Best and Worst of 2006

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Dec. 25, 2006 12:00 am  

Best Tax News
The state of Arkansas projects an $843 million budget surplus by the time the current fiscal year ends on June 30. Of course, there are also 843 million ideas on how to spend it.
Worst Flashback
The defense was swarming and the pace was often frenetic as the basketball team went on an 18-5 scoring run to essentially put the game away midway through the first half. Unfortunately, it was Arkansas on the receiving end of a Nov. 30 butt-kicking, courtesy of a Mizzou squad led by former UA assistant coach and Nolan Richardson disciple Mike Anderson. Final score: Hawgball 86, Razorbacks 64.
Best Time to Retire
Barry Travis announced his retirement as head of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau two years ago. However, he didn't leave the agency he had led for more than 25 years until February. Before 2006 was gone, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dug into the LRCVB, discovering problems aplenty with its inner workings and a system of fiscal accounting that only a drunken conventioneer could appreciate.
Best Display of 'Woe Is Me'
Last week Mary Beth Ringgold, beleaguered chairman of the beleaguered Little Rock Advertising & Promotions Commission, vividly demonstrated the obliviousness to appearances that helped make her the subject of a groundbreaking series of critical articles in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "If you can imagine what it is to wake up on Sunday morning, you have got 20 of your family members coming to lunch, and you are above the fold in a place typically reserved for terrorists and cars that have been bombed, it's very unsettling," Ringgold said. The articles detailed questionable spending of public money by the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, which the A&P Commission is supposed to oversee. Among the newspaper's findings: lots of business done with Ringgold's restaurants and staff expenses that included a $115 bottle of Duckhorn merlot. The A&P Commission voted to keep Ringgold on as chair. No word on whether her Sunday lunch included $115 bottles of wine.
Best Reassurance
Todd Fugitt, geology supervisor at the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, told Arkansas Business in October that "we've seen interest from the parties involved" and "the wheels are in motion" when it comes to protecting the state's water from contamination by the water-intensive process of extracting natural gas from the rock of the Fayetteville Shale Play. We'll see.
Best Compromise
ValueAct Capital agreed not to try to fire Acxiom Corp. Company Leader Charles Morgan. Acxiom promised to let ValueAct Managing Partner Jeffrey Ubben on the board of directors. It's amazing how four straight quarters of solid earnings will take the wind out of a hostile takeover attempt.
Best News for Doctors
Medical malpractice insurance premiums remained stable in 2006 for the first time since 1999. Whether the credit goes to tort reforms adopted by the state Legislature in 2003 is a matter of opinion.
Best News for Employers
Mercy Health System of St. Louis introduced its health insurance program, Mercy Health Plans, in Arkansas this year, adding a bit more competition in the group insurance market that has been dominated by Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield.
Best News for Patients I
Alternately known as the Best PR Move. In 2006, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville unrolled its $4 generic prescription plan, which now covers more than 2,500 stores in nearly 30 states. The plan has been a hit with patients, not so much with competitors who complain that the time involved in filling a prescription costs more than four bucks. During the first two weeks of the plan in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, Wal-Mart filled 36,000 new prescriptions, four times the normal amount. On Oct. 19, Wal-Mart expanded the program to 14 additional states and filled more than 152,000 new prescriptions during the first four days.
Best News for Patients II
Washington-watchers agree that the issue of comprehensive health care insurance reform, a political hot potato since Hillary Clinton's recommendations were pounded in 1994, will re-emerge sooner rather than later.
Best Hospital News, Again
Health Management Associates Inc. of Naples, Fla., announced in July that it would sell Southwest Regional Medical Center in Little Rock and Summit Medical Center in Van Buren — news that was duly reported by Arkansas Business and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But in October, when Arkansas Business reported more details on the pending sale and buyer Shiloh Health Services' hopes of finding local investors, the Democrat-Gazette seemed to think the sale was fresh news. The statewide daily popped out a story headlined "Nevada firm to buy Southwest Regional, Van Buren hospital."
Worst Restaurant Review
Fans of Browning's in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock let Arkansas Business know that they didn't appreciate our first "one-waiter" rating. Our reviewer concluded that the landmark Mexican restaurant "isn't trying," but the ringing of our phones assured us that the people who have frequented Browning's for a half century are very satisfied customers.
Worst Pot Calling Kettle
John Atwood, who pleaded guilty to stealing more than half a million dollars from his employers at Stephen L. LaFrance Holding Inc. of Pine Bluff — sometimes by writing unauthorized checks to his wife Lori's business — complained in an e-mail to friends that LaFrance was "unethical" and "unchristian" to add Lori as a defendant in its civil suit against Atwood.
Worst Web Site
Even the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog took notice of Little Rock lawyer Stephen "Gene" Cauley's "MySpace" page. Before the publicity prompted Cauley to shut it down, the page was populated with photos and artwork, the unifying theme of which seemed to be cleavage.
