Millie Ward: Communicating, With Gusto

From her fourth-story corner office in Stone Ward's downtown Little Rock headquarters, Millie Ward, who along with husband Larry Stone founded the creative agency, has a hawk's-eye view of the riverfront. To the west, the Statehouse Convention Center gleams. Due north is the old rail bridge-turned-pedestrian walkway, jutting across the Arkansas River to North Little Rock. To the east squats the River Market, and beyond, the Clinton Presidential Library & Museum.

Looking out the window reminds her now, nearly 18 years on, of the satellite trucks that colonized both sides of the river the night Bill Clinton won the presidency.

When Stone Ward moved to this building in 1984, the streetscape was nothing so lively. "There was a Greyhound bus station across the street," says Ward, the agency's president. "There was nothing down the street. I mean nothing. It was pretty scary."

But in part through the efforts of developers, city leaders and the Downtown Little Rock Partnership - on whose board Ward has served since the late '80s, pushing for the vision of the city as it now flourishes - the investments came, on the order of a billion dollars' worth, for the convention center, the libraries, the River Market, the businesses.

"It's just been an incredible journey," Ward says. "When I sit up here and look at everything around us, I just think, 'Man, this is great! How did this happen?'"

Like many of Millie Ward's projects, it was the result of many people pulling together. That's not to say the 54-year-old grandmother lacks for individual accolades. She was the first woman to serve as president of the multinational Advertising & Marketing International Network. The National Association of Women Business Owners in 1993 named her the Arkansas Woman Business Owner of the Year. But when asked about her favorite endeavors, Ward speaks only of the teamwork she and the employees at her 40-person firm bring together.

"She has this energy and this enthusiasm and this charisma that just draws people into to it," Stone says. "She's a consensus builder and yet she stands for what she believes in: 'We're going to do this the right way or we're not going to do it at all.'"

Her business allows Ward to contribute to a variety of groups; she and Stone recognized early in their careers the universal need for good communications. A former copy editor still given to shaping ad campaigns and brainstorming with employees, Ward attributes her cooperative knack to the fact that she loves her work. Her energy follows that joy.

Once she begins to pull, Ward enjoys seeing a project gather fingerprints.

"The best work this agency does," she says, "when you ask somebody, 'Whose idea was that?' oftentimes, they will not be able to tell you, because it was one idea that someone else put another idea on, and somebody else piled another one on top of that. When you're a place that's all about the idea, that's what you want it to be."

Today she's leveraging the resources of her firm to back, for one, Bridge2Rwanda, the humanitarian venture of former Stephens Inc. Vice President Dale Dawson, who seeks to help the African country by building schools and fostering enterprise. "Women are by and large the entrepreneurs" in Rwanda, Ward says. "So many men were killed in the genocide. It's a necessity."

Dawson and two other Bridge2Rwanda board members serve on Rwandan President Paul Kagame's advisory council for a development plan Kagame calls Vision 2020. Stone Ward overhauled and maintains for the group.

Ward serves on the Bridge2Rwanda's board, as well as those of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership and the Women's Foundation of Arkansas, an advocacy group for educating and creating opportunities for women and girls in the state, and of which Ward was among the founders. She and Stone also support the Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranches, which house and support displaced children on five pastoral campuses in north and west Arkansas.

"It's not just what we do for them; it's what we get out of it," Ward says of the firm's pro bono work. "The fulfillment we get, the fulfillment our people get who work on it - those are all rewards. Then when you can look out there and see something that happened and go, 'Oh, we had a small part in that,' and experience the joy that comes with that. That's a cool thing, and it always has been to us."