From One Election, To Another Election ... To Sports

Covering Georgia’s midterm elections this year was not for the faint of heart. They went on for a long …. long time.

I was up until 3am covering the first election night, and then up again two hours later to be interviewed live on NPR nationally at 6am.

The Governor’s race went on for about 10 days after that. One candidate declared himself the victor and proceeded with his transition while the other refused to formally concede, organized lawsuits and highlighted the many issues people had while voting.

There were recounts. There were (and are) many lawsuits. There were two runoffs just last week. One state house race had to be completely re-done, and is currently only separated by 2 votes (!).

Days after those runoffs, I made my sports coverage debut, writing about Atlanta’s new championship soccer team, Atlanta United. Check out that story here.

I wrote that story in advance of the team’s championship game Saturday, and then covered the game myself. It was quite the adventure, including time in the supporters’ section, getting whacked on the head by a fan flagpole, getting crushed in a sea of people in the locker room celebration after the game, and failing to keep the champagne sprays off my recorder. It was all worth it to see Atlantans ecstatic over the “broken curse.” Atlanta hadn’t seen a national sports championship since 1995.

I had a lot of fun putting together a “sound postcard” with the audio I gathered on that game night here.

Here’s a scene from inside the team’s tarped up locker room, featuring champagne and ski goggles.

And then yesterday, I wrote about the state high school football championship. A team from a hurricane-battered town in Southwest Georgia has been on a surprise winning streak since the storm.

But never fear. I’m going to be back on politics in the new year, covering Georgia’s General Assembly session from January.

In the meantime, a reminder that this is the best place to follow along! https://www.wabe.org/people/emma-hurt/

Here are some other stories I’ve been doing, too:

For Ga. Farmers Impacted By Hurricane Michael, The Road To Recovery Looms Large

Voter ID Laws May Disproportionately Affect Transgender Community

Lake Lanier Hosts Dragon Boat World Championships



Chick-fil-A, Politics and a Spaceport

My apologies for the long delay, but this summer has been busy. I'm still learning how to juggle it all. 

It feels like I've been reporting all over Georgia, from Dalton, Macon, Augusta to Kingsland, from breweries and a baseball stadium to the State Capitol and City Hall (many...many times).

I've recently been assigned to cover the elections here in Georgia, so that will probably consume my near future. However, I've managed to squeeze in a few non-political longer features, too.

Here's one, that I filed for NPR nationally, about Chick-fil-A's new test foray into the mealkit market in Atlanta. I think it's a fascinating business story about companies' attempts to figure out how to give us customers exactly what food we want, how we want it, in a way they (and we) can afford.

And here's another feature about a proposed spaceport in Camden County, Ga., right next to the Florida border. I went down to do some reporting on the mainland and on Little Cumberland Island and ended up with tons of information on this story about a county taking a big bet on an economic development idea. I got it into about 4 minutes on the radio, but fair warning, my digital version went beyond 2,000 words....

Anyway, if you need me over the next few months, I'd recommend locating one of the candidates for Georgia governor. I seem to be basically following them around. (You could also tune into 90.1 WABE!)

In the meantime, here are a random mix of reporting scenes from my first summer in radio:

Scenes from an Audio Life

The time is flying, and I can't believe I'm more than two months into life on the radio. There's still much to learn, but I like to hope I'm having to ask fewer basic questions each day. 

I filed my first "short feature" yesterday, a longer story about incentives for Amazon's second headquarters. Click here to check it out!

As a reminder, you can find all my stories here.

In case you still don't really believe me, below are some photos of me interviewing Senator Johnny Isakson in Atlanta a few weeks ago.

By the way, Georgians, if you have story ideas, please feel free to send them. I've got to write one per day!

Plot Twist: I'm on the Radio Now!

I've always loved consuming audio journalism. Now, I'm learning how to make it.  

An NPR station in Atlanta, 90.1 WABE has taken me on as a daily newscast reporter. It's been fun (and challenging) to learn a completely new way of putting together stories. Sentences are shorter. Storylines must be crisper.

Over the past few weeks I've covered a broad gambit, including Atlanta's ransomware attack, the pollen count and a spaceport in Coastal Georgia. (On that note, if you have any Georgia story ideas, please send them over to ehurt@wabe.org!)

Here are some of my stories. You can find them all at this link

FAA To Hold Local Hearings on Coastal Georgia Spaceport

Artificial Reefs Near Jekyll Island Get A Concrete Boost

Unprecedented Gwinnett Transit Plan Includes Heavy Rail

Atlanta Water Bills Go Out For The First Time Since Ransomware Attack

Smart Trailers

What are they? They could very well be the future of trucking. 

Trailers have historically been the lesser of the tractor-trailer pair. They get lost a lot. You may have seen one abandoned in a field somewhere.

They have been a box on wheels, serving no other purpose than holding the cargo. The tractor has the expensive gadgets, the powertrain, the driver and most of the technological investment. Until now. 

Check out my latest Trucks.com story about it below. 


Trucks.com

No Longer Afterthoughts, Trailers are Getting Smart

March 14, 2018

As the use of telematics, sensors and computerization in tractors has skyrocketed, comparable technologies in the trailers hooked behind them have not kept pace. That is changing.

More telematics options for trailers and trailing equipment are available than ever before, giving fleets unprecedented tools to capture untapped value.

“Up to this point, trailers have been pretty dumb,” said Dennis Skaradzinski, chief engineer at Great Dane Trailers. “Today, trailers are becoming smart.”

This means big opportunities for carriers, “and we literally have just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible,” said Sue Rutherford, vice president of marketing at Orbcomm, a machine-to-machine communications company.

Find the rest here

 

Truffles in Kentucky

Eleven months ago I met Margaret Townsend in Arkansas, and she mentioned her truffle orchard. I knew then that I wanted to write a story about her and the American truffle industry. (Yes, it exists. Sort of.) 

It has taken this long, a mountain of phone calls and emails and one frigid trip to rural Kentucky, but I am so excited to share the final product. I'll let it speak for itself.

(It will also be in the print edition on February 12.)


Wall Street Journal

The Elusive American Black Truffle

Three decades after farmers first cultivated Périgord truffles in the U.S., no one has succeeded commercially. These intrepid growers are still pursuing the prize.

Feb. 10, 2018 7:01 a.m. ET

On a frigid winter day in southern Kentucky, Margaret Townsend crisscrossed her family’s farm, following Monza, a truffle-sniffing dog hired for the day.

They were hoping to find black Périgord truffles growing in the roots of the 4,800 hazelnut and oak seedlings Ms. Townsend planted in 2011, after her father read an article about cultivating the fungi. Ms. Townsend, an industrial engineer and a former executive at Microsoft Corp. and General Electric Co. , hasn’t had a harvest yet from the trees, inoculated with truffle spores before planting. But she’s undeterred as truffles take on average five to seven years to come to fruition.

“There have only been two times I sat down in the field and cried,” she says. “Only two in six years is not bad. It has been more fun than not.”

Three decades after farmers first cultivated truffles in the U.S., no one has had long-term success growing them commercially. Those in the business estimate that only around 25 orchards in the U.S. are producing any volume of Périgord truffles today, most bringing in just a few pounds per season. The venture is expensive. It costs $12,000 to $14,000 per acre to establish an orchard, plus $2,000-$3,000 per acre annually to maintain, says Charles Lefevre, a mycologist and founder of the seedling nursery New World Truffieres in Eugene, Ore.

Finding the formula for successful truffle farming is a tantalizing goal for would-be growers in the U.S., who range from fungi scientists to vineyard owners to former tech executives. Among the hundreds of species of these underground fungi, only a handful have true culinary value. Two, with earthy aromas, are prized above all: the French black Périgord, or tuber melanosporum, which sells for $800-$900 per wholesale pound and the Italian white Alba, or tuber magnatum pico, which runs $3,000-$4,000 per pound.

Traditionally these delicacies were only found in the wild. Today, the white truffle continues to elude cultivation. However, outside of the black Périgord’s native France, producers in Spain and Australia have succeeded in growing large volumes of the truffles also known as black diamonds.

American demand is growing. About 426 tons of fresh, canned and dried truffles were brought into the U.S. in 2017 according to the Department of Agriculture, up 75% from 2010. Fresh imported truffles usually take at least four days to get to the U.S., giving chefs a short window to use the highly perishable commodity.

Aspiring U.S. truffle farmers have faced steep hurdles. Getting a foothold in this risky venture requires big money up front and the ability to wait years for a crop that may never materialize. Many blame the lack of large American volume on the challenges presented by indigenous pests, natural fungi competitors and diseases. Reliable scientific information on basics like soil chemistry needed for truffles is hard to come by, and there is little funding for U.S. research on this exotic crop.

Ms. Townsend says she has struggled to find a consensus on basic techniques among successful growers around the world. Even in Manjimup, Australia, a hotbed of truffle production, opinions vary. Al Blakers, owner of Manjimup Truffles, has had a commercial Périgord truffle harvest for 12 years, producing just under 2 tons last year. Even though he and a nearby grower do things quite differently, he says they are both getting good results. “The actual truffle growing is not that difficult,” he says. “It’s all the other aspects that come into it, like weed and pest control that will affect how your truffle comes out.”

Back in 2007, it seemed that Tom Michaels, an expert in button mushrooms, had cracked the code for producing American truffles. He planted his truffle orchard in Tennessee where he believed the soil and climate echoed that of the Périgord region of France. His bet paid off, for a time. The Chuckey, Tenn., operation produced about 200 pounds per season at peak and seemed to prove the possibility of commercial viability.

He also showed Tennessee truffles could hold their own against the international incumbents. Gabriel Kreuther, the French chef and owner of his eponymous New York restaurant known for his truffle dishes, says he was “beautifully, pleasantly surprised” by the quality of the Tennessee Périgords.

Then a hazelnut blight hit the East Coast, and by 2016 nearly all of Mr. Michaels’s truffle-producing trees had died. He is disappointed in the state of the industry. “There are so many unknowns. You’re dealing with such a paucity of knowledge,” he says. Basic soil chemistry that traditional farmers normally know off the tops of their heads like proper nitrogen and phosphorous levels are still up for debate when it comes to truffle cultivation, he says.

Does Mr. Michaels really understand how to grow truffles, for all his experience? “Kind of,” he says.

“We’re sort of writing our own book right now,” says Brian Malone, truffle orchard and vineyard manager at Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa, Calif. The farm harvested its first truffles last February after six years.

Robert Chang, who founded the American Truffle Company in 2007 after leaving his director post at Yahoo Inc., touts a scientific approach. “I think we still have a ways to go, but we are definitely well past the first adoption,” he says. The company offers a partnership model to its clients.

Tom Michaels’s success continues to spur hope. In Kentucky, Ms. Townsend hired him in December to consult on her first truffle hunt, along with the dog Monza and her trainer from Truffle Dog Company. Monza is a curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian breed that has been truffle-hunting for centuries. Trained dogs can determine truffle ripeness in a way humans haven’t replicated.

Ms. Townsend, a senior vice president at J.B. Hunt Transport in Arkansas, leased 48 acres of land from her parents and planted the seedlings on 24 acres to allow for a buffer from the native woods nearby. Her late father shared her enthusiasm for the venture she named NewTown Truffiere, building a noise-making device to scare off deer nibbling the fledgling trees.

On this debut outing, Monza didn’t find any Périgords, though she did sniff out one native truffle without much value. She’s scheduled for a return visit later this month.

Ms. Townsend says she set aside $250,000 for her truffle-growing venture and has spent twice that. “I’m still happy with the investment and having fun with it,” she says. “Like anything, you’ve got to be sure you’ve got wiggle room because whatever you think it’s going to be, you’ve got to figure it’s going to be more.”

Another Look at Tesla's Semi Trucks

The recent reveal of Tesla's semi truck models has gotten a lot of press, if you haven't noticed. However, that company is far from the only one working on a zero emission semi, and according to some of the people in my story below, Tesla might even be at a disadvantage in comparison. 

This piece spun out of something the CEO of Navistar, a legacy truck manufacturer told me when I interviewed him upon their recent year-end earning's release. It was fun to dig into the topic a little bit deeper.  


