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Episode 224: Expanding Economic Development in Arkansas with Mike Malone

April 26, 2023  |  By Matt Waller

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This week on the podcast Matt sits down with Mike Malone, Vice Chancellor for Economic Development at the University of Arkansas. Mike has been very involved in the growth of Northwest Arkansas, serving previously as the VP of Community and Corporate Affairs at Runway Group and President and CEO of Northwest Arkansas Council. The discussion begins with Mike explaining what economic development at the University of Arkansas is and how he intends to use the partnerships of the University to continue creating a positive impact on the state of Arkansas. Mike and Matt then dive into the emergence of next generation mobility and how the University of Arkansas will influence research in this new sector. The episode concludes with Mike discussing the importance of preparing the next generation of the workforce and connecting students with Arkansas-based companies. 

Episode Transcript

Mike Malone  0:00  
But from a University's perspective, some of the areas where we can be most impactful are in ways that people I think, know and generally think of when they think of university economic development, for example, taking the research that's done on a campus and creating companies out of that research, the commercialization of research.

Matt Waller  0:20  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business, and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College, and welcome to the Be Epic Podcast. I have with me today, Mike Malone, who is Vice Chancellor for Economic Development at the University of Arkansas. Mike has an amazing background that has really preparing him well for this job at the University of Arkansas. For almost six years, he was VP of Community and Corporate Affairs at Runway Group. He was President and CEO of Northwest Arkansas Council for 10 years. And he has many other experiences that are relevant as well. Thank you, Mike, so much for joining me today. I appreciate it.

Mike Malone  1:13  
Thank you. I'm excited to visit with you.

Matt Waller  1:16  
Well, Mike, you had, you've been around Northwest Arkansas a long time, obviously. But you you've really been involved during a time when Northwest Arkansas has transitioned so much. It's a little hard to believe how much things have changed. But you were heading up the Northwest Arkansas Council, which is quite an organization during the time of tremendous change from 2006 to 2016. And, of course, you were head of Runway Group, which was having a huge impact on the region. And now you're you're almost at a year, I believe, as Vice Chancellor for Economic Development. So it's kind of nice, because you've seen the development of Northwest Arkansas from many different angles. But I'd love for you to if you wouldn't mind before we get into your past a little bit. If you could share just a little bit. What is Economic Development at the University of Arkansas?

Mike Malone  2:20  
That's a great question. And it's a story I'm telling regularly. And so I'm really glad you started with it. The economic development is about the different ways in which we can take the talent, the knowledge, the expertise, the resources, our facilities, our ability to convene, all the different things that we can do so well on so many different fronts, and deploy those for use for benefit in communities or for businesses and industry around the state. Our knowledge is so deep, our talent bench is so long. And we have so many people here who I know want to have an impact on our state through their work. And so a lot of our role is really trying to find those connections, activate or stimulate those partnerships so that the University of Arkansas can have an even greater impact on the economy of our state. It's already a very massive impact. At this point, the last time we quantified the University of Arkansas economic impact on the state of Arkansas it was placed at 2.2 billion annually. $2.2 billion worth of impact that we have on our state. That numbers a little dated, one of the things I want to do soon is update that number and regularly refresh that number. Because I think with our enrollment growth and our outreach and our initiatives, I'm confident that that number is going to be much larger. I wouldn't predict what it is. I'm not an economist, but I do know it's much greater than what it was calculated at five years ago. And so we look our team, our different units, our industry engagement partners look for opportunities to really connect and extend what the campus and the University of Arkansas does so well for the benefit of the state of Arkansas.

Matt Waller  4:29  
Well, you know, what, it's really exciting what you're doing. And, of course, you're right. We've got so many resources and rich expertise in areas that a lot of times people are surprised to learn about when they find out what kind of expertise we have. I was just thinking, you know, I look at different colleges, you know, College of Engineering, for example. There's been many times when I've done seen people that were surprised to find out that we had rich expertise in some area. That's happened certainly in the College of Business, the College of Education, etc, etc, all the colleges. But I can see why you're well prepared to do this. Of course, you're drinking from a firehose right now trying to get everything from the University, but you, you've been around the University a long time. You know, your role as President and CEO of Northwest Arkansas Council. Let's start with that. The Northwest Arkansas Council is an unusually successful entity that coordinates amongst these different cities, many other communities have tried to do things similar with not the same level of success that we've had in Northwest Arkansas. Would you mind speaking a little bit just about your experience there and how that is valuable to what you're doing now?

