University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 27: Graham Cobb

Graham Cobb stank at sports so he played in punk rock bands to learn teamwork. He Spent 20+ years earning a PhD in Pizza before heading to Arkansas Business to learn how to engage an audience with content in order find customers for local and national businesses.







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Episode Transcript

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00:07 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. And what those values mean in business, education and your life today. While I'm here today with Graham Cobb, the President and CEO of the Bentonville Chamber of Commerce. Thank you for talking with me today, Graham, appreciate it.

00:39 Graham Cobb: Matt, thank you so much, honored.

00:41 Matt Waller: And I feel honored that I got to do this on your one year anniversary of being President and CEO of the Chamber.

00:50 Graham Cobb: That's right, it's my Bentonville birthday, I guess.

[chuckle]

00:53 Graham Cobb: You can thank Facebook for reminding us that I started today, a year ago.

00:58 Matt Waller: And you moved here from Little Rock.

01:00 Graham Cobb: That's right, I moved... So I technically began work the 16th of November 2017, moved up here the day after Thanksgiving, and it was a lot like a freshman in college. My wife and kids dropped me off and got back in the car and drove back to Little Rock, so it very much felt like I was being dropped off at the dorms. Then they joined me once school wrapped up for the semester for them.

01:33 Matt Waller: Well you know, Graham, I noticed soon after I met you that you really fit as a person, a persona almost for the direction that Bentonville seems to be naturally going and that's an important part of leadership. Do you as a person buy into what you're leading and... And one thing I know... I don't remember when we met, how long ago was it when we met?

02:09 Graham Cobb: It was the summer that we met, I believe.

02:11 Matt Waller: Okay.

02:12 Graham Cobb: So, not long ago.

02:13 Matt Waller: Yeah, not long ago but I quickly noticed that you really believed in the direction Bentonville's going and you were passionate about it and you were good at articulating where it's going.

02:29 Graham Cobb: Well, I can tell you, in a year I've become a real student of Bentonville and I was very happy in Little Rock. I was living a bit of a dream. I was the number two at the largest Chamber in the state, that was my home town. And you know the most popular person in a football stadium is the back-up quarterback. So it was a good position to be in. And I came up here to chair a conference and ended up eating at Preacher's Son and riding bikes and fell in love with Bentonville and thought, "Goodness, this is not any Bentonville or Benton County that I knew when my wife was in school at the University of Arkansas or when I was coming up here playing in bands, playing at JR's Lightbulb. I didn't know of this Benton County. So when the opportunity arose, I believe it was as much an interview of the job on my part as it was an interview to me for the job. Does that make sense?

03:32 Matt Waller: Yeah.

03:34 Graham Cobb: So I brought my authentic self and I didn't wanna move up here to run a regular Chamber in a small town, while very valuable to many small towns, that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to build new things, I wanted to affect some change, and then I wanted to help these small businesses get on board with all this cool stuff that I saw. "Get on board" might not be the right term. I wanted them to see how valuable it was to them and I wanted them to feel like they were happening with it not it was happening to them, right? And I've been afforded a great deal of opportunity to learn about Bentonville. Our volunteer leadership, the board, and the executive board they've helped me a great deal plug-in with stakeholders at myriad levels and myriad organizations.

04:36 Graham Cobb: So very fortunate to meet with Crystal Bridges on a regular basis and very fortunate to meet with Runway on a regular basis and Ropeswing and very fortunate to meet with NWACC and the Amazeum and visit Bentonville, and the city of Bentonville on a consistent weekly basis. And that has allowed me to learn and it's allowed me, as I've learned to capture organically grow more and more enthusiastic about the direction we're going and how we're getting there.