 Photo: Tesla

Photo: Tesla

Navistar International Corp. Chief Executive Troy Clarke has a message for tech entrepreneur Elon Musk: There will be more electric trucks on the road by 2025 from Navistar than semi-tractors from Musk’s Tesla Inc.

It’s all about familiarity, comfort and established customer base. Navistar’s International brand already holds 11 percent of the market for trucks in the heaviest Class 8 weight segment, according to research firm Statista.

Tesla, which introduced its semi in November, has collected hundreds of reservations. But it has yet to build a truck for a customer. It plans to launch production in 2019.

“Customers know us, and they know that when we give them a truck it gives them a guarantee that this truck is going to serve their needs, because we understand how our customers make money,” Clarke said in an interview with Trucks.com.

Read the rest on Trucks.com at this link. 

Worlds Collide in Munich

I spent most of November in Germany, thanks to a fellowship from the Fulbright Commission. The Berlin Capital Program was designed to bring American journalists to Berlin, educate us about Germany, its history and contemporary issues and hopefully generate more informed coverage in the American media. I chose to apply because in my business reporting the strong German/American economic development relationship has been impossible to ignore. 

The program entailed meetings and panels with experts on topics like the Stasi archive, the country's publicly-funded media outlets, Berlin's startup scene and the recent elections. I learned a ton and loved getting to know my American colleagues on the trip, too. There was a wide range of media represented, and I left inspired by them all and excited to follow their careers. 

Unrelated to the program, I found out that a trade mission from coastal Georgia was also in Germany at the same time. I managed to take a train to Munich for a night and shadow their meetings with businesses and industry associations. It was remarkable to see the worlds collide. I wrote the below story about it for the Savannah Morning News' business publication. 

If you're interested, I also wrote this sidebar about the German/Georgia economic development relationship in general. 


Business in Savannah

For the first time, Coastal Georgia group talks business in Germany

MUNICH — Representatives from nine coastal development authorities traveled across Germany on an unprecedented trade mission last month. The group of 11 together pitched the attributes of coastal Georgia in Bremen, Halle and Munich, forging relationships with businesses and officials in one of the state’s largest trade partners.

“This trip is taking our collective efforts as a region, as a coast to the next level,” said Trip Tollison, president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority and World Trade Center Savannah. “We can’t market and sell our organizations, our areas and our communities while sitting in our communities. It’s just not going to happen.”

After targeting Germany as one of the best potential opportunities for investment and trade, the Savannah Economic Development Authority and its international arm, World Trade Center Savannah, has been working to expand these prospects for coastal Georgia by getting the whole region involved.

Coastal Georgian trade mission speaks to members of the Bavarian Industry Association in Munich, Photos by Emma Hurt

“One of the things that we know is regional representation is far more powerful than individual representation,” said Craig Lesser, a former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development who is now consulting for the World Trade Center Savannah with the Pendleton Group.

Antje Abshoff, managing director of the state of Georgia’s European office in Munich said she rarely sees communities as a group making trips like this. “That they’re making a concerted effort to be here, cooperating with each other is remarkable,” she said.

Lesser said investors appreciate seeing this early teamwork, because collaboration will likely be necessary again later in a development project. Regardless, as he put it, “the end result is that if an investor were to come to one of the counties and invest, it is going to have an effect on the entire region.”

Tollison pointed out the most important factors for prospective investors in the region are infrastructure and workforce, neither of which are not restricted by county or city lines. He cited that a typical commute in the Savannah area spans 60 miles.

“We’re all selling the same assets, really,” said Anna Chafin, chief executive director of the Development Authority of Bryan County.

Participants agreed that the joint trip coordinated by World Trade Center Savannah enabled smaller counties to participate. Providing this service to its economic development partners is “definitely part of the World Trade Center Savannah master plan,” said Jesse Dillon, the organization’s business development project manager. “They are now active participants in the process,” she said.

Other counties/development authorities represented on the trip included Liberty, Screven, Valdosta-Lowndes, McIntosh, Glynn, Charlton and Bulloch.

In a more local example of this collaborative strategy within the regional trip, Dawn Malin, executive director of the Charlton County Development Authority together with Wally Orrel of the McIntosh County Industrial Development Authority and Mel Baxter of the Brunswick and Glynn County Development Authority came on the trip representing the six counties of the Southeast Georgia Alliance.

She explained that these counties realized they would be more successful working together. “Some of our communities are quite small and don’t have as many assets,” she said. “But together, six counties are very strong.”

Between meetings with specific companies, the group gave many joint presentations telling the story of coastal Georgia, of the ports and infrastructure, of oak trees and tourism, of Georgia Southern and Valdosta State.

They concluded each meeting with an invitation to the Germans in the room: to attend a program coinciding with the Savannah Music Festival in April, designed to show off Savannah in turn. Some signed up before the Georgians had even left.

Peter Schwarz, managing director of bavAIRia, a group representing aerospace companies in the German state of Bavaria attended an event with the Georgia mission in Munich. To him, it was impressive and important that the group made the long trip. “Setting up business contacts is personal contacts. Anything else you can forget, in my point of view,” he said.

“Therefore, I can only appreciate that people take the time to come to get to know Germany and Bavaria. How else will you get a feeling for a country or businessmen without getting in contact with them?”

Tollison also underlined the importance of these meetings in the often-lengthy economic development process. He hopes to continue to bring various groups back to Germany at least once a year going forward.

“These things take years and years to cultivate and you know, ten years from now if we have a great project from Bavaria that wants to do something in coastal Georgia, we can all say it started from this process,” he said.

Trucks Again!

Through a friend, I recently connected to the team at Trucks.com, a startup trucking publication looking to be "a step above the trade press." It's been interesting to take on stories more in depth than those for a general-audience publication. To compensate though, I've included extra background here.

In this latest piece, I looked into a last-ditch effort by some truck drivers to delay/end the looming deadline of the electronic-logging device (ELD) mandate. Truck driver hours have long been regulated by the government, in terms of the time they can legally be "on duty" before having to take breaks or sleep. Traditionally they recorded this in paper logbooks, but more and more companies have turned to the electronic logging devices, which drivers do not control and have zero wiggle room. Starting Dec. 18, almost all trucks manufactured before 2000 will no longer have the paper option. 

Companies I've spoken with admit that the switch between methods cost them some money/efficiency as their drivers had to trip plan differently and adjust to a less forgiving system. On the other hand, many drivers I've spoken to have said that after trying ELDs, they would refuse to switch back to paper logbooks. 

Regardless, it's a hot-button issue right now. The industry has been talking about it for years, and an end is in sight. At this point, those against it have turned to social media to voice their concerns, especially in the hope of getting President Trump's attention. If you're still curious, go check out the #ELDorMe thread on Twitter. 


Trucks.com

Truckers Take to Social Media to Get Trump’s Attention on ELD Mandate

Independent truckers are trying to get President Trump’s attention in the hopes that he will halt or delay the pending electronic logging device mandate before its Dec. 18 implementation deadline.

The regulation requires truckers to install devices on trucks manufactured after 2000 that digitally track driving time to make sure they stick to federal driving limits. Some truckers say the issue has made them reconsider their previous support of the president.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has challenged the regulation’s constitutionality but has lost repeated rulings. The U.S. Supreme Court refused in June to hear the association’s appeal of a lower court decision upholding the mandate. That has sparked alternative protest strategies in the hopes of Hail Mary legislative or executive action.

H.R. 3282, a bill authored by GOP Rep. Brian Babin of Texas, that would delay the regulation for two years, is stalled in a House subcommittee. Some drivers want Trump to intervene.

Those against the mandate have made themselves increasingly vocal on social media and in coordinated protests in Washington last month. The ELD or Me Facebook group has about 20,000 members, and a change.org petition to do away with the mandate has more than 30,000 signatures. There’s also an active #ELDorMe on Twitter to gather support from opponents of the regulation.

 Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, leads truckers protesting the pending electronic logging device regulation in Washington. (Photo: Brian Babin)

Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, leads truckers protesting the pending electronic logging device regulation in Washington. (Photo: Brian Babin)

Drivers want the regulation delayed so that more research involving more interest groups can be done on the potential economic and safety effects of the mandate, said Tony Justice, a driver for Everhart Transportation, who created the ELD or Me group.

“We would just like to be able to have a voice,” he said. “If we’re going to do a mandate, let’s get all ideas together and work together.”

“People say, why didn’t we try to do something seven years ago? I tell people it’s like a hurricane warning,” Justice said. “You don’t really get prepared until it’s about to hit you.”

Twitter is the best way to reach Trump, said Les Willis, who owns two trucking companies in Texas and Arkansas.

“I figure since the president uses Twitter to relay his message to the public, we should use Twitter in the same manner,” he said. “Why shouldn't he listen to us, since we hear him loud and clear?”

Protesters have been using the #ELDorMe Twitter hashtag daily since mid-October “in hopes of keeping our message alive,” Justice said.

But truckers have yet to hear the president’s position on the issue.

Contacted by Trucks.com, a White House communications representative forwarded a request for comment about Trump’s ELD position to the Department of Transportation, which did not respond.

Raymond Martinez, Trump’s nominee for administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said in recent Senate testimony that he would not delay implementation of the ELD regulation.

Drivers who have spoken to several members of Congress worry that conversations are “one-sided” on Capitol Hill.

“The ones we’ve talked to have only been educated on it as a safety issue,” Justice said. “We don’t think the [American Trucking Associations] is showing all the research.”

Chris Spear, the ATA’s chief executive, addressed the issue at the trade group’s annual conference in late October, saying the technology has been adequately vetted.

“This issue has been legislated, promulgated and litigated. It is now time to move forward,” Spear said. “ELD technology removes one’s ability to exceed the legal hours of services, ushering in a safe, efficient and fair playing field for the nation’s trucking industry.”

The group has supported electronic logs since 1999.

Those against the mandate or its timeline have put hopes in Babin’s bill. He previously brought forward an amendment to delay the mandate for a year, which failed in September.

Babin said support for his bill is growing as other representatives hear from their constituents. It has about 60 cosponsors.

“Let me tell you, these truck drivers are letting my colleagues know exactly what this is all about,” he said.

Babin said he is trying to protect small businesses from burdensome regulation. “This is just another thing that is going to hurt the small guy,” he said.

However, industry experts are skeptical of the viability of any legislative delay. The failure of the earlier Babin amendment signaled the “end what is left of the debate on whether or not there is the possibly to delay the mandate,” transport analysts at Stephens Inc. in Little Rock, Ark. said in an industry report.

Analysts Brad Delco and Scott Schoenhaus said the amendment “was likely Congress’s best shot at delaying the mandate given that it was in the form of a rider and could have slid past bipartisan opposition.” A separate bill like H.R. 3282 “would likely not have support in the House as well.”

Spear also dismissed any hopes of delay in his speech.

“Back in Washington, anti-truck and amateur hour advocacy groups believe they know what’s best for our industry,” he said. “This wave of special interests has built a cottage industry fueled by ideology, emotion and misguided narratives … all intended to divide our industry and this association.”

Willis and Justice both expressed frustration that Trump’s public acknowledgement of the industry has only come in the context of events coordinated with the ATA, which they do not believe represents all truck drivers. Notably, they pointed to a March ATA event when Trump met with drivers and executives at the White House and climbed into a semi-truck on the White House lawn, as well as the president’s October speech pitching his tax reform plan to truckers.

Babin said that though it is a “great group,” the ATA “represents the major trucking companies. These are companies that can afford in a much better way to go into this ELD business than somebody with five trucks or less,” he said.

Douglas Hasner, an owner-operator with Landstar Trucking, said he will be forced to stop driving if the mandate goes through.

“I came off the road for five days to make sure I voted for Trump”, he said. But if the mandate goes ahead, it will “absolutely” affect his opinion of the politician. “A man has got to keep his campaign promises.”

And so the Atlanta Bylines Begin.

