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.
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.
"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