05:10 Matt Waller: That's really exciting Graham. There's a professor from Harvard that came up with the four capabilities of leadership or at least she articulated them in a really nice article, but they're visioning, inventing, relating and sense-making. And I noticed when we met, when you were talking about all of the things that you had done in the few months, you'd been here, and I know you'd probably been here by six months, maybe a little longer by that point, I think it was about six months. But you were telling me about all the things you had been learning and about the area. And one of the things that occurred to me was you love mountain biking, you've got a young family, you're entrepreneurial and so you really fit with kind of the new people that are moving to Bentonville in that way. How did you get interested in mountain biking?

06:00 Graham Cobb: Oh, goodness, it changed my life, so I got into road biking, just as a healthy habit. And I needed a few of those. [chuckle] And so, I guess about a dozen years ago, I bought a bike. And you can't buy a bike and not ride it, so I saw it every day, and I started getting up and riding it in the mornings, I'd ride the river trail, in Little Rock. And my wife joked that I was waking up at a time that I used to be getting home from playing music, because I would hit the road by 5:00 AM on my bike, every morning. Little did I know that that would soon be late for me, to hit the road on my bike. So I rode... And it was really neat, I got to ride with my father, who's 30 years older than I am, and we got to share our mini sun rises on the river trail, when I was 30 years old, and he's 60. And that's pretty unique. And then I tried mountain biking, and everything changed, [chuckle] for a time being. I fell in love with it. To me... I was not an athletic kid. And I grew up in a culture where you either played in bands, or you skateboarded, or you did both.

07:40 Graham Cobb: And I wanted so badly to skateboard. It looked so awesome. And mountain biking, to me, seemed like that must be what skateboarding feels like, swooping and gliding and the flow of it, right? And then also, this natural connection to nature. I grew up with a dad who hunted, but I never really got into hunting. I didn't have anything against it, and I still don't, but for whatever reason, I never gravitated towards it. And mountain biking filled that cup a little bit for me. And then another thing that it really... A box it really checked was personal growth. I was in sales, at the time, when I got into mountain biking, and to me, it was like overcoming an objection. So, there's no one telling you, "You can only try to get up that hill once." Or, "You can only try to clear that rock garden once." Or, "You can only try to clear those doubles, cross that gap one time." You can do it as many times as you want. It's a competition against a trail that has been built, or a competition against your own skill set, or your own mental perception of whether or not you can get across that.

09:17 Graham Cobb: So that is how I got into mountain biking. Once I found mountain biking, I put the road bike away for a little while. And then, when I had kids, and realized how much I enjoyed spending Saturdays with them, living in Little Rock, Arkansas, I had to put my bike on my car, drive half an hour, or 45 minutes to get a good mountain bike ride in and come back. And I didn't wanna waste those hours, as these kids were growing. So, that is when I got back into road riding, and would road ride every morning. And it wasn't until I moved to Bentonville that, that switched a bit, again, because now, I lived with Coler Mountain Bike Preserve in my backyard. And now, I work three blocks away from Slaughter Pen. So mountain biking has now become accessible to me again. And it has been just an invaluable tool over the last year, an invaluable piece of this, to see. "Oh yes, this is talent attraction. This is impacting our quality of life to be able to... " I can hit Slaughter Pen, if I'm stressing out about work. And sometimes, you just can't fix things right away, right?

10:31 Matt Waller: Yeah.

10:32 Graham Cobb: Well, I hit Slaughter Pen, and in about 30 seconds I am no longer thinking about work. I'm thinking about the skinny bridge that I'm on, or the rock ledge, or the jump that I'm about to hit. So it really helps to hit that refresh button, and let you refocus. The penalty for pain will cause you to turn off work real fast.

10:55 Matt Waller: Well, that is true. One thing about mountain biking, more than most things, is you have to focus, or you're gonna crash. [chuckle]

11:04 Graham Cobb: Yes.

11:05 Matt Waller: And that helps you reset. It's almost like a computer, when you have to sometimes turn it off and turn it on again, that kind of focus, that's almost like a reset.