I've been in Atlanta for a few months now focused on listening and learning. I've gone to workshops, panels and conferences and am actually in the middle of the Wharton School's Seminars for Business Journalists in Philadelphia. As I work to improve both my journalism and my understanding of the layered, fascinating city of Atlanta, I have slowly ramped up freelance assignments, too. 

I've included one here, my first in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. It's about a growing hospital network in West Georgia that's making some "nontraditional" investments in its community's health. While there isn't much of a clear short-term payout for these initiatives, Tanner Health has decided it's still a priority.


Atlanta Business Chronicle

Nontraditional health programs give community a boost

Carroll County hopes to see long-term benefits from initiatives that take preventative health care outside of the walls of hospitals and doctors’ offices and into the community.

The initiatives range from the completion of the Carrollton GreenBelt to Tanner Health System partnering with churches and schools to foster healthy lifestyles for the long-term.

Improving community health is a good economic development strategy, said Tanner Health System President and CEO Loy Howard.

“We think if we can actually distinguish ourselves as a community where health is important, that’s where future employers are going to want to land,” he said.

Since 1949, the nonprofit health system has grown across west Georgia and east Alabama, now with over 300 physicians across four facilities. They have expansions underway in Villa Rica, Bremen, Carrollton’s Dixie Street and a new hospital opening soon in Wedowee, Ala.

Tanner has also been investing in its community’s health in innovative ways, Howard explained.

“We spend a lot of time and effort to understand our community,” said Howard. “Several years ago, Tanner struggled with patients that were chronically ill and the realization that our community could be healthier.”

Tanner’s leadership noted that the future of healthcare was in preventative medicine. It saw an opportunity to “complement” the health system’s mission and services with “some nontraditional things for the Southeast and smaller communities, centered around helping people learn how to be healthier,” Howard said.

The network used to organize health fairs to reach the broader community, but it found they were ineffective. “Without programs or ways for people to get into something that’s proactive, there’s a good chance when we do that health fair again in a year, people haven’t addressed anything,” he said.

That’s why the board created Tanner’s first community health division in 2011. After a $1.2 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it created the “Get Healthy, Live Well” coalition.

“This is about getting active, learning how to eat right, and getting that out to everyone, not just a patient that has insurance,” Howard said.

The initiative now has more than 500 volunteers and 22 subcommittees and task forces working in Carroll, Haralson and Heard counties to improve nutrition, physical activity, chronic disease and tobacco use.

One fast-growing part of the initiative involves faith-based organizations. The coalition has worked with 16 churches so far, according to Denise Taylor, Tanner’s chief community health and brand officer who heads “Get Healthy, Live Well.”

 Photo by Joann Vitelli: The 18-mile multi-use Greenbelt trail opened this spring

Photo by Joann Vitelli: The 18-mile multi-use Greenbelt trail opened this spring

Stephen Allen, lead pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church, plans to expand his church’s involvement in “Get Healthy, Live Well.” Tabernacle has offered classes like diabetes management, weight loss and suicide prevention and it has joined other churches for “health challenges” and events through Tanner.

“We’re trying to change the way our folks think about health, physically and even spiritually,” Allen explained.

Tanner has also supported programs at City of Carrollton schools to train teachers and provide resources to incorporate gardening, healthy cooking and physical activity into the curricula.

“It’s broader than just feeding healthy school meals. We’re really trying to take it to that next level,” Director of School Nutrition Linette Dodson said.

She hopes their work will create a healthier generation of adults: “I don’t think my generation was prepared as well, so hopefully we’re doing a better job of preparing our students,” Dodson said.

“It’s all very interrelated, and there are a lot of exciting things happening in west Georgia right now,” Taylor said.

“Like any community initiative, it’s all about partnerships,” said Howard. “No one organization can lead it alone.”

The same year Tanner created its community health division, Laura Richards founded Friends of the Carrollton GreenBelt to make the city’s long-lasting dream of a multiuse trail a reality. The 18-mile loop opened last spring.

Richards, who also serves on the Carroll County Department of Health board, said she, too, had been concerned about her community’s health. She has watched Carroll County rise in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s health rankings of Georgia counties.

“Specifically, the 2016-2017 jump was the largest from 58th to 49th, so that shows there have been changes in the right direction,” she said, noting the ranking includes access to exercise opportunities.

“Before the GreenBelt you could just walk on your subdivision streets and dodge traffic,” said David Mecklin, a partner at Tisinger Vance who credits the trail for encouraging him to walk. The exercise actually triggered a need for a stress test that detected a blocked artery.

Like the “Get Healthy, Live Well” initiative, the crux of the GreenBelt was collaboration, Richards said. “It was the initial launch when the city and county worked together so effectively that allowed other partnerships and for the GreenBelt to succeed.”

She cited the new bike share program as one such successful partnership between Tanner Health, manufacturer Southwire and the University of West Georgia. Today, Tanner is working with the city to extend a spur off the GreenBelt into downtown.

A healthier population is expected to benefit the community, including improving economic development. But it won’t come quickly.

“This is not something you do for a year,” Howard said. “It takes years, if not decades, to truly impact the health of the community. The good news is, we’re in it for the long haul.”

Name the health issue that most people die from in the community*

  • Heart disease - 51.1 percent
  • Cancer - 37.7 percent
  • Diabetes - 4.7 percent
  • Stroke - 4.2 percent
  • Asthma/lung disease - 2.7 percent

*Tanner Health System primary service area In Carroll, Coweta, Douglas, Haralson, Heard, Paulding and Polk counties

Source: Survey of 1,500 people for Tanner Health System’s Community Health Needs Assessment 2013

Finding Answers in Tears

Another of my final Arkansan stories was a feature of a small startup doing some big, revolutionary work. A team of four at Ascendant Dx in Springdale, AR is working to completely change the way breast cancer screenings happen. They've developed a test that detects breast cancer biomarkers in human tears in under 30 minutes. It will cost $99. 

Right now, mammograms are all we've got. They're only about 50% accurate, they're expensive and annoying. Plus, most of the world doesn't even have access to them. Without mammograms, those women generally only find out they have breast cancer once it's advanced enough for them to have symptoms. As Omid Moghadam, the CEO of Ascendant pointed out to me, this is exactly the same way the first documented case of breast cancer was discovered 2,000 years ago in ancient Persia.

Ascendant Dx has been in the works in Arkansas for over 10 years now, and the team is now working towards full clinical trials and looking for funding. It's slow going as no one uses tears for any diagnostic testing, and the group is having to collect all their own samples manually. However, since blood is condensed to make tears in our systems, they claim this is a powerful substance with big potential to diagnose even more diseases in the future.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Arkansas firm uses tears to diagnose breast cancer

A company in Springdale is working to revolutionize the detection of breast cancer with an unusual substance -- tears.

The team at Ascendant Dx has developed a test analyzing tears that could complement -- or even replace -- mammograms as the first step in looking for breast cancer.

Omid Moghadam, CEO and chairman, said that in middle- to lower-income countries without the funding or expertise to operate mammography on a large scale, Ascendant's Melody test would be a game changer.

"We think that biological tests like Melody would be perfect for that environment," he said of the company's product, which detects biomarkers found in tears to test for the disease within 30 minutes.

"It's inexpensive, accurate and someone with minimal training can run it." From there, he explained, patients who test positive can travel to larger medical centers for further testing and treatment.

Today, physicians are reimbursed through medical insurance between $250 and $350 per mammogram, while Ascendant's target retail price for Melody is $99.

In places like the U.S., which has $5 trillion worth of mammography equipment, there is also a lot of room for improvement, he said.

"In the U.S. we are still brute forcing breast cancer detection with mammography, because we had nothing until 30 years ago," he said.

"When you go from not having anything to something that is 50 percent accurate, that's what takes hold. And that's what we still have today: a not-so-good imaging technique that has 50 percent false positive, 50 percent false negative."

Dr. Suzanne Klimberg is a breast surgeon at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Rockefeller Cancer Institute who pioneered Ascendant's research. She remains the company's medical director and said early detection of breast cancer is the best thing until a prevention or cure is found.

"Access to care has been the biggest stumbling block," Klimberg said. "My dream has always been to have this on the market and, similar to the use of a pregnancy test, be able to screen yourself."

Moghadam referred to a study by Mei-Sing Ong and Kenneth Mandl in Health Affairs journal that found that of the $8 billion a year spent on mammography, $4 billion is wasted on false-positive diagnoses.

Among American women, breast cancer remains the second-most-diagnosed cancer and the second-most-common cause of cancer death.

The Ascendant story starts in 2006 with Klimberg at UAMS. She was inspired to work with human tears after seeing research on detecting the cancer in breast milk, realizing that the tissues that concentrate blood to produce both fluids are similar.

"It's an unusual fluid, but it has benefits," Moghadam said of tears.

"It's sterile, and it's a lot less complicated than blood," he said. "Blood has so many bits and pieces of cells and DNA that anytime you want to look for something, you have to filter lots of things out in order to find them. That becomes expensive."

The TRG Foundation in Little Rock funded Klimberg's initial research, and then it caught the attention of VIC Technology Venture Development, a Fayetteville venture creation company. That's where, Moghadam became involved, and in 2013, when it spun out of VIC, he became its CEO.

Dr. Steven Harms, a breast radiologist at the Breast Center in Fayetteville, said he was originally skeptical of the idea.

"At first I thought, 'This is very interesting, but I don't think it is going to work.' I was very skeptical, because it's almost too good to be true."

In the end, the results won him over. He now serves on the company's board, and the Breast Center has participated in the company's studies.

He recalled that two of his patients' traditional biopsies came back negative but their Ascendant's Melody tests came back positive. At first they dubbed those false positives, until the patients returned a few months later with cancerous biopsies.

He said someday, a test like Melody has the potential to replace mammograms as the first step in the process, though there will always need to be an imaging method like mammography to locate where the cancer is.

"Wouldn't it be nice if we could have people come in with a high probability of having cancer in the beginning and concentrate our resources on finding that cancer instead of just screening everybody?" he said.

Plus, he pointed out, only half of American women above 40 actually get mammograms for reasons like cost, discomfort and geographic access -- things that Melody could overcome.

Ascendant has collected around 700 samples from three validation studies so far. The next step is a clinical trial with 1,000 more subjects to gain regulatory approval in the U.S. and abroad.

One challenge researchers face is because no large-scale banks of tear samples exist, they have had to manually gather all their own samples, unlike blood samples, which can be purchased on large scales.

"Blood is already optimized," said Lindsay Rutherford, Ascendant's senior scientist. "Everything has been determined already: how to take it, how to process it."

Ascendant's scientists have been optimizing their own tear processes as they go.

They use Schirmer's test strips to collect samples, which entails placing a small piece of filter paper under an eyelid for about two minutes. It irritates the eye enough to produce tears though has no lasting effects. They were originally developed by an ophthalmologist to measure tear production.

"It makes perfect sense," said Kevin Clark, CEO of NOW Diagnostics, a Springdale company that leases lab and office space to Ascendant.

"I had not personally thought about it before, but tears are part of the lymph system. Metastasizing tumors and everything show up in the lymph system, which is part of the immune system."

NOW produces tests that use a pinprick of blood to generate fast diagnostic results for a growing list of things, including pregnancy and infectious diseases. Ascendant is using NOW's cartridges to house its Melody test.

Clark said he has high hopes for other things that could be detected by Ascendant's technology. "Especially if we can put it in our platform, then you get a point of care device that gives patients real-time results," he said.

In the meantime, Ascendant has patent applications pending in the U.S. and abroad, and is in the process of raising a second round of funding, beyond the $2 million raised in 2013.

While tens of millions of dollars have been poured into the breast cancer cause, Moghadam said, "It just goes to research. You get nice papers, but where is the result? Where is the new drug? Where's the new diagnostic? Where's the new method? Where's the new medical device?"

He called this a "fundamental" problem in the industry, not just for breast cancer. Researchers are incentivized to publish papers, but there is a gap between those papers and translating them into products.

"This is research with a purpose for us," said Anna Daily, Ascendant's chief scientist, pointing out that in academia there is little quality control or verification of results.

By contrast, she explained, "When you're in a business or a company, you have to prove to your investors, the FDA and other regulatory organizations that we did what we said we did and it shows what we said it showed."

