by Mark Carter
In the fall of 1977, Olivia Farrell unwittingly took the first step on what would become a ceiling-shattering journey to the top of the print publication industry in Arkansas: She appeared on the cover of the nascent Arkansas Times, posed with a lit joint.
An inauspicious start perhaps for the retired Arkansas Business Publishing Group founder and media pioneer, but then again Farrell never was one for subtlety. She swears that Mary Jane was not deflowered that day in a Little Rock studio, despite former Times editor Bill Terry’s angst over the possibility of his magazine publishing a “high” cover. But a real joint was necessary (she says Terry insisted) for authenticity. The cover story that November, in typical Times counter-cultural fashion, was Little Rock’s wealthy marijuana “establishment.”
Farrell sat for the cover not because of her membership in any such clique — she wasn’t burning rope on the golf course with the city’s movers and shakers, after all. But serendipity was at work: She was neighbors with Times publisher Alan Leveritt.
“He asked me if I’d mind posing on the cover with a joint.”
She didn’t mind, and her serendipitous media journey was launched. Recognized numerous times for both her business and philanthropic prowess, Farrell is one of four 2020 inductees into the University of Arkansas Walton Business College’s Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. The Jacksonville native is the fifth woman to be inducted in the 21-year history of the hall, which now boasts 70 members.
Her name resides on the scrolls of the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame as well — she was inducted last year — and Rotary Club 99 named her its 2019 Business and Professional Leader of the Year. In 2012, Gov. Mike Beebe presented her with the Distinguished Citizen Award, and she’s been recognized nationally by the National Council of Women and even Good Housekeeping. Her service on local boards and work with local charities is substantial but includes the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas board (an organization she co-founded), the Arkansas Arts Center Board of Trustees, the Governor’s Task Force for Entrepreneurship in Education, the Community Advisory Board for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and work with the Arkansas Educational Television Network and Single Parent Scholarship Fund.
Not bad for a woman breaking into a man’s game as an ad rep, one who studied political science in school and had contemplated joining the Foreign Service before a controversial magazine cover diverted her path. Not long after that cover shot, Farrell claims Leveritt “tricked” her into joining the Times staff; soon she was working 80 hours a week, she says, but had fallen in love with the company’s vision to produce a quality magazine for Arkansas. Within a year, she had bought out one of three partners at the Arkansas Writers’ Project, which published the Times. She co-founded Arkansas Business as a Times’ supplement in 1984 and bought controlling interest in 1995, launching ABPG.
It never mattered that gender made Farrell unique in her field; she was determined to produce high-quality publications that showcased the best of Arkansas.
Farrell says that vision of producing a great Arkansas magazine truly motivated the Times staff. “We had dreams and ambition in terms of what we wanted to do. We wanted to produce great work, and that really compelled us.”
Farrell adopted that drive when she broke off with Arkansas Business. Under her leadership, ABPG grew from annual revenue of $100,000 to $8 million. Today, it has 72 employees and its flagship weekly tabloid headlines a portfolio of successful niche magazines and publications. ABPG is one of the state’s largest and most prominent independent media organizations.
Last year, she sold ABPG to Mitch Bettis, a former newspaper publisher with GateHouse Media who had served as ABPG’s president and publisher of Arkansas Business for several years. Bettis tells Arkansas Money & Politics that Farrell’s unique instincts helped her reach the pinnacle of her industry in Arkansas.
“Olivia is a tremendous business person. But what sets her apart as a leader is her deep compassion for people. She has poured her heart, energy, resources and time into helping other people be successful.”
For Farrell, helping others achieve success, especially women, has been as meaningful to her as shattering the glass ceiling that loomed over Arkansas print media for so long. And she considers her induction into the UA’s business hall a significant accolade.
“It’s especially meaningful being a woman,” she says. “It’s important for women to see other women achieving in business so they can envision themselves there. The path is easier now for a woman in general but when I started, there weren’t many women in this business.
“I was the only woman in the room for a long time. I didn’t look at it that way at the time but looking back, I can see that now.”
Farrell joins J.B. Hunt Transport co-founder Johnelle Hunt, Aromatique founder Patti Upton and Little Rock advertising magnate Millie Ward as the UA hall’s female representatives. Farrell sees her legacy more as hard-work-pays-off success story than as trailblazer. After all, hard work is non-binary, to borrow a contemporary phrase. And Farrell believes she often benefited from the competitive advantage afforded by her female perspective. But that point of view remains unique in many cases — Farrell notes that representation on corporate boards is roughly 75 percent male, still.
“There’s more emphasis now on women and minority candidates,” she says. “But companies have to be really conscious about diversity and willing to step outside the norm.”
Doing so worked for Farrell, who opened up positions of leadership for women within her organization. Of all ABPG’s products and accomplishments, she’s most proud of Arkansas Business’ Top 100 Women in Arkansas, an annual list of female business leaders introduced in 1995. Farrell was motivated to recognize them after hearing of a Little Rock executive who suggested there weren’t any qualified women to sit on corporate boards. The list led to the creation of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas and later to the annual Power of the Purse conference held annually in Little Rock.
“I learned so much during my years at ABPG from Olivia and the many women she put in leadership positions in the company,” says Natalie Ghidotti, CEO of public relations/communications firm Ghidotti and former ABPG special publications editor under Farrell. “I am proud to be one of several women who worked under her guidance who went on to open our own businesses in the state’s media and marketing industry. I know we are all grateful for the opportunities she created and the inspiration she provided us to be women business leaders in our own right.”
Farrell’s plenty proud of her work to help promote workplace equality and show other women that positions of leadership in business are attainable. But she gets emotional thinking back on the people she worked with who helped her build ABPG. Single mom to Max and Zoe, Farrell appreciated the struggles of young working parents and strived to make ABPG family (and pet) friendly.
“The best thing about my career is knowing that we built a really good company that represented a good place to work, produced good products and was a good corporate citizen,” she says. “My greatest source of achievement is providing good jobs to good people.”
Hard work pays off, Farrell insists. Life isn’t fair but in business, it can overcome obstacles.
“I’m really grateful to that girl who worked 80 hours a week,” she says.