Everywhere one looks throughout the stylish Little Rock headquarters of Arkansas Capital Corporation, the eras collide.
In the foyer hangs a massive wooden plaque studded with brass plates denoting the group’s leadership through the years while, over here, a framed document bears the names of the founding overseers. The names enshrined here, a who’s who of Arkansas business legends, are punctuated by corporate titans of a category all their own including Rockefeller, Tyson and Stephens.
A short stride from yesterday brings you into the boardroom and out onto a balcony where you are met with the sights and sounds of tomorrow, as construction workers hammer and clank at street level underneath the resident buildings of a new and gleaming downtown. Here, at bird’s-eye level, the view is as spectacular as the vision the 65-year-old ACC has executed, investing and enabling companies down the block and across the state to build their own futures.
Framed by this backdrop, Sam Walls III, the newly named CEO of Arkansas Capital Corporation, leans back in a chair and ponders his road to this moment. Twenty years ago, Walls, educated at SMU and UA Little Rock’s Bowen School of Law, was just another corporate attorney with a sharp suit, a sharper office suite and a deficit of purpose in what he was doing. Ever since then, after jumping into the corporation’s work with both feet in 2003, he’s spent decades working in the noble pursuit of providing services and connecting resources to help startups gain momentum.
Now, after six years as president and COO, the rudder is entirely his to keep the organization relevant through changing times and shifting economics. It’s a mission, once again, that’s informed by the commingled wisdom of the ages and the echoes that form his brand of leadership.
“During my Catholic High years, [Principal] Father George Tribou always said, ‘Bad things happen because good people allow it.’ That’s always stuck with me,” Walls said. “My dad, he had a bunch, too. The one that jumps out more than any is, ‘Activity begets activity.’ That is, even doing the little things, you get momentum. And conversely, if you don’t have it, the inertia won’t be there.”
“Me, I use a lot of analogies. Movies and sports, I beat people to death with ‘em. You know, ‘Go hit some homers,’ ‘Let’s play some small ball,’ ‘Let’s get some singles in there.’”
“There’s one I adopted right around COVID. They’re tired of me saying it around here, but it’s a Sun Tzu quote: ‘In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.’ So even when COVID was going on, it was like, here is our chaos moment, let’s find the opportunity. Where can we be relevant, have an impact and do so in a financially reasonable manner?
“That’s the key word, relevance. Our just-retired CEO, Rush Deacon, said it a lot. ‘How are we competitive? How are we relevant?’ That’s an evolving process with what’s going on in the world. Where are those gaps? Can we help address those gaps? I think within the culture of the company, we have to constantly be reassessing what our role is in this crazy world, and how we can best address it.”
Arkansas Capital Corporation was born out of this transformative species of thought. In 1957, a group of influential businessmen and representatives of the state’s utilities came together for the simple yet monumental purpose of creating a means for supporting business growth and development. While that sounds relatively innocuous in 2022, what the men were proposing was far more complicated in 1957, as what they actually envisioned was a financing mechanism to shift the state’s very economic backbone from an agriculture-based system to one based on industry.
The firm that resulted from those talks — originally the First Arkansas Development Finance Corporation (FADFC) — has grown and diversified considerably. But Arkansas Capital still comes down to the brass tacks of helping connect new and existing businesses with funding through partnerships with commercial banks, small businesses and others from the private and public sectors to maximize its lending and project finance products.
Over its history, the organization has educated thousands and made hundreds of loans, representing projects of well over $500 million. As well, it has deployed through its project financing partners more than $2.34 billion in capital to small businesses and economic development projects.
And still, every so often, the same nagging question keeps voicing itself among leadership, “How can we do it better?”
“You know that old country song line, ‘I was country before country was cool?’ Well, I would say we were talking entrepreneurship before entrepreneurship was cool,” Walls said. “Anyone that’s been around for the last 20-some odd years would say the same thing.”
Being early to lead the conversation gave ACC plenty of new ground to plow. Walls remembers when the board handed him and colleague, Les Lane, the task of helping grow the group’s impact outside the financing arena in a way that made sense and delivered results.
“We were effectively given the mandate of, ‘Look guys, there’s lending, but what can you do on the other side of the spectrum, whether it’s project financing or promoting entrepreneurship, from the educational side?’” Walls said. “We were given a lot of latitude in these boxes.
“Les and I were able to do some things on promoting entrepreneurship and on tax credits that really grew and developed that side of the business. And, as those things evolved and became stronger and stronger pieces of the overall ACC company, it brought with them other opportunities.”
But among the wins — from business plan competitions that today start as early as fifth grade and continue through college to establishing the affiliate Pine State Regional Center, which in 2014 became the lone Arkansas-based EB-5 Immigrant Investment Program — there were notable misses.
The firm has always been a bit hesitant to tout its successes or even the breadth of its program offerings, hampering its name recognition and effectiveness. Hand in hand with that has been a lagging on matters that push diversity into the marketplace, both things Walls plans to accelerate in the coming years.
“I would admit that our role up until maybe four years ago had been more passive,” he said. “By that I mean, we were here and if you were an underserved group — whether that was women, Latino, African American — and you were having trouble, someone eventually would say, ‘You ought to go talk to ACC.’ And then we’d work really hard to figure out your issue.
“Today, you look at the world and some of the things that are going on — Black Lives Matter, George Floyd and all that — and you have to consider what long-term systemic issues are out there. We began to ask the question, ‘What are we really doing proactively to address those issues?’ The hard answer for us was, we haven’t been as proactive as we ought to be. If you and I were talking five years from now, I would want to be able to point to more ways in which we were impactful in those particular areas.”
Managing the future of Arkansas entrepreneurship is a complicated process but to Walls, the fundamental issues boil down to some very simple lessons learned from his father, C. Sam Walls Jr., an entrepreneur who would serve ACC for 24 years before retiring as its CEO in 2013.
“My parents were entrepreneurs. They ran a hardware store,” Walls said. “I grew up watching the struggles that small business owners have. I was very attentive in the back seat of the car and listened as they discussed those things. And it’s those things that made my dad very good at what he did and really made him the right person at the right time in the history of this company.
“Today, we’re facing struggles and asking the same questions, about broadband, about workforce training and about capital. The state has really stepped up its game in the past 10 years surrounding some of that, but we have to keep asking, ‘Where could we do more?’
“I think the long play is still what we’re doing in education, and unfortunately, that is something that you just don’t fix overnight. But at least we’re discussing it, which is a great start. As a state, I think we’re going in a good direction.”