"They build buildings but in reality, nobody needs another $50 million building on a campus," Moghadam said.

"What you need is $50 million going into 10 companies, and if one of them is successful it can actually materially affect people with breast cancer."

Ultimately, he said, "If people really, truly want to cure cancer, there needs to be a balance between research and translating research into real products."

SundayMonday on 07/09/2017

A Rare Opportunity

I recently made the bittersweet decision to quit my job at the Democrat-Gazette and move to Atlanta. Bitter, because I loved my time in Arkansas, I learned a ton from my colleagues, and I met many lovely people. Sweet, because I already can tell this was the right decision for me, to be closer to friends and family. 

However, I still have a few Arkansas stories up my sleeve. One of them, which published this week, was particularly special. I was able to interview John Roberts, the CEO of J.B. Hunt. It was the first sit-down interview he has given in the six years he has been CEO. Plus, as the company has long been media-shy, any face time with a J.B. Hunt executive is a rare opportunity. 

We covered a lot during our conversation, from autonomous truck tech to the fact that J.B. Hunt is definitely not a trucking company anymore. Hope you learn as much as I did. 


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Change ahead for J.B. Hunt; logo's not one

Modern challenges evoke firm’s first ones, CEO says

Many people have asked John Roberts why he hasn't changed J.B. Hunt's signature yellow and black scroll logo. His answer is always the same.

"I would say it is here for the long run," said the company's president and CEO of over six years in a recent interview.

Despite that same logo, the actual business Roberts runs out of Lowell looks little like the trucking company J.B. and Johnelle Hunt started back in 1969. These days J.B. Hunt is working through things such as autonomous trucking and e-commerce, while maintaining a connection to its past.

 John Roberts, president and CEO of J.B. Hunt

John Roberts, president and CEO of J.B. Hunt

Even though the company still owns many trucks, Roberts said J.B. Hunt stopped being "just a trucking company" long ago.

The J.B. Hunt of today, he said, needs "to be able to think like a supply chain company, and not just a trucking company, and even not just transportation."

With that in mind, the company recently merged its brokerage division, Integrated Capacity Solutions, and its truckload division under one "Highway Services" sales and operational banner.

He said they made that decision because, "In my mind, it isn't as important today whether a J.B. Hunt asset or contracted asset handles the load. We're just here to answer your question: Mr. Customer, what do you need? Mrs. Customer, how can we serve that lane for you? If you want drop trailers, OK, we have an answer there in Highway Services."

He compared the "mode-agnostic" approach to the average consumer's indifference about which company fulfills an order they place online.

John Kent, director of the supply chain management research center at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said the approach is evidence of J.B. Hunt being a "leader."

"They're saying, 'Hey its 2017, it's a modern industry that we're working in. We feel with the technology that we have developed we can integrate these units together operationally and market it that way to provide more value to our customer in ways that competitors can't,'" he said of the company.

Roberts said keeping the same logo symbolizes a retention of the original ethos of the company amidst a changing 21st century supply chain.

"Any time a company is named for a person, you find a different element flows through the business than if it's called 'Dynamic Insights' or something referencing the services provided," he said. "It has a different flavor to it."

For Roberts, the innovative spirit of its co-founder and namesake still lies at the center of J.B. Hunt.

"It's OK to hold onto your core value, especially if your core value system is disruptive by nature," he said, asserting that disruption has been a part of the company's history for decades.

When Hunt decided to partner with the railroad to share freight in the late 1980s, he was taking a big risk on intermodal transport. Railroads and trucking companies had been fierce competitors, and Hunt made a daunting investment in all new containers and equipment.

One nontraditional idea facing the J.B. Hunt of today and its industry peers is autonomous trucking technology.

"Autonomous trucking is very real," Roberts said. "We will be very active in testing, as we are any new idea -- like natural gas and other alternative power systems, or import changes involving the Panama Canal."

"We are not going to be caught looking over our shoulders saying, 'Why didn't we pay more attention to that?'" he said.

When asked what J.B. Hunt would have thought about this new development, his widow and co-founder Johnelle Hunt said he would be all for exploring it. "He was always looking for something new and better. That's why everything came about the way it did, like intermodal."

Roberts said the company began investing in autonomous technology about five years ago, when they installed automatic braking systems in all their trucks, which reduced rear-end collisions by 60 percent.

But at 52, Roberts said he doesn't see the regulatory environment and the general population adapting to the idea of totally self-driving tractor-trailers in his lifetime.

In regards to platooning, in which one truck can wirelessly control the speed and braking of others to save fuel, he said there remain "unanswered challenges" before a clear safety record and a good return on investment.

"Switching lanes, navigating exits, merging, and regulations are some of the roadblocks we're finding as operations explore platooning," he said.

Craig Harper, chief operating officer and the executive in charge of exploring autonomous technology and platooning, said new semi-autonomous technologies, including lane assistance and evasive maneuver assistance will be rolled out "as they are commercially viable."

Harper said he expects the company to be involved in platooning sometime in 2018, referring to forecast statistics that show "a lead truck could use 4 to 5 percent less fuel, and the subsequent truck could consume approximately 10 percent less fuel."

Ultimately, he said, "there is still a long way to go before we see major implementation of autonomous vehicles, platooning, and other such technologies," highlighting that the driver will remain an important component of any new developments.

Another dimension of the company's evolution with today's supply chain entails hefty investments in new technology and a revamping of its over 20-year-old core operating systems. It has pledged $500 million towards technology over five years to rebuild the old, develop a new cloud infrastructure and continue working on its supply chain management platform, J.B. Hunt 360.

After spending time with customer groups, Roberts said he realized J.B. Hunt could help its customers of all sizes as they adapt to the disruption of e-commerce.

"They need to be able to see what's going on in their supply chains," he said. "They need to be able to alter what's happening, and now more than ever because of e-commerce."

To provide that transparency and predictive analytics, Roberts said the company is working toward "a portal of aggregation" for all important parts of a supply chain.

"The customers really, more than anything, want crisp, real-time data that they can use, that they can act upon," he said.

Much has changed in the company as a result, down to the very language the J.B. Hunt team uses.

"We used to use terms like induction, distribution, aggregation, retail replenishment, and now we're having to think about that differently," Roberts said.

These days, he explained, the terms are "the first mile, the middle mile and the final mile."

In 2015 the company brought in Stuart Scott as chief information officer to lead these efforts. He is the first executive to not have spent at least 20 years in the company. Roberts has been at J.B. Hunt for about 27 years.

As Roberts recalled, "I told him, you're going to need to disrupt this company, and we're probably not going to like it very much. So, use my card when you need to and stay out of trouble."

Roberts said that in a conversation with a division team, he impressed on them that one of the 360 applications has the ability to show a customer his optimal transport option.

"If that means that your division is not the best answer," he said to the team, "you better figure out how to improve your value proposition, because we are going to give them the best answer."

Roberts said the company needs to find and present the best value for its customers because, "if we don't do that, somebody else is going to. We can't be too overly committed to forcing business into our segments only for the sake of growing the segment," he said.

"The right answer for the customer needs to win out over everything else," he explained.

"That path will take us where we need to go."

SundayMonday Business on 07/23/2017

The View from the Driver's Seat

At the beginning of the year, I knew I wanted to spend some time at a CDL (commercial driver's license) school to learn about what kinds of people were signing up to be drivers and why.

I didn't really know what story I would end up with. In the end, it took me about six months of going to classes and hours in truck cabs, plus talking, Facebook messaging and texting with drivers to figure that out.

I just knew I wanted to stick it out with the guys until they made it into employment. (Yes, just guys in these classes--only about 7 percent of drivers are female.) I was trying to get a sense of what it really means to enter the truck driving market today. 

Like all stories, there are many sides to this one. However, my priority here was to let the narrative be driven by the lives directly impacted by the larger economic and industry forces at work. Hopefully that shows. 


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Goals, reality often clash for truck drivers

Recruiters, advertising don’t give true picture

When Corey Marler had to close his sheet metal construction company after an injury, the Rogers resident applied to a temp agency to pay his bills. It took months to get through their processes to start making money. Once he did, he could only find a job working nights at a signage factory in 95-degree heat for $11 an hour.

Then he heard from a friend that trucking companies need drivers and enrolled to get his commercial driver's license, or CDL. Within days of submitting one application to a trucking company, he had dozens of emails and voice mails from trucking recruiters. He began work in a week.

"It represents a new life," Marler said. "It puts the ball back in your court instead of somebody else's."

The ease of entry stems from a driver shortage the long-haul trucking industry has been complaining about for decades. The average driver turnover rate falls around 90 percent, and companies work hard to attract people across the country with hopeful promises of better benefits and pay, autonomy and the open road.

It's no accident that many trailers have permanent "drivers wanted" signs, though it all begs the question: Why has this problem persisted for so long?

Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, pegged the national shortage around 50,000 in 2015 and said there are several reasons for it.

First of all, being away from home for weeks at a time wears on people, he said. Second, there is a "demographics issue" as a result of the minimum age being 21.

"That means we lose out on all of those people coming out of high school," he said. The median age of a truck driver is 49, versus 42 for all professions, according to a report by Costello and U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

The trucking industry also has trouble recruiting women, who make up about half of the labor force, he said.

"You add all of this stuff up together, and we've got a labor shortage," Costello said. "I guess that's good news for current and would-be drivers. I don't care what you're short. You're short bottled water and the price goes up. You're short truck drivers and the pay goes up."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the median heavy-duty tractor trailer driver salary at about $41,000, compared with that of a textile or furnishing worker at $30,000. Trucking company advertisements commonly tout the longer-term possibility to earn closer to $80,000.

As Doug Carter, founder of the Mid-America Truck Driving School in Malvern put it, "I firmly believe, and I've said it to my students many times, as long as you have this CDL in your pocket, it's like an asset."

He said after leaving a career as an accountant in corporate America in 1982, it "represented a way for me to provide for myself and my family."

The shortage, Carter said, "is a blessing for the drivers, but a curse for the carriers, shippers and consignees."

Steve Viscelli has focused his sociology career on the trucking industry and even went out on the road as a driver himself at one point.

He said many new drivers are "pushed" into trucking as a second or third career. For various reasons, like a shrinking industry or an injury, he explained, they have been "pushed out of a job" and are looking to maintain that income level.

"They've had a decent or skilled job, and they lose it or want to move away from it," he said. "Trucking at least promises the ability to maintain that same income level. Even if it requires 50 or 100 percent more hours, they can still keep that income longer term."

Then there are those "pulled in," he said, "looking for higher wages than they had earned previously."

Diego Nava said he now makes about twice the money driving for Maverick Transportation than he had been making at a Wal-Mart distribution center.

"I don't have to put up with another person supervising me," he added. "As long as I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, no one bothers me."

"I'm still trying to get used to staying away from home for long periods of time," the father of two admitted. He said he makes it home most weekends.

Viscelli agreed that drivers can make good money on the road, but that statistic often doesn't take into account that they can work twice as many hours to do it.

"The initial money is very attractive to workers who want to go up in pay and can sustain those 70-80 hour weeks," he admitted. "A lot of workers who are maybe coming from lower-paying jobs are happy with that, except for the time that it requires away from home."

Shortage self-inflicted

Viscelli said the driver shortage could be self-inflicted by the industry. "A driver a few years ago described it to me as, 'It's a shortage of drivers the same way there's a shortage of Cadillacs. If I walk into a Cadillac dealership and tell them I want to pay $10,000, and they tell me there are no Cadillacs, there must be a shortage of Cadillacs.'

"When you look at it, you've got 10 million CDL holders in the U.S. right now," Viscelli said. "But, only 3 million are using them. There is no shortage at all of CDL drivers. We've got 7 million sitting on the sideline, but for an industry that supposedly has a shortage, they can't attract the 7 million who have already trained for the job."

One problem Viscelli highlighted is a misconception of immediate high pay, given that the estimates in recruiting and advertisements are calculated at top productivity potential. Most drivers, he said, become disillusioned because it takes time to reach that top productivity, so they earn less at first, especially taking into account the lower pay rates of mandatory training time.