Best Document Leak
Best for Arkansas Business readers, that is. Someone sent us lengthy memos between Eric Hutchinson, CEO of the wealth management firm then called Hutchinson/Ifrah Financial Services, and the four directors who left en masse in January to form Ifrah Financial Services. The memos detailed the directors' concerns about Hutchinson's long association with convicted tax lawyer Keith Moser and his efforts to avoid state and federal income taxes by declaring residency first in Texas and then in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Best Tchotchke
Fashionable marketers are handing out logo-embossed spiral notebooks. The first we saw came out of Stone Ward a year ago, and the Arkansas Educational Television Network and Acxiom Corp. — and others, no doubt — have followed suit. Sure beats another coffee mug, but what about the trees?
Best Holdout
Pulaski Bank & Trust of Little Rock had been a rumored acquisition target so often and so long that business reporters had CEO Hunter East on speed-dial. But the East family's hesitation paid off when, in August, it announced the sale of the bank and its mortgage subsidiary to IberiaBank Corp. of Lafayette, La., for $130 million. That's 3.2 times book value and more than double the multiple that IberiaBank is paying for Pocahon-tas Bancorp of Jonesboro.
Worst Time for a Party I
Bryan Pitts, former president of his family's Beach Abstract business, pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud in federal court in March. But when a routine drug test by the U.S. Marshal's Office found cocaine in his system, he had to spend four days in the county jail and then come back to court to reaffirm his plea.
Worst Time for a Party II
Warren Overton of Little Rock was supposed to plead guilty to check kiting on a Monday in October, but the hearing was postponed a day when a Breathalyzer test found a trace of alcohol in his system. Overton, who went into rehab immediately after his plea, had agreed to abstain from any use of alcohol as a condition of his release on bond, but he admitted in court that he had been drinking the day before his plea was scheduled.
Worst Party
Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson's "victory party" on election night in November was memorable mainly because cheers for the ill-fated candidate were augmented by recorded applause blasted from the speaker system.
Best Servant-Leader
Don Pitts, chairman of United Holding Co., was seen shoveling icy sludge off the sidewalk at United Bank in Springdale.
Best Pension Plan
As it happens, some pensioners under the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System's Teacher Deferred Retire-ment Option Plan, or T-DROP, will end up with pension checks bigger than they received while they were working. And you thought those benefits were reserved for oil and pharmaceutical execs.
Worst Litigation
Ex-con Jim Bolt and his sidekick lawyer John Dodge are notoriously litigious. In addition to suing various public officials in northwest Arkansas and accusing Arkansas Business and North-west Arkansas Business Journal of libel, they sued state Securities Commissioner Michael Johnson for shutting down trading of penny stock in their company variously called Golf Entertainment and Sienna Broadcasting. But what they did in 2006 takes the cake. When they realized that their new company, Shimoda-Atlantic Inc. of Rogers, was the object of an FBI sting, Shimoda sued the FBI operatives and the National Association of Securities Dealers, which apparently cooperated with the sting by making the operatives look legitimate. NASD has been dismissed as a plaintiff. More importantly, Bolt, Dodge and associates Melvin Robinson (whose stay in an Oklahoma federal prison overlapped Bolt's in the mid-1990s) and Leroy Hoback are scheduled for trial in January on nine felony counts related to the sting. As if the whole story wasn't absurd enough, these guys claimed to have developed a promising treatment for cancer.
Best/Worst Hire
Depending on your point of view, Wal-Mart's hiring of marketing wave-maker Julie Roehm was either a desperately needed, savvy move or one heck of a bonehead play given the retailer's corporate culture. Despite the eventual outcome — Roehm leaving the company under a cloud of suspicion and Wal-Mart dismissing the ad agency she helped hire — we simply can't decide. The world's largest retailer certainly needs an image makeover, and Roehm, a marketing wunderkind for the auto industry, might have been the one to do it. But, really, you gotta wonder how a company that censors "racy" covers of Cosmopolitan ever thought it would get along with the woman who tried to get Chrysler to advertise during the "Lingerie Bowl."
Best Cutting of Losses
One thing about Wal-Mart: it knows when to cut its losses. And that's exactly what it did this year when it pulled out of South Korea and Germany, where its operations lost millions of dollars. While you certainly won't hear investors accusing Wal-Mart of "cut-and-run," many wonder whether the retailer has the chops to grow internationally, where its biggest success remains Britain's Asda chain.
Best Survival Instincts
Centennial Bank of Little Rock had to work hard to get regulatory approval to open in early 2005 and then promptly lost its CFO, the aforementioned John Atwood, to the criminal justice system. But, after ending 2005 with an $824,000 loss, the bank led by Christopher Roberts and John Olaimey turned the red ink to black and had net income of $436,000 in the first nine months of 2006.