Mike Malone  6:00  
Absolutely. The Northwest Arkansas Council is a nonprofit organization. It was founded in 1990, by some of the business leaders in the region, who at the time knew that they needed a lot more coordination, a lot more support, especially on on getting some infrastructure projects done than any of the towns and small cities were able to provide on their own at that point. And so these business leaders said, let's get together, pull some resources, form an organization, set some regional goals. And so they they banded together raised a little money, it was not a lot of money, but 1990 terms, but they they pitched in some dues among the different member organizations. But what they they did that made that organization work so well was set clear. They were aggressive goals, but they set clear goals that everyone in the region could get excited about or see the benefit, if we're able to achieve them. So it was goal setting function. But then the other thing they did and this isn't magic or anything secret, but they hired professional staff, people with policy experience, with government relations experience that could help bring different community partners and organizations in the cities themselves along toward accomplishing those goals. And the the magic of the place was having professional staff that woke up each day, thinking about how to stitch together coalitions find support, find funding for achieving the goals, the big, audacious goals that were set by these business leaders that got together at the time. Again, I said it was about physical infrastructure, Northwest Arkansas, had a municipal airport that was fairly unreliable because it was surrounded by mountains, the Boston Mountain Range in South Fayetteville made created weather issues. And so scheduled air service was fairly unreliable and their runway was too short to be able to land certain planes so the region needed an airport for the region to grow. And for these industry partners to grow, it seems simple to say hey, we need an airport. But there have only been three new airports built in the United States. In the last 35 years, there have been a lot of airports expanded in the last 35 years. No greenfield projects except for Northwest Arkansas and Denver airports. Another one and maybe one one other example in Florida. I wasn't around when they they worked on the airport I came in after that I was the second director of the Council. But the goals when I was hired were very similar to continue to work on physical infrastructure projects and build regional consensus and cohesion. And so it evolved during my time there but that experience on working across a region to build partnerships and coalition's were really translates very well to this job. It's a statewide focus here, the State's land-grant university, we're looking for ways to have an impact and add value around the state the entire state of Arkansas and so that's really been fun for me but my experience in working with for profit, nonprofit and governmental entities to build consensus and move things forward translates very well to this new role.

Matt Waller  9:45  
I would think one challenge in your job is just becoming aware of everything going on at the university. There's so much.

Mike Malone  9:53  
That's exactly right. So before in my last couple of roles, I worked with the university lot and I grew up in Fayetteville, I spent a lot of time on campus, my parents both worked here. So I certainly knew some. But job one this past year, the past nine months, really that I've been in the role has been to get a much deeper understanding and build relationships and, and honestly gain trust among partners on campus, so that they understand what role the Division of Economic Development can play, and how we can help them better have an impact even beyond what they're already having. It's been a lot of fun and learn so much. And, you know, my biggest observation from my first nine months and deep dive on campus is we do so many things so well. I want as many people to know about those things and really feel like people don't have an understanding is comprehensive and understanding of how good we are in so many different areas.

Mike, what are some of the things that the University of Arkansas that you're pretty excited about from an economic development perspective?

There's some emerging economic sectors and fields like in Arkansas, and in the middle part of the country that were really poised to be a big player in. One example, the last governor appointed a Smart Mobility Council, and they put together a report on how to make Arkansas a leading state in next generation mobility. Our researchers and our research facilities and our areas of expertise, like their expertise, like supply chain logistics, fits so nicely, already in to making us competitive in that emerging sector. And with some additional resources and additional focus, I think we can be the best university in the country in the area of smart mobility and the enabling technologies and supply chain and logistics, expertise that's involved in all of that. So that that's really exciting.

Matt Waller  12:16  
That is exciting. I mean, it's so clear, there's so many demographic and economic characteristics, changes that are taking place that really point to the need to for this advanced mobility. And, and really just the advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, those kinds of things, really make it more achievable, as well.

Mike Malone  12:42  
Absolutely. When we're good at in those areas, cybersecurity is going to be important to the growth of mobility and equipment and technology. And we're very good at that. As we are with research into batteries, electric motors, just goes on and on, we're already in great position to have an influence in where the next generation of mobility is going. And so it's gonna be fun to be a part of that.

Matt Waller  13:12  
Your experience is really interesting. As a young man, back in 1994 through 98, you held various positions, including Deputy Assistant to the President, and you've held positions as Congressional Affairs liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. You've had various positions in the White House, Director of Administration, Committee Staff Member on US Senate Rules Committee, a Minority Clerk in Transportation, HUD and Independent Agencies Subcommittee. I mean, you so you do have a lot of experience in the state of Arkansas, as we just described earlier. But you also have a lot of understanding of the federal government and how it works. How does that help you in your role as Vice Chancellor for Economic Development here?