The statistics of unemployment offices can be skewed because it assumes a 40-hour workweek, Viscelli added.

"They estimate that drivers make around $25 per hour whereas most drivers end up working for $10 per hour. Their calculations are off because they just don't know how much truck drivers actually work," Viscelli said, referring to nondriving work time, like waiting and loading time.

"Really new drivers are very hopeful, and it's hard for them to negotiate the conflicting messages that they get," he said.

Faulty math

After deciding between more than 20 companies, Marler completed his training with Crete Carrier Corp. and is driving on his own. However, he said, "I'm finding out some stuff that the recruiter neglected to tell me."

He said the recruiter had promised 44 cents a mile. "I did all the math at 44 cents a mile," he said. After starting, he was told he has to work for six months at 36 cents per mile before the pay ramps up to 48 cents.

"All my math figuring went down the drain," he said.

Crete advertises its "experienced truck driver pay rate" of 46-49 cents per mile on its website.

Marler also said he was not expecting to have to pay hundreds of dollars for a refrigerator, a converter, broom and cleaning supplies for the truck and trailer. Plus, the truck he was first assigned was filthy and had a melted dashboard.

He has been home for a total of just over a week for the past nine weeks and said his work days have ranged from 10-17 hours with all the extra paperwork and trip planning.

But he can't leave the company yet. "I've got so much time invested in it. If I go to another company, I'm going to repeat the entire process again. I would lose the months of training to start all over again, whereas come October I'll get the 44 cents."

Steven Covington said he got behind on some bills because the training pay at USA Truck was not as much as he had expected. He was gone for two months before returning home unexpectedly for a few days for a funeral.

Despite his original plans to stay out and travel long term, Covington said he has decided he will only stick with it for a few years until he gets his finances in order. He said he's seen the health issues facing drivers and has realized, "the road is not my life. I have other things to do."

For now it's still better than his previous job managing a Whataburger at nights. "I miss the people, but I don't miss the work," he said. "It was killing me."

After about five months of school, training and early stumbling blocks, Marler said, "I'm doing everything I can to stay here right now. When I devote myself to something I try to stick it out no matter how tough. Apparently for the next few months it's going to be nothing but tough," he said.

"I've looked into it, and there's nothing else I can really go do right now and make $1,000 a week," Marler added. "That will at least keep the bills paid."

SundayMonday Business on 06/25/2017

"I Don't Retire Well"

As part of my coverage of Acxiom, Corp., I have also gotten to know its longtime leader, Charles Morgan who left the company in 2007. Since then, he has been busy. In fact, he took the helm of another company. As he put it, "I don't retire well."

This Little Rock company, First Orion has some interesting parallels to Acxiom. The leadership team, 75 percent ex-Acxiom, used to use their big data expertise to help marketers target us. Now they are using it to help protect us from those pesky scam/span callers. The tables have turned, so to speak. 

If you're a T-Mobile subscriber you might have already noticed the "scam likely" messages popping up on your screen. That's First Orion's work, and they're in conversations with every major carrier, too. Until then, try their PrivacyStar mobile app for access to some of the functions. 


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Ex-CEO on to new venture

Former Acxiom boss now targeting spammers, scammers

Through First Orion, CEO Charles Morgan is working to protect consumers from unwanted calls and scams.

Longtime Arkansas technology leader Charles Morgan is concentrating his efforts on protecting consumers from phone scammers and spammers.

Morgan's current venture -- First Orion -- has created a mobile application called PrivacyStar that offers blocking of unwanted calls, caller identification and the ability to file complaints against scammers.

The company also offers an in-network solution that provides the customers of cellular carriers with an automatic "scam likely" message and the capability to opt into blocking unwanted calls. It is being used by MetroPCS, T-Mobile and Sky Mobile in the United Kingdom. A contract with Virgin Mobile is in the works, and Morgan said the company is in discussions with other major carriers.

 Charles Morgan, CEO of First Orion  Photo by  John Sykes Jr.

Charles Morgan, CEO of First Orion

Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Will Wiquist, spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission, said unwanted and robocalls are the "No. 1" complaint the agency receives annually -- about 200,000 of 320,000.

"As we talk to other people in the industry and potential investors, when you start talking about the problem you don't have to describe it for very long," said Craig Dunn, First Orion's chief financial officer.

Morgan said developing the technology was difficult.

"There are so many different people making so many different types of calls for so many different reasons," Morgan said. "It's really easy to get a weather warning that looks like a scam call."

By studying the call patterns and characteristics of numbers, as well as calling some of them back, First Orion rescores its database of potential scam callers every six minutes.

"Generally, robocall blocking and filtering services are a great tool for consumers," Wiquist said. "The more that they become available, the more power consumers have to pick the calls they want and don't want. That's helpful in avoiding scams and just in selecting which calls they want to receive."

In 2008 -- a year after he left as the chief executive officer of Acxiom Corp. -- Morgan began investing in First Orion. Acxiom is a data broker and distributor that helps marketers target customers more efficiently.

When First Orion nearly went bankrupt, Morgan increased his involvement and signed on as chief executive. He now owns 75 percent of the company.

"Going into 2013, I had put a lot of money into this thing," he said. "I finally decided I was going to put more money into it, and I came to the conclusion that I should come in and run it instead of talking to these guys on the phone asking, 'What are you doing with my money?'"

First Orion has grown to 100 employees, mostly in Little Rock, with smaller offices in Dallas, Seattle and London. Projected revenue for 2017 is $25 million to $30 million and the company has been profitable since 2013, except for the current quarter.

Morgan estimated 75 percent of First Orion's executive team came from Acxiom, expertise that has proved valuable in a business with many parallels.

"One thing I liked about Acxiom was the fact that we had so much data, there were so many infinite possibilities with the things we could do," Morgan said. "Likewise, there is an infinite amount of data in this business. Just at T-Mobile we see 1.5 billion network messages a day that we are doing analysis on."

Kent Burnett, a former Dillard's executive and First Orion board member, said the team's experience with data has been crucial.

"The common element is understanding the strategic issues of owning the data and monetizing the information in the data," Burnett said. "I've been so impressed by the innovation and creativity that comes from Charles and his team about what to do with the data," he said. "And that's something they did at Acxiom."

"It's all the same thing," Morgan said. "There was an awful lot of data at Acxiom. We built solutions that leveraged large-scale data assets and created business value from them. It's a real simple concept."

Of First Orion, Morgan said, "We're not an app company. We're not a network company. We are a data-driven solutions company that is leveraging large amounts of data to create value for our customers and for their customers."

At both Acxiom and First Orion, developing a strong privacy reputation has been critical, Morgan said.

"If they didn't feel secure giving us their data and the credit bureaus didn't feel secure giving us all their data in Conway, you know how long our business would have lasted? Moments," Morgan said of Acxiom's initial financial clients.

At First Orion, Morgan said, "We want to make it very clear to everybody that we are going to do it like we did before," he said.

Scott Hambuchen, executive vice president of technology and solution development, added his team looks at patterns and data and is "not pulling any of that information out of their network."

"We don't look at who you're calling," said Morgan. "We look at the fact that you made a call."

First Orion offers additional help to businesses to avoid scammers. For example, Dunn said scammers may call banks pretending to be account holders and gather enough bits of information to make a purchase.

"We can help [businesses] understand whether the calls they are getting from the outside have all the characteristics of a good call," he said. "We are trying to enable the conversations both the businesses and consumers want to have happen."

Now, the company is working on Caller YD, a feature that could eliminate the need to even speak on the phone.

"When my wife has to call to change a prescription she spends an hour on the phone fooling around with it," Morgan said. "What if all of your options were presented on the screen and you could take care of it in five or 10 minutes?"

Caller YD can visually inform the consumer of who is calling and their purpose with an image and serve as an interactive platform to take care of something like confirming an appointment.

"You would like to be able to do a lot of these things without talking on the stupid phone," he added.

SundayMonday Business on 06/18/2017

 

Hitching a Ride in a Big Rig

Anyone who has adopted a pet from elsewhere knows about the difficulty and cost of coordinating his or her transport. This is the story of a group of former and current truck drivers volunteering their time (and their homes and the cabs of their trucks) to transport pets around the country for free. The people I met behind it, led by Sue Weise of Prescott, AR, are driven by a sheer love of animals. It was great to hear their story and impressive to hear about the logistics they constantly wrangle.


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Trucker program moves lost pets

Drivers volunteer to carry animals

By Emma Hurt

After hearing and watching the horror stories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Sue Weise felt compelled to do something to help. She just didn't know what exactly.

"I began praying, 'What can I do? I'm just a truck driver,'" she recalled. "I forgot to expect an answer when asking the Lord a question."

The Prescott resident said she suddenly came up with the idea of truck drivers transporting some of the many displaced animals and decided to see if her peers would help. Weise, who had begun a second career in truck driving a decade prior, went on a truckers' talk radio show at the urging of her friends and daughters.

She called in under her CB radio handle, Classy Lady, and asked if anyone would be interested in helping transport pets to their new homes across the country.

People were interested. Operation Roger, as the nonprofit is now called -- named for a former rescue dog of Weise's -- has transported more than 900 pets since September 2005.

While the interest has been mostly in dogs, the group will try to help just about any domestic animal, from ferrets to cats, rats to tarantulas. They successfully transported 12 rats once but, she recalled, were not able to make a 60-pound tortoise work.

It all happens through a logistical nightmare of manually matching pets and their routes to volunteer truck drivers and their ever-changing schedules. Weise and her small team of volunteers also manage volunteer shuttle drivers to bring pets to meet the truckers and temporary foster homes for stops along the way.

Transporting a pet can cost hundreds of dollars, but Operation Roger only requests a donation. "There's a $40 minimum, but you can give us more and we will just love you for it," she said. "It's tax-deductible and nonrefundable, but the transport is for free."

Drivers must work for companies that allow pets, which many do. In Arkansas, for example, USA Truck, J.B. Hunt and Cal-Ark International are just a few with pet-tolerant policies.

Jim Farmer has been driving professionally since 1982 and transporting pets with Operation Roger for almost a decade. He estimates he has had 70 to 80 of them in his truck over the years.

"I've always loved dogs and had my own riding with me a lot of times. I'm just a real dog person," he said. "It's not about anything else but the dogs ... or the cats, sometimes."

Operation Roger has to react to whichever drivers and pet requests they have in a given moment. After big storms or events, their pet requests increase, and over the years they've ranged from 10 to 60 drivers on the roster.

"Life gets in the way," Weise explained. "People change jobs or maybe they decide they don't like all the hair."

Every week their drivers send in their expected routes and locations so that Weise can try to match them with pets. The truck drivers' schedules take priority though, so animals may have to wait.

"Sometimes it takes a long time. You have to wait for the right driver. That's the limitation that we have," she said.

"We are here to help. That's all we are trying to do," she said. "It does take time though, because it has to be on the driver's schedule."

Idella Hansen is an Operation Roger board member and a professional truck driver. "If we could not transport them, a lot of these pets wouldn't have a home," she said. "Some folks don't have a couple of hundred dollars to ship them on a plane and some of them are not transportable, like a lot of the pit mixes and the bigger dogs. We transported one last week who was deaf and real sensitive."

"We do it for the love of animals," Hansen said. "Almost all of us have our own pets."

If they can, they will do whatever to make it happen. Weise recalled one dog rescued from an abandoned house in Louisiana whose itinerary to Reno, Nev., involved six different handoffs over three weeks.

At the beginning the dog was trembling, Weise said. "By the time she got to that last driver, she was all, 'OK, where we going next?'"

A further logistical complication involves where drivers can legally park their trucks to meet foster parents or pet owners. Toni McQueen, who helps Wiese with the administration and logistics, said this is one of her biggest challenges.

"I have trouble getting people to understand that truckers cannot just park in any Wal-Mart," she said. "Sometimes people just don't understand that [truck drivers] can get ticketed and towed. They can't go everywhere."

Additionally, Weise said, there is no leeway in appointment times. "If you can't meet the driver when and where he or she says to meet, the pet misses the ride. If the driver has to go, he has to go. Drivers can't miss their loads."

