Walmart’s Arkansas hometown has become a tech hub

Sam Walton's original 5&10 store, now a Walmart museum, sits in a revitalized downtown Bentonville, Arkansas.

It’s not Silicon Valley. But Walmart’s quiet Arkansas hometown in the Ozarks has turned into a hub for tech workers and young professionals.

Sam Walton planted Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 1971. Walmart has grown to become America’s largest retailer, employing 1.5 million workers in this country. And the Walton family became one of the richest in America.

Now, the northwest Arkansas metro area, which includes Bentonville, Rogers, Fayetteville and Springdale, is the one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States. Northwest Arkansas is bustling as engineers, lawyers, accountants and marketing professionals flood into the area to work at Walmart and other companies that provide services to the retailer, according to Mervin Jebaraj, executive director for the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Arkansas.

In its race against Amazon, Walmart wants to recruit top talent to keep pace with changes in retail and technology. Walmart CEO Doug McMillion has made it clear to investors that he wants Walmart to think like a tech company. Walmart has invested billions in building out an e-commerce infrastructure and is hiring for supply chain, data analytics, software engineering, product development and IT jobs in Bentonville.

The region’s population has grown by more than 18% since 2010, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council, an economic development organization.

“Bentonville has been transformed in recent years from a small Arkansas town to a thriving, increasingly upscale community,” said Alan Ellstrand, associate dean of the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Walmart’s not the only company hiring in Northwest Arkansas: Hundreds of suppliers to Walmart like Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup and Hershey have built offices here, earning Bentonville the nickname “Vendorville.” These vendors want to be near Walmart, often their biggest customer.

Workers are also finding jobs with Tyson Foods and transportation company J.B. Hunt, which call the area home. Walmart doesn’t do much work with J.B. Hunt, because the retailer employs its own private trucking fleet. But Walmart is Tyson’s largest customer, accounting for more than 17% of the meat company’s sales, according to filings.

Art museum and biking trails

To persuade top talent to move to Northwest Arkansas, Walmart and the descendents of Sam Walton have fueled investment in the area.

The Walton Family Foundation, which awarded close to $600 million in grants last year, has headquarters in downtown Bentonville. The Walton foundation has made grants to Bentonville and surrounding cities, as well as mountain bike trails and parks to make the area a premier mountain biking destination. Alice Walton, Sam Walton’s daughter, founded the Crystal Bridges American art museum, the crown cultural jewel of the area.

“The Walton grandchildren have made major investments in Bentonville in order to make it a desirable community for Walmart office personnel,” said Ellstrand.

Commercial development properties are cropping up and newly built strip malls line roads named after the Waltons such as Walton Boulevard, the main road that connects Bentonville to Rogers. The University of Arkansas Razorbacks play their home basketball games in Fayetteville at Bud Walton arena, named after Sam Walton’s brother. And in a revitalized downtown Bentonville, bars, restaurants and apartment complexes are opening.

There are still hints of the region’s past, however. A Bentonville Confederate Monument sits in the town square, right across from Sam Walton’s original 5&10 store, now a Walmart museum. The monument is a “topic of increasing concern for the community,” said Ellstrand.

A new state-of-the-art home office is Walmart’s next big plan to draw recruits to Bentonville. Parking at Walmart’s current office, which looks like a massive warehouse, is hard to come by. So is natural lighting.

Walmart unveiled designs for its planned headquarters last month. The company hopes new digs will position Walmart to “win the future of retail.”

The sprawling campus will be on roughly 350 acres of land in Bentonville. It’ll come with a new fitness center, a hotel and child care facility, organic food options and walking and biking trails.

“We expect this will accelerate Walmart’s digital transformation and help attract the next generation of talent,” said Dan Bartlett, head of the company’s corporate affairs.

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