Maybe Steuart Walton couldn’t help himself.
Walton, the grandson of the founder of Walmart Inc. of Bentonville, is a born-and-raised son of Bentonville. At Freightwaves’ The Future of Supply Chain conference earlier this month, Walton was scheduled to give a “fireside chat” with Cyrus Sigari, the co-founder of the investment firm UP Partners.
The fireside-less chat at the Rogers Convention Center was titled, Northwest Arkansas: Creating the Silicon Valley of Transportation and Logistics. It was part of Freightwaves’ two-day summit that brought together numerous vendors and companies in the transportation space.
Walton and Sigari did speak a bit about transportation and logistics, but Walton began by talking about his big plans for his hometown.
Walton said he hadn’t considered returning to small-town Bentonville after he left for college, but that had changed. He and his brother, Tom, began investing in real estate and that led to the eventual creation of the investment vehicle Runway Group.
“We started thinking about what Bentonville could be,” Steuart Walton said. “Our goal is to make northwest Arkansas and Bentonville in particular the best place to live in the United States.
“We really believe that investing in northwest Arkansas with the regional tailwinds that we have going for us here is going to work out pretty darn well. That is whether you are a tech company, whether you’re Walmart, whether you’re investing in property or whether you’re starting up new businesses as an entrepreneur.”
That led to a segue into the purpose of the chat. Earlier this year, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson named Sigari the chairman of the state’s Council of Future Mobility, which is tasked with helping the state figure out how to best support the transportation industry.
“There really isn’t a region in the world that moves more things than this region,” said Sigari, naming off companies such as Walmart, J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell, Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale and Dassault Falcon Jet of Little Rock. “If you take the average center mass of all the humans in the United States, it is almost right directly on top of Bentonville. It also speaks to the story of why Walmart was perhaps so successful; it was in this perfect nexus where you can get to the entire country with relative ease.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has directed people’s attention to the middle of the country, and northwest Arkansas is attempting to take advantage. The area has been rapidly growing; from 2010 to 2020, the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers Metropolitan Statistical Area grew by 24% to 546,725 people. Walton and other leaders want to maintain that momentum.
“We are going to have to keep doubling down on the successes that we have had, and we’re going to have to encourage that quality of life piece,” Walton said. “You want to attract people, not necessarily companies. Companies will follow the talent; companies will follow the people. We’re seeing that play out. I’d say we are in the first three innings of that beginning to happen here.
“COVID was this ‘aha’ moment for a lot of people in the country about the untapped potential between the coasts. There is so much going on that’s not on the coasts in this heartland. We want to be a beacon for how a town that for one reason or another probably shouldn’t be where it is today has a chance to be a real light for other towns, other regions, to say, ‘Hey, if they did, so can we.’”
Sigari said that is the driving force behind initiatives such as the Council on Future Mobility. He said consumers now want near-immediate access to the physical goods they want and transportation innovation is part of how companies will have to deliver on that.
Walton, who is a member of Walmart’s board of directors, said that Walmart’s real estate footprint is a “key strategic advantage” in that regard and that brick-and-mortar stores will continue to be important assets. Retail, he said, is still the buying, shipping and selling of goods.
“Even though there are dramatic changes going on in the buying and selling of goods, I think the most dramatic transformation is about what is going on in the moving of goods,” Walton said. “There are incredible innovations going on in how goods are being moved today. People think innovation is an app or sort of tech magic, but a lot of innovation is improving processes and looking at data in new ways.”