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The Old Normal (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

4 min read

Every spring for the past 20 years, I have had to finally turn loose of our annual list of the state’s 75 largest private companies. Arkansas Business produces one or more business-related lists almost every week, year in and year out, and while they all represent a measure of work and care, some are much harder than others. The list of private companies is always one of the hardest because we attempt to coax private information out of scores of companies from all over the state and a variety of industries, but it has always been important to me as a historic record of Arkansas’ business environment.

Most of the 75 companies that make the cutoff do share their top-line revenue numbers — the field by which we rank the list — and their employee counts.

But, alas, some do not. It turns out that my deadline is not necessarily a top priority for some of the executives running these large companies, and others simply treasure their perfect right to keep their private company financials private.

We could, of course, limit the list to those companies that choose to participate, and that’s the way we treat some industry-specific lists. But I can’t bring myself to publish a list of the state’s largest private companies that doesn’t include Stephens Inc. or the Lindsey Co., so every year we end up having to do some estimating. And I end up having to let the best we can do be good enough when press day rolls around.

All of this is normal. But this year has not been normal. In a way that is almost palpable, business executives seem to consider their 2019 results to be ancient artifacts. 2020 versus 2019 is less year-over-year and more era-over-era: the pre-COVID age versus everything after. And since I’m not at all sure any of us have a good grasp on how much our worlds will have been changed by the pandemic, I came to think of this week’s list as a final snapshot of the old normal that will be valuable when it comes time to document the new normal.

While the economy as a whole has taken a licking from the pandemic, some businesses are unambiguously benefiting from it. As you can see in my story, Harps Food Stores of Springdale saw its sales increase by more than 40% in March and April, when staying at home — and cooking there — suddenly became a necessity.

Kim Eskew, Harps’ CEO, thinks it will take a while for restaurants to fully recover. Whether that’s from the direct effect of the coronavirus on restaurant operations (mask requirements, social distancing, etc.) or from the frugality that comes with widespread unemployment, he thinks his company will continue to enjoy higher sales.

While entirely too many people have decided that they can ignore the existence of the coronavirus, businesses have not had that luxury. Watching companies — even my own — rethink and adjust and (in the immortal words of Tim Gunn) make it work has been an encouraging reminder that adaptability is the human superpower.

I’ve been thinking about “The Happiness Lab,” that podcast I keep recommending. In the second episode (“The Unhappy Millionaire”), host Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale, explains that this adaptability means that we adapt to both good fortune and misfortune.

“We are a remarkably adaptive animal,” said Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor Santos interviewed in that episode. “We have been born and bred to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and soldier on. When the going gets tough, we get going.”

Gilbert calls this ability to adapt and overcome the “psychological immune system,” which seems especially apt in 2020.

One of our company’s adaptations will come to fruition on July 22: a virtual celebration of this year’s 40 Under 40 honorees. While the honorees can be present for the social distance-compliant event, their friends and co-workers will be able to participate online through the Zoom meeting technology.

Will it replace the in-person luncheon forever? I hope not. But I’m super impressed with the creativity of Events Manager Tiffany Mattzela and her staff in conceiving and creating a new kind of event to fill the void.

If you can help me improve the list of private companies, or any of our lists, shoot me an email at the address below.

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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