But the advantages when it works are wonderful, McQueen said. She discovered Operation Roger after a horrible experience transporting a rescued Boston Terrier. Someone offering professional pet transport nearly killed the dog after abandoning it for a week.

"Truck drivers are usually in the truck alone," she said. "You can hear the excitement of their voices when they do get a new transport. They love it."

"They've got company that otherwise they wouldn't have," she said. "It sure beats being in there by yourself the whole time."

Plus, she explained, the enclosed setup allows for pets to be free of crates which makes for an all around better experience.

"It gives them more one-on-one attention," she said. "That to me makes a more successful transport because you are more apt to catch it if one of them has car sickness or needs a bathroom break."

McQueen and Weise thoroughly vet the applications of drivers and pet owners to try to avoid trouble. Drivers go through "Operation Roger University" training as well.

The most important quality in a driver? A demonstrated love of animals.

As for the pets? Operation Roger asks for total honesty on the application. If they are not housebroken, "We kind of like to know that," Weise said.

SundayMonday Business on 05/28/2017

Something New

We recently switched some things up at the business desk, and I have added coverage of a few other companies in Arkansas beyond my transportation beat.

The biggest of these is called Acxiom, an Arkansas fixture that was one of the first companies to start compiling consumer data and managing and selling it to marketers. One of its early employees recalled to me how they would gather up phone books in the 1980s, cut out the pages and manually take photos of each as the source of their first data sets. At one time Acxiom managed the world's largest data repository. In fact, its data helped federal authorities track down the 9/11 perpetrators. 

It's a company you've maybe never heard of but, chances are, a company that knows a lot about you. They actually created a website where you can look up what they know about you here

Around Arkansas it is well-known as one of the state's early powerhouses of tech. To some though, it is viewed with bitterness as a company that for a period seemed to do layoffs every couple months. Given that it was (and still is) one of the largest employers in the area, those had lasting effects on central Arkansas. I have gotten a sense of that from many sources who feel betrayed by a company that appears to have pulled out of Arkansas and pushed into San Francisco and New York. Between that and its inherently complex business model, I think it's fair to say it has had a bit of an image issue in the state. 

Its CEO has decided he wants to change that and came to town to speak to me about what they are up to now, and how he hopes to bring Acxiom's Arkansas alumni back into its community. 


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Acxiom keeps momentum at Conway site

Future excites CEO after firm moves back ‘home’

By Emma N. Hurt

Scott Howe wants Arkansas to know that Acxiom is growing and he's excited about it.

"We've always been known as the biggest company that no one's ever heard of in the marketing space," the company's president and chief executive said. "I'd much rather be the company that everyone's heard of that's important to every business in the world."

Acxiom, founded in Conway in 1969 as Demographics, is a data management and distribution company that helps marketers more efficiently advertise and target customers.

However, he acknowledged that over the years, "to grow, first we got smaller."

In reference to previous statistics provided to the Democrat-Gazette, he clarified, "We just stupidly gave you wrong numbers about our head count, because we haven't laid off 90 people. We are actually up. One had interns in it and the other didn't."

The company reports it hired nearly 50 people between December and March, putting its global head count at 3,261 at the end of its fourth quarter.

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"If you go back in time, five or six years ago, we were growing one to two percent a year. This past year we are going to grow about 10 percent. When I started, our market capitalization was less than $900 million. We had a $10 share price. Now we are at $2.2 billion," Howe said. Stocks trade at just under $30 today.

He admitted that a long series of layoffs had already lent the company a negative reputation in Arkansas before he arrived in 2011. Its footprint has steadily shrunk since peak employment in 2007, when the company employed around 7,000 people globally and 2,700 in Arkansas.

"We sold a bunch of businesses that were not core to what we do. They were kind of bolted on, and quite frankly, they were lower growth and less attractive businesses," he explained.

"I would like to someday get to a point where people don't remember that this company ever had a layoff. I think there was a decade, quite frankly, where it was used as a performance management tool," he said. "That's no way to manage a business. That's not how we want to manage the business."

Since centralizing its mission, he said, layoffs are no longer a common occurrence, though hiring and firing will "always" be a part of a business of Acxiom's size.

Acxiom's Arkansas staff hovers around 1,500, the company said, almost all of whom moved to the Conway campus since the company sold its signature tower in downtown Little Rock in March to Simmons Bank.

This also prompted a switch of corporate headquarters back to its original location in Conway. However, Howe said, the title of corporate headquarters means little to him.

"I don't really care where the headquarters is. I also don't care where any of our executives live. In a modern corporation and a global company, you expect that people will live all over the world," he said. "If headquarters is defined by where the CEO sleeps, then headquarters should be defined as American Airlines seat 11C, the aisle exit row, because that's where I'm sleeping more often than not."

Acxiom maintains 20 locations across nine countries.

The 100-acre site in Conway is the company's largest, predominantly handling its well-known business segments: marketing services and audience solutions. Its newer connectivity segment, which grew 36 percent in the last year, is handled mostly out of San Francisco and New York.

"As a whole we want to be where our clients are," Howe said. "So much of that [connectivity] business is about partnering with Facebook and Google and other companies that aren't headquartered [in Arkansas]."

Despite that though, he said, Acxiom's Arkansan past remains at its core. "We will always be an Arkansan company. That will always be a part of our DNA. There is something about the central corridor of the Midwest and the people that live here. People say what they mean. They are honest, high integrity, high character people who can deliver the bad news as well as the good," he said.

"It doesn't matter if we're hiring in Paris or London or San Francisco, we are looking for someone who fits those criteria. To me that's an Arkansan set of values, and that's the kind of values that we have."

If grounded in "Arkansan values," where does the future of Acxiom lie? Howe said Acxiom today reminds him of Amazon when it first began expanding its business beyond books.

"If you remember early Amazon, it was all tabs. The tab for books, tab for cosmetics, tab for sporting goods," he said. "The way they used to talk about it was their 'tab strategy.' We have this infrastructure. What's the next tab going to be? What's the next industry we're going to explore together?"

Howe said he's looking for any industry with a lot of data, fragmentation and complexity to transform, as Acxiom has done in marketing.

Like health care, for example: a highly bureaucratic, complex space, where each person's medical records are scattered across providers. He said that the average consumer has medical records stored with 180 different providers.

"If I can have that data all integrated, I will have a better outcome as a consumer and my doctors will make better decisions about me because all my data will live in one place," he said.

"All the stuff that we've perfected in marketing applies perfectly to health care, if we want to go after health care. It's just a matter of what makes sense for us to go do next."

With this vision, the future looks bright to him. "I believe Acxiom can be so much more. I don't believe the best days of Acxiom are behind us," he said.

"We are on a pathway now that's very exciting," echoed Allison Marr, product director and manager. She said that when she started at Acxiom about 20 years ago, the average employee was in his or her mid-20s, which is no longer the case.

"Over these years we've stayed at Acxiom because we believe in this company. It has a great culture, it is people based, and we are growing. We are seeing that growth. There have been hiccups along the way, but the opportunity is tremendous today," she said.

Another part of that pathway, Howe said, involves engaging the company's alumni better, particularly in Arkansas. "We are unique among other companies in the world because we have such a high concentration of alumni. We have to do a better job of bringing the alumni back into the family as well," he said.

"The person who got laid off 10 years ago and doesn't even know what Acxiom is anymore is someone we've got to get to a community service event or an educational talk or something that makes them reconnect with their former colleagues here and makes them proud of having worked here. And we've got a long way to go on that."

"Why do people stay here for decades? Because they love working here," he said. "They love the people they work for. They believe in the mission. The rest, ultimately, is noise. I think we've got to do a better job of sharing that."

SundayMonday Business on 04/30/2017

Stumbling Across a Bit of Vietnam off of I-40

As I was driving my now-familiar route from Fayetteville to Little Rock, a sign on a building caught my eye with words I hadn't seen since Southeast Asia.

A few Google searches later and sure enough, it was the site of the first Vietnamese company to open a manufacturing facility in the U.S.: Vinh Long. While they announced their expansion to Arkansas in 2013, it has taken them some time to juggle cultural and industry learning curves. They will finally start trial production this summer.

After a winding series of emails, I ended up meeting with the bi-national team that's been pulling Vinh Long Arkansas, LLC together. The site will produce wooden furniture, primarily for IKEA, though the leadership team has big dreams to expand their U.S. business quickly.

It was special to see these two worlds collide. Who would have predicted I'd be talking about bun cha and Phu Quoc in a warehouse in Morrilton, Arkansas?


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Vietnamese plant near state debut

Investment now $15M, Morrilton site gears for summer start

By Emma N. Hurt

In 2013, the state of Arkansas announced that the first Vietnamese company to open a manufacturing plant in the United States selected Morrilton as its new home. More than three years later, the plans conveyed in that news release finally are becoming a reality.

Vinh Long, a woven-products and furniture manufacturer based in Vinh Long province in Vietnam's Mekong delta, promised to invest $5 million at the site of the former Bosch factory on Telex Drive. It originally planned to begin production in 2014.

While that timeline has been extended, so has the size of the investment, to about $15 million. The more than 200,000-square-foot building has been extensively renovated, has a new coat of paint and is just starting to fill with new manufacturing equipment.

The company now employs 11 people and plans to begin trial production this summer with 25. Its owner, Phan Thi My Hanh, bought a house in the area.

"They are definitely determined to make this business work," said Jerry Smith, president and chief executive of the Morrilton Chamber of Commerce.

"The owner, Madame Hanh, is very much involved with it, and she takes everything about this project very personally," Smith said. "I appreciate that she is bullish, if you will, on Morrilton and the economy here. She really thinks this is a growing community."

Hanh has family members in Maumelle and purposefully selected Arkansas for its slower pace of life and ease of access to the wood needed for furniture, said Le Thai Tinh, Vinh Long's sales director who is coordinating the setup of the American operation. He has been back and forth from Vietnam about 20 times, so far.

 Dung Tran (left) Danial Evans and Le Thai Tinh of Vinh Long, a Vietnamese manufacturing company that will open in Morrilton

Dung Tran (left) Danial Evans and Le Thai Tinh of Vinh Long, a Vietnamese manufacturing company that will open in Morrilton

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"This is not only for business; it's not only to make money," he said of Vinh Long Arkansas. "Part of our mission is to create something here for the community."

Of the 11 employees in Morrilton, three used to work in the same building, when it was the Bosch plant. When Bosch moved its production to Mexico in late 2012, 140 people lost their jobs. Vinh Long has been working with the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton to coordinate internships, recruiting and ongoing training programs for employees.

"I think what Vinh Long is bringing in is a sense of high-tech," said Robert Keeton, division chairman of technical studies at the college.

"Everything they're doing is going to be automated. They're bringing in some state-of-the-art equipment over there. Once they're fully operational, I think they'll be a pretty significant employer in Conway County."

Of the delayed timeline, Smith said, "They have nothing other than the intention to do what they said. It's just taken them longer to adapt to the way things are done in the U.S."

Tinh said there was a steep learning curve between business in his home country and business in the United States.

Specifically, he noted that there had been some miscommunication involving contractors and the renovation of the building.

"The way of working with contractors here is very different. In Vietnam, they give you a quote at the beginning and that's what you pay at the end," he said. "But here, the price can end up being more or less than what they originally quoted."

Additionally, the operation in Morrilton -- particle board furniture manufacturing -- was an entirely new segment for Vinh Long. Until now the manufacturer primarily produced woven goods in a 700-person factory and a 10,000-person team of weavers in Vietnam.

Ninety percent of the company's business is done with furniture retailer Ikea.

Hanh decided to expand her company into wooden furniture with a new workshop in Vietnam and in the U.S. at the same time, learning everything from scratch. Vinh Long ended up hiring a German consulting company to help figure out what machinery to buy and how to lay out its new facilities, also contributing to the delay.

Smith said the company is "going first class on everything they do." He said that when people ask if it's ever going to open, "I say, 'They've spent too much money not to.'"

"I'm just really looking forward to when they get going," he said.