Mike Malone  14:17  
That's a good question, Matt. I think certainly understanding the federal budget and how that process works, and potentially how to have an influence there will be helpful, in some ways, especially as it relates to grants. But I think more importantly, those were just really big, complex environments. My first job out of graduate school was working in the executive branch and a lot of acronyms, a lot of different budget, center cost centers, budgets, power centers, those kind of things. And so figuring out how to build consensus and drive toward big, significant goals was really my biggest lesson and learning from those years that very much helps here, that state of Arkansas economy is incredibly diverse and dispersed. We're large state geographically, even if we're not population wise. And so figuring out how to learn the systems of players and forge consensus and drive things forward is is definitely what's most applicable from my executive branch and congressional days.

Matt Waller  15:36  
It is amazing how you can see, the federal government can even benefit a lot from some of our expertise. And I think they don't often know about it. I know, one professor that I know really well in civil engineering. His name is Andrew Brown, and he's an expert in pavement and asphalt. It doesn't sound very exciting to some people. But when you look at how much our road system and our federal interstate system, it's so extensive, and so much money goes into it. And I know over the years, he's always telling me, if we would only do this, you know, our roads would last longer, they would cost less to repair on and on. And I said, wow, I wish I wish people in the federal government could hear this, you know, we meet about once a month. And so I always hear I've learned a lot about asphalt over the last eight years. It doesn't sound interesting, but when you really think about the impact it has, right, because when roads are in disrepair, it also affects the cars. So the cost is much higher than what people often realize. So I'm just using as a sort of a esoteric example that, you know, if you'd look through all the research we're doing, at the U of A you may not realize we have the top expert in the country on this. And, you know, I don't know to what degree his expertise is utilized at the federal level.

Mike Malone  17:13  
Yeah. And I know ARDOT partners with the University of Arkansas on pavement research and other transportation research. But that is a great point. One of the things that I love seeing both before I got to the university, and also during my time here is that our congressional delegation does know how much expertise is here and relies on us and puts that expertise to work in solving problems. So they, they are good at that. But again, it's back to what I'm finding in my kind of learning journey here in my first less than a year. And that is there's so much significant important, transformative work that's happening here. It's hard to keep all of that in mind or tell that story. Because there's so much so many great things happening. And so our, our division will certainly try to play a role in communicating more and communicating in ways that people can receive it. But it's it's just hard to keep up with how much talent knowledge and expertise is here. That's a good problem to have. But it's still a problem if people don't know it. We can do more if people know more about our capabilities.

Matt Waller  18:28  
Mike, as we know, we had an economics group analyze the financial impact of university on the economy here in Arkansas a few years ago, several years ago and we found that it was over $2 billion. It's probably a lot more than that at this point. But what are some of the specific ways the University of Arkansas impacts the economy?

Mike Malone  18:53  
And economic development can be defined fairly broadly. And, you know, AEDC recruits companies to Arkansas, private equity groups create sources of funding to invest in companies to attract them to Arkansas. And those are all real important components within economic development writ large. But from a university's perspective, some of the areas where we can be most impactful are in ways that people I think, know, and generally think of when they think of University Economic Development, for example, taking the research that's done on a campus and creating companies out of that research, the commercialization of research, whether it's faculty led companies that are founded or whether that intellectual property gets licensed out that that's a really important way that new companies are started or the knowledge gets transferred to existing companies through a license arrangement and that that has a big impact. We need to make sure that Arkansas companies have it as much access and visibility into the intellectual property that we have for their benefit, y'all, I know provide all kinds of technical assistance and consulting assistance in partnerships with industry as well. And that knowledge transfer is key. But one of the areas, I don't want to lose sight of probably one of the most important maybe the most important way that we impact the economy, and that's through preparing the next generation of workforce. We're going to graduate in six or 7000 more students this year, and every year looking forward, I hope and those to the extent we're training students with skills that employers want that have that are work ready as soon as they graduate and can move into positions and start to contribute to those companies. That's a massive economic contribution that the University of Arkansas and other institutions around our state make to the economy. So I want to make sure that many of those students as we can have job opportunities in Arkansas. And that we can keep as many of them as we can in Arkansas, because that that really, we we train them, we get the benefit of them being here while they're in school. But the more that we can put to work and connect in an Arkansas based companies, the better because that that workforce transfer is really a massive way that we impact the economy.

Matt Waller  21:28  
Well, Mike, thank you for what you're doing here for the University of Arkansas, we really appreciate it. And, of course, it's not only a benefit to the University of Arkansas, it's a benefit to the state, as well. And your background really prepares you exceptionally well for this type of a role. So thank you.

Mike Malone  21:49  
Well, Matt. Thank you. It's a real pleasure to work with you and the Walton College and the partnerships around campus are what makes this work and what makes it such a great place to be in so thank you for the opportunity and for the time today.

Matt Waller  22:07  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be Epic. B E E P I C

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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