11:20 Graham Cobb: It is interesting, because you have to focus, but you can't force it. You have to focus, but at the same time, you gotta relax. You really can't stress up. You can't tense up physically. You have to go with it and trust it. And you also have to know that you're gonna fall at some point in time. [chuckle] So there's that. There's that as well.

11:45 Matt Waller: So, and that's something about Bentonville that's just really remarkable, that's come on in the past few years.

11:54 Graham Cobb: Right.

11:54 Matt Waller: And now there are actually people moving here, because of that.

11:58 Graham Cobb: I know many people that have moved here because of the trails.

12:03 Matt Waller: Well, we've had students that were considering several options, and that was one of the factors that pushed them over the edge, to say, "Well, other things being equal, Northwest Arkansas has got better biking... Mountain biking. I'd rather live there."

12:23 Graham Cobb: Right. Well, I mean you look at... Place making matters. And when you believe that you have options whether or not you really do, of where you live or work. The most talented people in America have a choice of where they go to work.

12:40 Matt Waller: Yeah.

12:41 Graham Cobb: They also have a choice of where they live and now more than ever, that is maybe elevated when it comes to our priority because you can work from home a lot or work remotely, you can get a lot of work done from different places. So we know that quality of place is a key economic decision driver and there is no place period, that has the access to trails of this caliber with this proximity to high-level businesses than does Bentonville, Northwest Arkansas, but Bentonville in Benton County. When you think about 1,400 vendor offices that are doing business with the number one client, Fortune One. A dozen of those employ over 100 folks, and these are serious... We over-index, I wanna say, I think it's 550% for corporate professional jobs.

13:51 Matt Waller: No, I didn't know that.

13:51 Graham Cobb: Northwest Arkansas, does.

13:53 Matt Waller: Wow.

13:53 Graham Cobb: I mean the opportunity...

13:55 Matt Waller: I am not surprised...

13:56 Graham Cobb: Right. It makes sense, but goodness, that's pretty unbelievable. So we see that it doesn't surprise me that students move here because of that key piece. It's a fast growing sport, it's accessible and it's enjoyable at multiple skill and fitness levels. What we see... And you look at Colorado, so Luis Benitez, who is in the office of Outdoor Recreation as economic development for the state of Colorado. He says, when you recreate somewhere, you go somewhere to recreate, you begin to believe that talent would want to be there, right? Because we see ourselves as talented individuals. So you go somewhere, and you ride your bike, you then have dinner, or a coffee or you go to see art for a new understanding. Native voices, the exhibit that's at Crystal Bridges right now, Native American art from 1950 to present. You go to that, and you start to say, "Wow, I bet there's smart people that live here. And if they're not, I bet I can get the people that I need to help my business to move here. You know what, my family would love it here." And you start having all of these subconscious kind of changes in your attitude towards a place. So, recreation absolutely, it's kind of this gateway to relocation. We saw it at Outerbike, we hosted...

15:34 Matt Waller: I went to that.

15:35 Graham Cobb: Right. And we hosted 10 companies for a mountain bike festival that we had found through social media and digital media and brought them in, on purpose. We identified adventurepreneurs, because we contend that Sam Walton is the original adventurepreneur, many and early business meeting on the King's River, right? Many...

16:03 Matt Waller: The famous one with Procter and Gamble.

16:05 Graham Cobb: Right.

16:06 Matt Waller: And that led to a huge change.

16:09 Graham Cobb: Right. And the way he would fly his plane and tilt it and identify opportunities, whether it is for a distribution center or for a new retail space. So we'd look to find adventurepreneurs, also known as people that over-indexed for mountain biking that are founders, CEOs, high-level tech talent, or an owner of a company and we looked in markets that are increasingly cost prohibitive for expanding your business. Brought these folks in and Matt, Thursday morning, Thursday afternoon, Friday morning, I bet 90% of them said to me "Thank you so much for having us, this is gonna be a great weekend. I feel like I need to let you know upfront, we are not moving to Bentonville, Arkansas."

