Startups, Manufacturers Want City to Invest in Workforce Development

Conway-area employers need talent, and the community should tell young people that they can snag high-paying jobs without a college degree, business owners and educators said during the Outlook Conway event on Tuesday. 

Hosted by the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, Outlook Conway featured four panels on minority business, education, manufacturing and startups. 

The "Beyond Startups" panelists were Chase Blackwell, owner and president of TriTechne Inc.; Austin Samuelson, owner of Tacos 4 Life Grill; Amy Denton, owner of Pediatrics Plus; and Rhea Lana Riner, president and CEO of Rhea Lana Inc. Mitch Bettis, president of Arkansas Business Publishing Group, served as moderator.

All four executives emphasized that they need talented workers — and not necessarily college graduates. All plan to remain in Conway. Pediatrics Plus is working with the chamber to find or build a more permanent headquarters. Denton joked that the company has leased all of the city's available space.

Denton said Pediatrics Plus focuses on getting the right person in the door the first time. Her company is part of a booming field, providing specialized health care services to special-needs children, including those with autism, which sees more cases diagnosed every day.

Riner said she expects to reach 100 Rhea Lana locations this year. The children's consignment business has grown quickly, but Riner said it still feels like a startup. While she cautioned others against instituting an inverted royalties model (in which a franchisor takes a lower percentage of a franchisee's profit as the franchisee becomes more profitable), she said the arrangement has worked well for Rhea Lana because she aims to be generous to women and their families. 

TriTechne provides inside and outside plant services to the telecommunications industry. Blackwell said his company is looking to expand, offering products and services to consumers.

Replacing the Retirees

Executives on the manufacturing panel echoed the message that employers need talented workers and that Conway must focus on workforce development.

The manufacturing panelists were Will Cone, vice president and general manager of Green Bay Packaging's Arkansas Kraft Division; Chris Boudrie, plant manager for Kimberly-Clark Corp.; and Steve Presley, vice president and general manager of Virco Manufacturing Corp. Charles Nabholz, chairman emeritus of Nabholz Construction Corp., moderated the panel.

The panelists agreed that their greatest need is talent for the next decade or so — talent that can hit the ground running and replace employees who are retiring.

Cone said that though Green Bay Packaging is a regional employer with employees who live in 11 counties, Conway is a hub for them, and many of its hires attended the University of Central Arkansas. He said the community has done well by supporting the education of its young people. 

Presley spoke about how Walmart's "Made in America" initiative, which seeks to source goods from American manufacturers, brought Virco back to doing business with the retail giant. Virco sold folding chairs to Walmart 20 years ago, he said, until Chinese manufacturers undercut them.

Presley said there are many layers and a lot to learn when doing business with Walmart but that the opportunity is worth it. The retailer now offering to sell Virco products on its website. Presley's advice for those seeking to follow the same path: "Run, and run fast."

Both Presley and Boudrie touted their companies' investment in technology.

Kimberly-Clark has tried to be on the cutting edge and is working to become a source-to-shelf business, Boudrie said. Presley said Virco spends half its capital on high-tech equipment that helps attract millennials to factory jobs.