That would be Vibrators.com. VibeSales, a Jonesboro distributor of "vibratory deburring" machines, sold the coveted Internet domain name to a Michigan company retailer of "adult novelty products" for a shakin' $1 million. PriveCo Inc. of Hazel Park, Mich., had been leasing the name from VibeSales since 2002. According to Crain's Detroit Business, Tom Nardone, founder of PriveCo, had balked at VibeSales' asking price but finally paid $200,000 upfront and financed the balance. Vibrators.com had been registered to Mickey Seeman of Jonesboro; VibeSales sells industrial vibrators used to smooth off rough edges on metal parts.

Best Whisper
It must have been the best because, of the 300 or so items that appeared in Arkansas Business' Whispers column in 2008, it was the only one that landed among the 10 most-read stories on ArkansasBusiness.com. It was, of course, the news that Noelle Nikpour of Little Rock had a new Web site: NoelleNikpour.com. The home page included a photo of the "international political consultant and strategist" in a midriff-baring bandeau top and very short Adidas shorts that she was yanking down low in the front. After the Whispers staff inquired about the site, the titillating photo quickly disappeared. Good thing we thought to save a copy of the original, which is still available at ArkansasBusiness.com/noelle.

Best Business to the Rescue
Telecommunications firm Optus Inc. of Jonesboro helped the only hospital on Galveston Island, Texas, stay online as long as possible during the ferocious winds and rain of Hurricane Ike. Many of the staff of the University of Texas Medical Branch missed the evacuation window because they stayed behind to help patients leave the day before the storm hit. And several Optus employees rode out the storm with the UTMB staffers, keeping communications up as long as possible and repairing them quickly after the storm swept through.

Worst Accounting
ANB Financial, the Bentonville bank that failed in May, first told the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. that it lost $59 million in 2007. Then that was revised to $81 million. Then it was revised to $120.4 million just days before federal regulators shut 'er down.

Best Confession
Brent Geels, former senior vice president of Twin City Bank in North Little Rock, waived indictment and in December told U.S. District Judge James M. Moody that federal prosecutors were right: He misappropriated more than $2.1 million of the bank's money over a period of more than seven years, spending more than $1.2 million of it on personal expenses.  

 

 

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