17:00 Graham Cobb: "I'm not moving my company from Dallas to Bentonville. I'm not moving my company from Austin to Bentonville. You know what, my son is about to get out of college and he's gonna join us in Kansas City, we're not coming to Bentonville." We then rode bikes. We met at Grid Studios on Saturday morning for coffee. That may have been a misstep on my part, in scheduling that because breaking news, mountain bikers don't like to get up at 6:00 in the morning for coffee. They will get up at 6:00 in the morning, to ride mountain bikes. So then we rode mountain bikes all day and we met back up at the Holler.

17:34 Graham Cobb: And I'd let everyone, "This wasn't a sales pitch. It was you do you in Bentonville, go enjoy the trails the way you wanna enjoy them, ride the bikes you wanna ride, hang out with the people you wanna hang out with, grab lunch with us if you want, please join us for drinks and snacks at the Holler at 6 o'clock." And what I found out was at the Holler, people began to say to me, "We had no idea. I have to be honest, I thought this was gonna be a sleepy, boring, quiet town. This is amazing." I had a gentleman from Dallas come up and say, "How did you know that I was looking to relocate?" I said, "Well, we did some research and you just exited a company that you had built yourself, and you were now a C-level officer, but not a decision maker, per se within this organization, you have two small children, you love to play outdoors. You kinda look like a serial entrepreneur and you live in Dallas, thought you might wanna come back."

18:49 Graham Cobb: Having a spouse come to me and say, "So my son is about to graduate. I told you he was gonna move back in with us at Kansas City. I have told him that he needs to come and visit Bentonville first. My one concern is, how many of these girls at the Holler are single?" So when mom is asking that question, minds have changed. They've come to recreate. And now, they can see why it would be valuable to relocate. So all of that to say, we believe that we are building out product to become a stronger and stronger magnet for top talent and businesses to relocate to Bentonville based on key unique differentiating quality of life product.

19:43 Matt Waller: Well, you articulated what I had just described at the beginning. You made sense of what was going on, but you also have done what I call visioning or hope making about the future. Here's where we're going. And that's attractive to people. It is true, if they experience it and they like it, of course, that's one thing. But we need people that can articulate these things. And so, one thing I'd like to ask you about, you mentioned that you spend a lot of time meeting with lots of other organizations.

20:24 Graham Cobb: Right.

20:25 Matt Waller: Including, for example, the Northwest Arkansas Council. And Northwest Arkansas Council has been historically a very important organization in Northwest Arkansas because they were key in creating XNA.

20:42 Graham Cobb: Oh, XNA, 49.

20:44 Matt Waller: Yeah.

20:45 Graham Cobb: Bella Vista bypass. Absolutely.

20:48 Matt Waller: And Northwest Arkansas is growing quickly, Bentonville is growing very quickly.

20:53 Graham Cobb: Yeah.

20:55 Matt Waller: We're gonna need lots of infrastructure to deal with all of those.

20:58 Graham Cobb: That's correct.

21:00 Matt Waller: So how do you collaborate with the Northwest Arkansas Council and this government and everything in terms of making sure that we will have the right infrastructure?

21:11 Graham Cobb: That's a great question. Well, even beyond the Northwest Arkansas Council, there are organizations that help educate and model some opportunity to improve the infrastructure. You have to be able to get in and out of here. And the Northwest Arkansas Council continues to work every day. I know that Mike Harvey and Nelson wake up every day and try to bring in additional airlines to XNA to bring the cost down. Matt, I know this to be true. They meet quarterly with a handful of airlines to try to get that cost down. We meet, the five chambers; Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Siloam and Bentonville, we meet weekly with... I'm sorry, we meet monthly with the Northwest Arkansas Council to talk about challenges and opportunities within our own communities and that helps us not argue over stop signs, not argue over stop lights, which improves infrastructure. You know, the biggest thing we can do, the biggest opportunity we have is to learn from the good and bad of other communities that have grown this quickly. Specifically, I would look at an Austin. Specifically, I would look at a Nashville and maybe even an Atlanta, 20 years ago.