Best Career Move
John Tyson, the former CEO of Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, abruptly vacated the Big Boy Chair in May, turning the ailing protein provider over to Richard Bond. While Tyson remains chairman, it's Bond who runs things day to day, dealing with a $200 million-plus internal cost-cutting program, a bigger rival in a recently merged poultry powerhouse Pilgrim's Pride/Gold Kist, the looming specter of immigration reform and the ever-present threat of avian flu and mad cow disease. Hey, it's nice to be the one who just runs the meetings. Plus, you're still eligible for that year-end bonus!
Best Gamble
Michael Garrett, president, COO and CFO of Cross Oil & Marketing Inc. of Smackover, staked his job on the idea that the company could grow by packaging its own refined products. The payoff? Revenue grew from $122 million in 2004 to a projected $225 million this year.
Worst Mano a Mano
Geez. Who to cheer for? In one corner, you have Comcast, fighting to preserve its obscene monopoly on what you See and Hear and Pay For on central Arkansas TV dials. In the other corner, you have the new AT&T, with its ubiquitous, inscrutable ads ("Blogging Delivered"?) and Oasis song jingle, attempting a weird end-run around said monopoly with its IPTV service. Will it work? Is it right? All that was just static to the Little Rock city board, which rallied around customer choice despite the fuzzy legalities of it all and the fact that, hey, they made the monopoly deal with Comcast in the first place.
Best Whiners/Worst Ruling
The utility regulators in Louisiana get our vote for best whiners. Now they're complaining that if Entergy Arkansas pulls out of Entergy Corp.'s cost-sharing pact in 2013, they'll have to pay more. Funny, we don't remember them offering to pay more and balance the costs when Arkansans had to pay more for Grand Gulf. It appears an end to the long subsidizing of rates in Lou-isiana by Arkansas has them worried.
The worst ruling? The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's plan to make Arkansas customers pay an estimated $284 million a year to equalize costs for Louisiana customers through 2013.
Best Assets
In their Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, Elijah T. Dunlap Jr. and his wife, Nancy, listed $4.2 million in debt and $312,084 in assets. Among the assets: a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Rogers worth $177,000 and an "old faithful Dog and one average cat" valued at $10.50.
Worst Investment
Investors in former Hot Springs resident Jeff Rand's Wave Energy Corp. learned from an Arkansas Securities Department cease-and-desist order that $2 million that was supposed to pay for a natural gas well in Texas actually bought Rand a $675,000 duck hunting club and paid for his horse racing and breeding operation. Rand, a son of disgraced North Little Rock theater owner W.A. "Tony" Rand, has relocated himself and his business to Houston.
Worst Use of Shelf Space
The Jamileh Kamran Store in Little Rock used some of its shelf space to sell counterfeit handbags. In June, owner Jamileh Kamran Afsordeh pleaded guilty to one felony count of trafficking in counterfeit goods and was sentenced to probation for a year and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and $2,470 in restitution. Afsordeh's brother, Jalil Kamran, owner of Rejuvenation Clinic & Day Spa in Little Rock, was charged with the same crime and received the same sentence upon his guilty plea.
Worst Lobbyist
The city of Monticello hired former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey's JD Consulting Co. of Pine Bluff to help secure funding for its sports complex. But Dickey put the request for $150,000 in funding in the wrong appropriations bill, and the city hasn't been able to draw the money down.
Worst Downtown Living
The city of Little Rock forced the management of the Block 2 apartments to clean up the mixed-use development building in downtown Little Rock. Tenants complained of rodent infestation, neglected trash pick-ups and broken lights.
Best Views
Hands down: the view of the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake from the $32.6 million Mount Magazine State Park Lodge that opened in May.
Best Intern
The NBA's 2002 Sixth Man of the Year, Corliss Williamson, took an unpaid internship at Irwin Partners LLC of Little Rock to learn the moves of real estate investing. Williamson, who is in his last year of a multimillion-dollar contract with the Sacramento Kings, said he planned to return to the company in the next off-season to pick up where he left off.
Best New Old Web Site soft launch-ed its new and improved Web site on May 1 to rave reviews. Users found the new Web site, which incorporated more than five years of experience with Internet delivery of daily news, easier to read. It was developed, of course, by our own Flex360 division, whose work last year on the Springfield (Mo.) Business Journal's Web site was honored as the best in the business news business by the Alliance of Area Business Publications.
Best Bus Ride
The Jonesboro Economical Transit Service launched the first bus service in the city in May and attracted more riders than expected. The new bus system, which had been in the works for years, had its first 1,000 riders in less than 20 days of operation.
Best Dam Year
2006, of course. Not only did the Big Dam Bridge open in Little Rock, but Fort Smith tripled its water supply with the completion of a $180 million, 196-foot-tall dam at Lake Fort Smith.



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