Arkansas has a diverse economy, with companies across a variety of sectors experiencing growth and success. Business leaders are often the best advocates for the state and its business-friendly culture. Clint O’Neal, Executive Vice President of Global Business for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, wants everyone to hear what these executives are saying. In his role, O’Neal leads the marketing and sales teams at AEDC where he is working to deliver a strong message that Arkansas is among the top places in the world to do business. In this interview, he discusses Arkansas’ approach to telling the story of why the Natural State is poised for success.
What do you say to companies that are evaluating Arkansas as a potential business location?
CLINT O’NEAL: Our message is simple: listen to the business leaders who have found success here. Stephens Inc. CEO Warren Stephens tells business owners, “You can feel the heartbeat of the country” in Arkansas. Ron Cohen, CEO of Sig Sauer, says, “Business is personal,” and that his personal relationships with leaders in Arkansas, including Governor Asa Hutchinson, made the difference in his decision to create jobs here. Companies here find that it’s easy to work with state and local government, and they are embraced by our citizens who are ready to go to work. Investing in Arkansas has meant long-term growth and success for many companies throughout the state.
Jessica Breaux, Manager of Economic Development for Amazon, told me in a podcast interview how excited the company is about its recent expansions into Arkansas and noted the state’s great support system. She said, “It always helps when Arkansans want to see Amazon be successful.”
Our team at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission fights for every available opportunity to influence location decisions. But our pitch is not to listen as I tell you how great Arkansas is. Instead, we encourage business leaders to listen to their peers. We tell the stories of how entrepreneurs have started companies and taken them to the Fortune 500 list, and we show that the same environment exists for today’s entrepreneurs to do the same.
What’s the strategy behind AEDC’s “Make Your Move” marketing campaign?
O’NEAL: AEDC, in partnership with Entergy, the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, and Oklahoma Gas & Electric, recently launched a digital marketing campaign called “Make Your Move.” Our message to business leaders is clear: If you’ve reached your breaking point of frustration due to the heavy-handed mandates that state and local governments are placing on your business in your state, then we invite you to “make your move” to Arkansas. We believe this campaign will resonate with business owners and executives. As some states proclaim which businesses are essential and which are non-essential, we’ve declared that Arkansas has one category of business: essential.
The success of even the best advertising depends on the quality of the product, and our product, the state of Arkansas, is easy to sell. When it comes to cost of doing business and cost of living, Arkansas is consistently among the nation’s lowest in both categories. Safe, outdoor activities are in abundance here, including beautiful lakes, scenic rivers, and award-winning trails for hiking, biking, and stunning views. But there’s another quality of Arkansas that’s especially appealing right now: we welcome, support, and value business. Arkansas is one of only a few states that never issued a shelter-in-place mandate. We have helped our businesses find innovative ways to continue serving customers while keeping employees safe and on the payroll. To be fair, like businesses all over the world, plenty of Arkansas companies have struggled this year. But our unemployment rate has remained well below the national average because a higher percentage of our population continues to be employed. That means our diverse economy has weathered the economic storm better than most.
Many states claim to be “pro-business,” but in Arkansas, we walk the walk. Governor Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission actively work to recruit businesses to Arkansas, and when a company decides to expand here, we make them feel welcome. Even during the pandemic, businesses have come to Arkansas. Several companies recently announced expansions in the state, creating thousands of new jobs across a variety of sectors, including supply chain, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing. These companies have found the spirit of collaboration in Arkansas between the public and private sectors to be beneficial, and we’re confident that many other companies are searching for a home where they, too, are valued as successful businesses and job creators.
What is AEDC doing to build excitement and awareness about economic opportunity in Arkansas during a pandemic?
O’NEAL: While we rely on marketing campaigns to help keep Arkansas on the radar screens of prospective companies and site selection consultants, we also make it a priority to foster relationships within our communities and among influencers around the state to help share the excitement about company expansions and job growth. We stay engaged with key contacts through our “Arkansas Inc” monthly email newsletter and our four industry-specific newsletters. Through social media, AEDC makes a habit of celebrating wins in communities across the state. A recent example is an expansion announcement from Emerson in Ash Flat, Arkansas. Ash Flat is a small town with a lot of pride in its community. Our social media posts about the announcement were shared over 330 times. It speaks to Arkansas’ culture; we tend to help and advocate for one other.
How do you ensure that AEDC is able to compete with economic development organizations in other, larger states with more staff and bigger budgets?
O’NEAL: At AEDC, we strive to be lean and nimble, and we’re able to adapt more quickly. Last year, we made an important organizational change and brought our business development and marketing teams together within the Global Business division at AEDC. This move has enabled those two groups to work more closely together, and since making that change, Business Development and Marketing are doing some new and innovative things, like creating personalized landing page experiences for prospective businesses that showcase Arkansas and give the prospect a one-stop shop for documents, site information, and key data points. As we reach and engage new business contacts through digital marketing, our business development team is immediately brought into the loop. The content that we produce for our website, emails, blogs, podcasts, and brochures is being updated with direct input from our business development team to ensure that we are sharing the type of information and updates that matter to C-Level executives and site selection consultants. This organization change has made AEDC more competitive.