"It's good to see it all finally coming along," said Danial Evans, information-technology manager and Vinh Long Arkansas' third employee. "For six months when I first started we were just cleaning, painting and prepping. And all of a sudden machines are starting to roll in."

Marc Roberts is working at the plant through an internship with the college, where he studies industrial mechanics and maintenance technology.

"From what I can see here and from what I see of the people they're trying to hire, it's going to be great for the community and a great relationship between the two countries," he said.

Mike Preston, executive director at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, agreed that there are "some learning curves along the way for any country to start doing business in another."

"It takes them a while to understand our customs and our traditions," he said. "Every country is a little different, and you're talking about a country halfway around the world."

Vinh Long was promised an incentive package from the state once it employs 75 people.

"Until then, we will help them however we can to get them to that point, as long as it's not monetarily," he added.

Preston said Vietnamese companies "are just getting ready to take off" and have "a world of potential" in terms of global investment. He said the commission has two offices in Asia to help foster relationships with that part of the world.

In 2015 Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a memorandum of understanding with the chairman of Dong Nai province's People's Committee at a ceremony in Little Rock. The gesture formally declared a mutual desire to keep expanding the relationship between the state and the province just north of the country's capital, Ho Chi Minh City.

Tin Nghia Corp., a major Vietnamese company in Dong Nai, opened a trade office in Arkansas about the same time.

The Vietnam-U.S. trade relationship represented about $52 billion in both directions in 2016. It is the United States' 12th-largest import partner.

While Vinh Long posted $35 million in export sales last year, it has ambitious plans to make that $100 million by 2020. The company hopes to quickly start diversifying its business through other opportunities in the U.S. market.

"This is our future," Tinh said, gesturing to the Arkansas plant.

SundayMonday Business on 03/26/2017

The Arkansan Roots of a "Prince of Truffles"

Well, I've got another non-trucking story for you because it's too interesting not to share. If you're looking for trucking news, check out my clips tab where I continuously link to all my articles as they post. (The latest? How Arkansas's recent legalization of medical marijuana might affect the trucking industry.)

Ian Purkayastha has captured the imagination of many around the country, with good reason. His is the story of a teenager who started foraging for mushroom in the Ozark mountains and long story short, now supplies truffles and other exotic foods to 80 percent of New York's Michelin restaurants. He's 24. Forbes called him the "prince of truffles," the New Yorker just published a profile and the Wall Street Journal and Planet Money have also done stories, to name a few. Oh and he just published a memoir.

I interviewed him too, digging into his Arkansas story. While born in Houston, his family moved here while he was in high school, he made his first truffle sales in downtown Fayetteville and his parents still own a local restaurant. One of the reasons he likes his second home in the Berkshires, he told me, is that it reminds him of Arkansas.

If you want to learn even more, consider checking out his book. As he told me, he used it as a way to "demystify" the story and industry, and he really lays it all out there in detail.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Truffle firm rooted in Arkansas

Business of entrepreneur who foraged for mushrooms reaches nearly $8M

By Emma N. Hurt

In the forests of Northwest Arkansas, a teenage Ian Purkayastha first discovered his passion for mushrooms and rare, wild foods.

Today the 24-year-old lives in Manhattan and is on track to sell $8 million worth of truffles, mushrooms and other exotic foods like caviar, wild greens and live seafood in 2017.

His company, Regalis Foods, manages over 300 accounts nationwide, including 80 percent of New York's Michelin-starred restaurants. He also published a memoir, Truffle Boy, this year.

Back in his midteens, Purkayastha and his family had just moved to Arkansas from Houston as his parents sought a simpler life amid the recession. His uncle, Jared Pebworth, an archaeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, had been living in Fayetteville and taught his nephew to forage for mushrooms around a family cabin in Huntsville and all over the Ozarks, near Harrison, Goshen and even at Finger Park in Fayetteville.

Purkayastha dug into researching edible mushrooms and ultimately became fixated on the truffle after tasting the rare, expensive delicacy for the first time on a trip back to Houston. It was a meal that would shift the trajectory of his life.

"When he gets into something, he's very focused. He's always had this ability to take something he's learned and take it a little bit further," Pebworth said. "I never doubted that whatever he did he would take it to the next level."

After saving up gift money, the 15-year-old found a French truffle supplier and ordered his first kilogram, intending to re-create that first truffle dish. He quickly realized a kilo was too much, so he put the best two truffles in his refrigerator, and his dad drove him to downtown Fayetteville to try to sell the rest to Ella's, Theo's and Bordinos restaurants.

That inaugural $260 sale launched Purkayastha's first company, Tartufi Unlimited. The staff at the Washington County Courthouse had to check with a supervisor because they had never seen someone so young apply for a tax ID number to legally sell wholesale products.

By the end of high school, the prospects of his truffle distribution business outweighed the appeal of college. Even though he had won an entrepreneurship scholarship, "I convinced my parents to let me move to New York, defer college and pursue this dream of selling truffles and mushrooms. I've been very lucky to have such supportive parents who have let me take this different path to education," he said.

His parents, Lisa and Abhijeet Purkayastha , are longtime entrepreneurs (they operate Khana Indian Grill in Fayetteville) and championed their son's dream despite his setbacks, including when he was beaten and robbed on his third day in the city.

"I think any other parent would have made me come home right away, but they were supportive and encouraging," he recalled. "That has really been the success in this whole thing: having a strong foundation in my parents and a strong support system. Without that it would have been impossible to achieve any of this."

Pursuing his dream to "make it big in New York" came with even more challenges. Purkayastha was only paid commission by the Italian distribution company he sold for. He lived in a bad part of Newark, N.J., his office was above a methadone clinic without air conditioning and he had to "fight for every order," initially facing a lot of rejection. Eventually though, his persistence, reliability and the high quality of his truffles won over some of New York's best chefs.

"I assumed that if I continued pushing through and continued to hustle that I would become successful someday," he said. "It obviously took a long time, but it got to a point where people started reordering truffles and started trusting me. The cold calls turned into restaurants calling me wanting to do business with me."

HARD BUSINESS LESSONS

In the six years since, Purkayastha has learned a lifetime of business lessons. He has had suppliers swindle him and undergone many logistical nightmares, from a shipment getting incinerated at customs because of suspected bug infestation to having a car towed, full of truffles to be delivered. He had to include money for parking tickets in his budget and ended up parting ways with the Italian distribution company as well as his original Regalis Foods business partners once he realized they were undervaluing him.

Today, he says things are finally stable. Before, Purkayastha recalled living a lonely life "in a depressive state, working myself to death, 18-hour days, six days a week," but now he has seven employees and four delivery trucks. He lives on the Upper West Side with a second home in western Massachusetts.

While he estimates he is the third largest supplier in the country, "there is endless competition," he said. "Every year is harder and harder" as more people try to break into the lucrative market.

"We're constantly trying to find that next big thing," he said.

Over the years he has gotten threats, had his tires slashed and had competitors approach him to price fix the market. Truffle smuggling is also a problem, he said, given the ease with which someone can slip some truffles in a suitcase.

Regalis' competitive edge, according to Purkayastha, came from several directions. First, he said, he has always been militant about the quality of his products. "Everyone assumes that because they're very expensive, these products will automatically be high quality. That's just not the case."

He sells an ounce of Italian white truffles for $230 while French Perigord black truffles are $65 an ounce.

"We have to literally inspect every single truffle that arrives," he said.

CUTTING EDGE

Additionally, thanks to some excellent timing, he was on the cutting edge of the recent foraging movement among high-end restaurants.

"I started foraging when it wasn't hip and fashionable with my Uncle Jared in the Ozarks," he said, explaining that Regalis, founded in 2012, differentiated itself with its variety of foraged products.

"I got into these kitchens not with the truffles but with these other foraged, wild plants and mushrooms. The truffle business was kind of a trickle-down," he said.

Ultimately though, Purkayastha's identity has become enmeshed with those truffles. He called his memoir Truffle Boy, after all.

While he says he definitely does not eat truffles every day, and some days he feels "smothered" by their powerful smell, "I still love truffles. I still get excited when we get a new shipment."

"I tell people all the time truffles are the last natural ingredient left on earth. Nothing else is almost exclusively wild."

Truffles have not been commercially produced on a large scale, adding to their cachet and expense.

Back in his teens, Purkayastha had an idea for his Fayetteville neighbor and general surgeon, Wayne Hudec. "He came to me very professional-like and said, 'Dr. Hudec, I have a business proposal for you,'" Hudec recalled.

Purkayastha suggested that his neighbor invest in trying to grow truffles at his farm, Hazel Valley Ranch, that Purkayastha could later distribute, with an equal profit split. They shook hands on it.

It has been six years, so Hudec and Purkayastha suspect they have some truffles under hazelnut trees by now. They are looking for a truffle-sniffing dog to locate their underground harvest.

"He's gotten a different kind of higher education in the world of unique foods," Hudec said. "He's just grown by leaps and bounds. For him to be a success at his age, I'm just proud as hell."

Purkayastha never made it to college. He ended up returning his scholarship money when it became clear scheduling wouldn't work.

IDEA GROWS SCHOOL

His rejection of the "traditional" educational path to success had an effect on his former creative writing teacher at Fayetteville High School, Boyd Logan.

Last year, Logan founded the Future School charter high school in Fort Smith with the goal of cultivating students' extracurricular and professional passions. Each week students spend a day at internships wherever they choose.

"Ian was the turning point," he said. "I realized that at school we were cutting kids capable of all this crazy stuff off from those passions. Ian would leave and do what he was most passionate about after school, versus us cultivating that passion at school."

Purkayastha's business continues to grow. He has opened Regalis Texas after acquiring an exotic foods company in Dallas, and Williams Sonoma now carries Regalis truffle oil, butter, salt and sauce.

However, he's proceeding cautiously. Given the trust each of his transactions require, his profit is rooted in relationships, which makes expansion tricky.

"The success of the business is the personal relationships with the chefs. You lose that the larger you get. I'm walking this fine line between wanting to scale up and putting the brakes on, because I don't want to lose track of what has made me successful."

He still forages whenever he has a chance at his property in Massachusetts and with his uncle in Arkansas. "Wherever we go, it turns into foraging," Pebworth said.

"I'm glad Ian was paying attention," he said of those first foraging trips in the Ozarks. "I like the fact that in such a modern world, he's bringing a little bit of nature to the city."

SundayMonday Business on 02/19/2017

 

A World-Class Art Company in a Town of 600

In an unlikely place about an hour into the Arkansan countryside, I met some incredible people making exquisite art.

Heidi and Christian Batteau run a global company from a converted seed mill off a two-lane road in the Ozark Mountains, while living off their own farm nearby. They've developed a unique way to hand-make custom, high-end wallpaper, and their work hangs in 19 countries on the walls of the homes of A-list celebrities, luxury hotels and stores like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Tiffany & Co.

Since they rarely allow visitors to their studio, I was honored to see it. I can vouch that they are the "real deal," and if you're in the market for beautiful art to paper your walls with, look no further.

While I don't know if photos can do their work justice, you can find even more images at their website.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Arkansas artists’ wallpaper goes global

It’s made by hand; formula is unique

By Emma N. Hurt

In a converted seed mill off of Arkansas 23 in the Ozarks, Heidi and Christian Batteau are at work hand-making luxury wallpaper and shipping it around the world to the likes of Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, the Koch brothers and Chanel.

In 2011 the couple left successful careers in textile design and sculpture in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to Heidi's native Witter to pursue their dream of living off of their farm and developing a unique way to make custom wallpaper.

Their work, which can cost anywhere from $60 to $400 a yard, now hangs on the walls of homes, hotels, offices and stores across five continents, including in four of the world's top 10 tallest buildings. And their company, Assemblage Inc., shows no signs of slowing down.

After Chanel asked whether it was possible to replicate a piece of fabric in wallpaper form in 2004, Christian Batteau, 42, set to work trying to find a way to do it. The Los Angeles-native studied sculpture and spent time working for contemporary artist Jeff Koons but said he has been working with plaster and painting "to support my sculpture hobby" since age 17.