22:47 Graham Cobb: We can grow in a way through technology that allows us to move people in a different fashion. I went with Bike in WA, the region's cycling advocacy organization. We went to Indianapolis to a convention called Places for Bikes that's put on by People for Bikes which is a national organization. They actually did the research that produced the data, the Walton Family Foundation used in their economic development study on cycling. But it was focused on trail building for transportation. We've knocked it out of the park in Northwest Arkansas on soft surface in Greenway trails. We don't have protected bike lanes necessarily. Fayetteville's leading in this area with Bike Share programs and protected bike lanes and Springdale's doing a lot to try to have living charettes, if you will, of what it would look like if you put a road on a diet, if you put a protected bike lane in.

23:56 Graham Cobb: So I think we can learn there, we can continue to learn. We can continue to have discussions with, the Northwest Arkansas Council brought in a great group to discuss SMART bus Rapid trains as an option. So I think there's opportunity there to move people in a way that's acceptable to them because here's the deal. We don't have a traffic problem, we have an expectations problem. That is not gonna get me elected to an office and that's okay 'cause I'm not running for anything. But places that are dynamic, where the economy's booming, attract people. We're gonna keep growing, that's a great thing. How many places would swap days with us...

24:54 Matt Waller: Oh, I know.

24:54 Graham Cobb: Would swap rush hours with us for the economic opportunity. So there's a lot in place. And I think 71B is going through a study in Fayetteville right now.

25:07 Matt Waller: Yep.

25:09 Graham Cobb: We have things that are in process to... Certainly the Walmart home office. Changing location will cause us to look differently, and move differently, but it's a heck of an opportunity. It's a challenge that we don't ignore, but it's more of an opportunity than it is an issue.

25:27 Matt Waller: You know, just recently a study came out that showed that Arkansas' economy grew 4.4% in Q2, which made Arkansas the 10th fastest growing in the nation. But a lot of that really was driven by...

25:50 Graham Cobb: That's Benton and Washington County.

25:52 Matt Waller: Yeah.

25:52 Graham Cobb: Right.

25:54 Matt Waller: And of course, we see that very clearly. Have there been... Are you aware of any studies that show where these people are moving from?

26:02 Graham Cobb: Yes. Marvin has spoken to this.

26:05 Matt Waller: He has, yeah. But I just don't recall.

26:09 Graham Cobb: Off the top of... So it's interesting, the majority of them are coming from outside of Arkansas.

26:16 Matt Waller: Yes, clearly.

26:18 Graham Cobb: But we have... And they're coming from coasts and second cities. We still have quite a bit of in-state migration.

26:29 Matt Waller: Right.

26:30 Graham Cobb: So you have as many people that moved here last year from Los Angeles County, as you do people that moved here from Polk County. That in itself presents issues when you want... Or challenges as you look to be an economy that embraces, and utilizes all different levels of talent.

26:53 Matt Waller: Right.

26:54 Graham Cobb: And offers the same high level of life and quality of life to all. And that's why you see... We're very fortunate with the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Walton Family Foundation, as well as the University of Arkansas, that there's a consistent cadence of improvement, that ranks priority of... Quality of life as a high priority. So you're looking at affordable housing, you're looking at making transportation affordable and easy, you're looking at education, you're looking at... Of all levels, post-secondary, all the way down to early childhood enrichment. We really benefit from some aggressive philanthropy that invest in the towns in which they grew up, that invest in making this place great for everyone.

27:52 Matt Waller: Graham, thank you so much for taking time to meet with me, and talk about this. And thank you for your leadership here. I appreciate it.

28:00 Graham Cobb: Matt, thank you, I appreciate it. And I enjoy your friendship, I appreciate the opportunity to work with you.

28:12 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe, and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching Be Epic Podcast, one word, that's B-E E-P-I-C Podcast. And now Be Epic.

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