19 Sep 2011 A career and a ‘family’ at Conway Corporation
by Donna Lampkin Stephens
Richie Arnold’s first job has turned out to be his only one as he has moved up the ladder at Conway Corporation since 1978.
Arnold, 56, is the chief executive officer of Conway Corp., which operates the city-owned electric, water, wastewater, cable, Internet, phone and television utility services for the city of Conway. He calls the company “a unique, private, nonprofit corporation.”
“We are the only one that has all these services,” he said. “Everybody is set up differently from us.”
Arnold was named CEO in 1998 after 20 years with the company, succeeding Bill Hegeman, who retired.
“That was on April Fools Day,” Arnold said, chuckling. “I’ve said I think that was Bill’s last joke.”
Originally from Harrison, Arnold graduated from the University of Arkansas with an accounting degree in 1978. His first duties at Conway Corp. included accounting and computer programming.
“We were converting a lot of systems, such as payroll, to the computer, so that’s what I did for several years,” he said. “As best I can recall, we had probably fewer than 80 employees at that time. We did not operate a cable system at that time. It was electric, water and wastewater.”
The corporation launched cable television service in 1980. Much has changed in the interim for Conway Corp. as well as the city.
“The sign when I got here said the population was 18,000,” Arnold remembered. “The census shortly afterward took it to over 20,000, and now it’s over 60,000, so the city has tripled, virtually, since I came here.
“We currently have about 215 employees, so we’ve more than doubled. We’ve added video and Internet and voice services.”
He had no idea in 1978 he would make a career at Conway Corp.
“Like most kids out of college, I just wanted to get in the work force and find out what it was all about,” he said. “But when I came to Conway Corp. the thing I recognized immediately was the teamwork aspect, and I really felt a part of, for lack of a better word, a family.”
Jim Brewer led the corporation as general manager then. Hegeman was Arnold’s immediate supervisor; he succeeded Brewer in 1991.
“We worked together, gosh, I don’t know how many years,” Hegeman said of Arnold. “It was a bunch of them. I don’t guess anytime you bring in a new employee, you anticipate a long tenure like that. He was just out of college, so this was really his first career job, and he has made his lifetime career out of it. He has fit in well.
“From all I can tell, he’s doing a great job continuing all these things that have made the company work well.”
Brewer said Arnold fit in with the corporation immediately.
“He was an excellent computer man,” he said. “You don’t realize how complicated the utility business is until you start trying to put it on computer. He was very good in that regard.”
Arnold worked as manager of the data processing department until his promotion to manager of finance and accounting. He was named chief financial officer in 1996.
“[Brewer and Hegeman] were great mentors,” he said. “They made it challenging, but they made it fun. Immediately, I fell in love with Conway Corporation, and the town, too, is a wonderful place to live. You become absorbed with being part of the team and the work you’re doing, and you just go on.”
Early on he was involved in preparations for audits, monthly transactions and the transition to computers. As manager of finance and accounting, he oversaw all accounting functions, billing, customer service, meter reading, cashiers, customer service reps and service orders.
The addition of cable television service proved to be a boon for the company.
“I had no idea that cable system would develop into everything it’s developed into,” Brewer said. “Richie has put a lot of effort into that because it’s been demanded, and he’s done a real fine job with it. Bear in mind that I’m talking about things that usually take an engineering background.
“He’s developed some expertise in the cable nuts and bolts department that has been real good.”
Conway Corporation was one of the leaders in the adoption of digital cable.
“We launched it very early,” Arnold said. “We recognized that digital cable and high definition would be the future, so we tried to get those [services] out there early. There weren’t a lot of TVs at that time (that were digital- and HD-ready), but we knew that was the way things were headed.”
Internet, too, was a major initiative.
“Conway under Bill’s leadership was the fifth community in North America to have high speed broadband,” Arnold said. “We were out there early, and we’ve tried to continually improve it. We’ve tried to continue to be very advanced.”
The latest innovation has been telephone service.
“That’s a good product, really great for small and mid-sized businesses,” he said. “It will save them some money.”
But in the drive to be on the cutting edge of new products, the nuts and bolts of Conway Corp. haven’t been forgotten. Arnold said the company owns about 40 percent of its electricity requirements now.
“One thing we certainly are trying to accomplish is to find some additional generation,” he said. “We are looking to buy more so we have a higher percentage of ownership.”
Water, too, has his attention.
“Even though we have a tremendous asset in Brewer Lake (the city’s primary water supply), it is finite; there is a limit to how much we can increase that storage,” he said. “So we partnered with the Mid-Arkansas Water Alliance, and we have received a share of an allocation from Greers Ferry that will supplement Brewer. I envision some additional regional partnering will be beneficial in the transmission and, possibly, treatment of the Greers Ferry supply.”
The near term, he said, would be more about the technology side of Conway Corporation’s business. One initiative is fiber-to-the-home (FTTH).
“Our current plant is a hybrid-fiber-coaxial network (HFC),” he said. “With FTTH, no coaxial cable is used. Installation costs for FTTH are competitive with HFC, and FTTH has less line equipment, lowering maintenance costs.”
The Turnberry Estates subdivision in west Conway is the corporation’s first FTTH development in Conway. FTTH is also planned for the recently annexed Lollie Bottoms area.
“The customer shouldn’t notice a whole lot of difference, but what it does for us going forward is it simplifies and reduces the amount of electronics we have to install,” Arnold said. “That will reduce the points of potential failure and reduce maintenance costs.”
While fiber to the home will be primarily for new construction, Arnold said Conway Corp. would eventually probably be a total fiber network.
“Not during my tenure, though,” he said.
Education: BBA, University of Arkansas (Fayetteville)
Business Name: Conway Corporation
Date opened: 1929
Type of business: Provider of electric, water, cable, internet and telephone services in the city of Conway.
Number of employees: 215
Location: 1307 Prairie St.
Business telephone: 501.450.6000
Web site: www.conwaycorp.com
Previous business experience: Began work at Conway Corporation in 1978 in data processing. Served as manager of that department until promotion to manager of finance and accounting. In 1996, named chief financial officer. Named chief executive officer in 1998.
What you enjoy most about your work: My co-workers/friends. Our employees care about our customers and each other. They are the best!
What you consider your biggest accomplishment: Consistently hiring top-quality employees who embrace our culture of service.
Top two goals: Securing long-term electric generating capacity and securing long-term water supply resources.
Best advice you received: I was mentored by two of the best, James H. Brewer and William Hegeman. So, I’ve always said my education began right after I left college. They had a real sense of community. I distinctly remember Bill encouraging me, shortly after I joined Conway Corporation, to get involved and “give back” to the community. Until then, I’d never considered how important volunteers are to the success of a community.
Business advice for others: Focus on the customer. Try to stand in their shoes and see how you can improve your service. Secondly, surround yourself with great employees who share that attitude.
Family: Richie met his wife, the former Beverly Westbrook, after moving to Conway. They have three grown children, Dustin, Catherine and Natalie, all of whom live in Conway.
What you enjoy most about doing business in the 501: The people. I am most familiar with Conway, and it is a unique place, I believe. I have always felt that our leaders put the success of the community ahead of personal gain. They have an eye for the future and what they want Conway to be. In my associations with other businessmen and women in the 501, I see that spirit, too.