Most handmade wallpaper is applied directly to the wall, which requires paying expensive crews for weeks to install on-site. With that process it is also impossible to produce the kinds of designs like the Batteaus now make, because gravity causes them to drip.

He tweaked paint formulas and experimented with different kinds of paper until he found the perfect formula that would be able to handle heavy products like layers of marble dust plaster, precious metals, beeswax and lacquer and not crack when rolled up for transport.

They eventually ended up with the perfect recipe that has allowed the Batteaus' business to take off on a global scale. Unlike traditional bespoke -- or made-to-order -- wallpaper, their product can be shipped anywhere and takes just a day to put up.

Their adopted home in Arkansas has made the business and their current lives possible, they said. "We could not be doing this in New York," said Heidi Batteau, 35.

"It's a competitive industry, and we would have to charge more to pay our artists a livable wage. If somebody is coming to work for us on contract, it's got to be worth it for them to be flexible with the production schedule. In New York we were paying people $20-$25 an hour. The profit margin was low, and you can't even live well on that wage in the city."

They have had two children since they moved, something they say they couldn't find a way to do in New York, given the costs and space constraints.

Batteau grew up in Witter, an unincorporated community in Madison County. Her mother, Betty Blackwood, still owns and operates a hand-crafted textile company, Dogwood Designs, in Witter.

"I knew there was a large craft movement here. There are a lot of people here supporting themselves by making things," Batteau said. "You see that and think, OK, we can do this. We can go out there and make a living."

"Although," she qualified, "it was a lot scarier once we actually got here."

While their best year so far has yielded $850,000 in revenue, it took time to see numbers like that.

"Brand equity is way harder to generate than I realized," Christian Batteau said. "When you have a new brand, big architecture firms are reticent to place purchases from you, because they're trying to see whether you survive."

"We had to wait that out. It took two years. And in the meantime, we were doing anything to make a living," he said. "I was chopping wood on the side to pay the people working for us."

"You constantly wonder, should we just say it's done and go back?" Heidi Batteau recalled. "But you've got to try and keep your positive attitude."

As to why he stuck it out, Christian Batteau said, "I believed in the dream. It sounds ridiculous. But I believed in being able to have our sustainable life, grow our own food, hire people for a livable wage and make beautiful work."

Recently, with help from international sales representation, the Batteaus' business has expanded beyond exclusively custom orders to existing designs people order specifically. "It has made the business steadier," Heidi Batteau said.

Another component of their customer service is "value engineering," Christian Batteau said. "By removing some of the more expensive layers like marble dust plaster, someone like Banana Republic can afford to buy a design, instead of just a Chanel," he said.

"We are an art studio," Heidi Batteau said. "We'll do anything. If someone comes to us and says, 'Can you do it?' We will do it."

Their flexibility and willingness to customize has proved one of their strongest selling points. They have taken things like fabrics, tortoiseshell and leathers and interpreted them into complex wallpaper design, and they have taken complicated and expensive designs down a notch for smaller budgets.

"They're so approachable even though they're producing this really beautiful, luxurious art," said Nancy Winston, general manager for the Texas showrooms of Holly Hunt, a company that designs and manufacturers home furnishings and also represents Assemblage.

"They've done installations for the likes of Louis Vuitton, but you can create your own little jewel in your powder room or bathroom. For example, they use a lot of precious metals, but there are alternatives if budgets don't allow for that."

"Assemblage is one of my favorites to work with because they are so hands-on and passionate," she said. "It makes it fun. You can feel how committed and detail-oriented they are, and you just know it's going to work for a client. Mistakes don't happen, because they are so detail-oriented."

There are almost no other businesses around the world producing work like the Batteaus. Most wallpaper is printed nowadays. Christian Batteau said that even when he tried to outsource orders when it was particularly busy, he could not find a competitor willing to do the same work at the same price.

"It's a lost craft," he said.

The more the Batteaus are doing this, the more orders they have received -- more than 400 as of now. These early weeks of 2017 were supposed to be quiet for them, but they suddenly have five rush orders on their hands.

"It's finally started to really take off in the last six to eight months," Heidi Batteau said.

They've had to hire artists from around the area to help, but they have long-term dreams to bring on even more. They are interested in someday exploring furniture and lighting design and expanding their production studio into a co-working space for other craftsmen.

In the meantime, they continue to run their global company from Arkansas 23, but they hope to increase engagement with architects and interior designers closer to home.

"We interact with the world constantly. This morning I was interacting with Chanel in France," Heidi Batteau said.

However, she said, "I would love to be able to have more local support and work."

"I think people don't know that we're here," Christian Batteau said. "We really are engaged globally, but the local thing is a piece of the puzzle we've just been starting to cultivate."

SundayMonday Business on 01/29/2017

Print Headline: Artists’ wallpaper goes global

"A Pioneer and a Trailblazer:" Being on the Road for Nearly 50 Years

Idella Hansen learned to drive at age 11 and started in commercial vehicles at 18. As you can read in the story below, she's driven nearly every kind of rig imaginable all over the country. She's now 66 and as passionate as ever about her life's work. She currently drives for a specialized company hauling extremely high value cargo and carries a .357 Magnum to protect it. 

We had a fun three hours talking about everything from the "talking books" that keep her mind busy on the road to widespread abuse of student drivers by trainers. I'm really happy to have gotten to know her and to have been able to tell this inspiring story of a true "trailblazer."


Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Hansen, a professional truck driver, has been driving since she was 11 years old. She recently talked about her years on the road at the Iron Skillet restaurant in the Petro Truck Stop in North Little Rock.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Woman trucker once one of the few in Arkansas

For Camden resident, life at the wheel started early

By Emma N. Hurt

Much has changed over the course of Idella Hansen's life, but one thing has remained constant: a love for driving.

The Camden resident first learned to drive a car at age 11. She had an elderly neighbor who liked to go to the roller derby, but he couldn't see well enough to drive at night. So he put her on the edge of the driver's seat of his 1941 Chrysler.

"If I saw an 11-year-old driving a car like that now, I would have a heart attack," she said. "But he made me go fast. I learned how to drive, and I've been driving ever since. It's just second nature to me. I knew then that that's all I ever wanted to do: drive."

Now -- at 66 -- she hauls high-value cargo for IBI Secured Transport in a team with her longtime boyfriend and driving partner, John Smith. Transporting valuable cargo means they are licensed security officers who carry .357 Magnums for protection.

During her life she has driven a wide range of equipment: log trailers, a wrecker, an open-top wood-chip van, refrigerated trailers, dry van, flatbed, a dump truck and a school-bus van.

"If it'll crank," she said, "I can drive it. It doesn't make any difference what it is. It can be a front-end loader."

Beyond the breadth of her career, Hansen started driving when there were even fewer women on the roads than the minority driving now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated women made up about 5 percent of the occupation in 2015.

"I just think that she's a superstar," said Desiree Wood, a fellow driver and friend of Hansen's. "And I know a lot of other people do, too. She deserves an enormous amount of recognition as a pioneer and a trailblazer that all women in trucking should look up to."

Hansen graduated from high school early to start driving a five-speed transmission straight tanker for her then-husband's family's bulk-gasoline plant. "To this day I'm not really sure I knew what I was doing," she said. "I taught myself how to drive. Everything I did was self-taught."

Settling in Morrilton

In 1968, a pregnant, 18-year-old Hansen and her husband moved from her native California to Morrilton, where his parents were. They eventually bought a cab-over tractor and a dump truck, and Hansen was back on the road. While her children were young, she stayed on local routes, which had her home every night.

She wasn't even deterred when she accidentally fell into an open-top trailer full of wood chips when trying to pull a branch out. It took an hour for someone to hear her and open up the trailer.

"I don't think you can drive a truck for as long as I have without a sense of humor," she said. "You can't let things bother you. You've got to laugh it off. You've got to be able to laugh at yourself."

By her late 30s, she had gotten divorced, her children were grown and she had been driving most of her life. She was a perfect candidate for over-the-road driving. Around that time, Prescolite in El Dorado realized that to win a government contract, they needed to hire a black person and a woman.

Hearing of her reputation as a good driver, Hansen was offered a job, "a great job," as she called it. She took her first driving test in a pair of heels. "From the very beginning," she said, "they treated me with respect and equality. I would still be there if they still had jobs."

"My first trip was to Pinebrook, N.J. I had never driven that much interstate all wrapped up in one trip in all my years working local."

Mud-flap solution

While she has few complaints about this stint, she did face one challenge: Because they didn't have permanently assigned trucks, other drivers would often take hers because she kept it extra clean. So, she decided to buy some chrome decals with the silhouettes of naked men and put them on red mud flaps. "My truck was always there from then on. Nobody took my truck again. I ran with men on my mud flaps for years and years and years."

After a decade she bought her own truck and became an owner-operator until a stint at Tyson Foods in Springdale. While it was "an education" in electronic logs, PeopleNet communications software and driving an automatic transmission, "the [refrigerated] unit isn't for me," she said.

Soon thereafter she was offered her current job in secured transport, which has allowed her and Smith to work together. They stay out for three to four months at a time, traveling all over the country.

This doesn't stop her from staying actively involved with four different trucking-related nonprofit groups, including Real Women in Trucking. Wood, the group's founder and president, connected with Hansen over social media, and they quickly became friends.

"There's something about Idella that draws you to her," Wood said. "She's just, to me, very motherly and comforting and soulful. She's very charismatic, and people are drawn to her. She also, of course, has got a lot of driving experience."

Wood explained they connected over shared personal experiences, too: "She was a single mom for a lot of years, and I was, too. There's a certain amount of struggle, hardship and heartbreak you go through when you live that life, when you're the one putting the food on the table, you're the breadwinner, you're the mom, you're the dad," she said. "It's really an inspiration that she's still out here working the way that she does. ... And she quilts!"

"I tell my friends all the time that my grandma is a trucker. And they say, 'What?!'" said Hansen's grandson, Isaac Barr. "Everyone else's grandma is sitting at home, watching TV, calling other people on the home phone. They don't even have cellphones."

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
At 66, Idella Hansen has made truck driving her life.

Less lonely with tech

Hansen definitely has a cellphone and praised the role social media and connectivity have had in opening up the lives of truck drivers and keeping them occupied. She said that now "I couldn't survive without my talking books!"

She admitted it's still a "lonesome job," but not as much as in the past. "One time, I was going across Columbia River Canyon. We didn't have cellphones. I was by myself. I saw a triple rainbow. I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to show it to somebody. I don't have the words to tell you what it was like. I wanted to have the means to share what I was seeing. I stood there, and I cried because I couldn't share it."

Now, she said, that's not as big of a problem, thanks to camera phones and the internet, though sometimes she still gets lonesome, even with her partner in the truck. That's when she connects her ever-present headset and calls someone up, she said.

Hansen has seen a lot of changes to her industry over the years and hopes to leverage her experience when she stops driving. One idea is to become "a trucking tutor."

Right now, there is a relative gap in the industry for this kind of further training, Hansen said. There are drivers who have had to abandon training midway because of trouble with intimidation, exploitation or harassment by trainers. Often these trainees are left in debt to a company or left without enough experience to get another job.

In addition, there are more experienced drivers who'd like to work on something in particular, like backing up. As Hansen put it, "I don't know if you've ever backed up a trailer before, but they get away from you."

Wood and Hansen have long-term hopes to put together a certified training program like this within Real Women in Trucking.

"When I started, I got pushed out on the road so fast. I didn't want to be an irresponsible driver, but that was just the way that it was," Wood explained. "I still struggle with things and wonder if I'm doing it right. I would just love the opportunity to be in the truck with someone like Idella who could say, 'You could make it easier on yourself and the truck if you would do it like this.'"

Hansen attributed her deep knowledge of her line of work to the chances she has had to make mistakes.

"If you don't make a mistake -- get lost, make the wrong turn, pull in somewhere thinking you can turn around -- if you don't make those mistakes, then you're not driving," she said. "It's part of life. I still screw up. I miss turns all the time. It's not fun screwing up in New York City, though. That's nerve-wracking."

SundayMonday Business on 01/08/2017

Print Headline: Woman trucker once one of the few