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Arkansas Business News

TEXARKANA, Ark. — Two former hospital executives have been sentenced to three years in prison each and ordered to pay more than $6 million in restitution for not paying employment tax.

A federal judge sentenced James R. Cheek and Herschel J. Breig Sr. at hearings last week. The former executives were accused of failing to pay payroll taxes deducted from the checks of employees of Hope Medical Park Hospital from 2009-2012.

They were serving as the principal officers of Shiloh Health Services Inc., which operated the hospital.

The Texarkana Gazette reports that both men were sentenced in 2012 to federal prison terms for nearly identical crimes they allegedly committed at a hospital they operated in Lubbock, Texas.

Both men will be on probation for three years when they get out of prison.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK — A four-term Arkansas congressman who sponsored a bill to prevent certain research on gun violence and its impact on public health — and who later said he regretted the law — has died. Jay Dickey was 77.

Ralph Robinson & Son Funeral Home in Pine Bluff said Dickey died Thursday night of natural causes without elaborating.

Dickey served from 1993-2001. Among his most disputed bills was a 1996 measure prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on gun violence. He said later the research could have been done without infringing on the rights of gun owners. President Barack Obama lifted the ban in 2013, through an executive order.

"I'll always remember Jay for his steadfast commitment to the people of Arkansas and this country," said former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, a Democrat who defeated Dickey in 2000 and 2002. "We often talked about the issues of the day, but we also talked about our faith. He was a born-again Christian and was very public about it. He was a good man who served our state and nation faithfully."

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement he had never seen someone as determined as Dickey to fight for the people of his district. The two served in Congress together.

"Jay was one of those unique people who loved life and everyone around him," Hutchinson said.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican who now holds the southern Arkansas seat, echoed the praise.

"Jay Dickey was a trailblazer in Arkansas politics, becoming the first Republican elected to represent the 4th Congressional District," Westerman said. "During his four terms in Congress, Jay advocated for the people of Arkansas as a member of the Appropriations Committee and stood for small town values during his time in Washington."

Dickey also was Pine Bluff city attorney and had served as a special justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court. His ex-wife served a year as chief justice two decades later.

A hubbub arose after Dickey's 2000 loss to Ross: A number of people in Jefferson County had voted at the courthouse on Sundays during the early voting period. After then-Gov. Mike Huckabee said the votes were illegal because courthouses are typically closed on weekends, the Republican Party contemplated filing a challenge. Records showed Dickey was among those who had voted on a Sunday and the matter was dropped.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale on Thursday named former McKinsey & Co. consultant Justin Whitmore to its newly created position of chief sustainability officer.

Whitmore, who will report directly to CEO Tom Hayes, will begin work May 1, the publicly traded meat processor said in a news release.

"Justin brings considerable operations experience to Tyson as well as an approach that breaks down barriers and unlocks the potential of teams," Hayes said. "We believe he will not only drive change at Tyson, but across our industry as he partners with the many important stakeholders in our supply chain and food system."

Tyson Foods announced the new post as part of a reorganized senior management team unveiled in February.

As CSO, Whitmore will lead the company's strategies to find profit while building a sustainable food system, aiming to deliver healthier food, animals, workplaces and environment. 

In a news release, the company said Whitmore "will provide leadership and direction that helps the company achieve its strategic intent of sustainably feeding the world with the fastest growing portfolio of protein packed brands." It said he will "collaborate across the organization in an effort to create efficiency and savings that can be reinvested in the business to fuel growth."

"I'm honored by Tyson Foods' confidence in me to serve as its first chief sustainability officer," Whitmore said. "This is a company I know and respect. I'm excited to contribute to its strong legacy of leadership as we take on the challenge of global food sustainability. I look forward to working closely with Tom and the entire Tyson team to continue to innovate and live out our purpose." 

Hayes emphasized the company's sustainability goals in a speech Tuesday at the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation luncheon.

WASHINGTON — Americans purchased homes in March at the fastest pace in over a decade, a strong start to the traditional spring buying season.

Sales of existing homes climbed 4.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.71 million, the National Association of Realtors said Friday. This was the fastest sales rate since February 2007.

The U.S. housing market faces something of a split personality: A stable economy has intensified demand from would-be buyers, but the number of properties listed for sale has been steadily fading. The result of this trend is prices rising faster than incomes, homes staying on the market for fewer days and a limit on just how much home sales can grow. It's a situation that rewards would-be buyers who can act quickly and decisively.

"The pace of sales we saw in March is unsustainable," said Nela Richardson, chief economist at the brokerage Redfin. "Sales may be soaring, but inventory isn't."

The inventory shortage largely reflects the legacy of a housing bubble that began to burst a decade ago.

Foreclosed properties were snapped up by investors who turned the homes into income-generating rentals, depriving the market of supply. And many owners who escaped the downturn unharmed chose to refinance their mortgages at extremely low rates, possibly making them hesitant to move to a new house that could increase their monthly costs.

This mismatch between supply and demand can be seen in two simple figures tracked by the Realtors.

Sales have risen 5.9 percent over the past year, but the inventory of homes for sale has fallen 6.6 percent to 1.83 million properties. This means there are essentially more buyers chasing fewer properties.

The consequences can be seen in home values and days on the market. The median sales price in March climbed 6.8 percent over the past year to $236,400, significantly outpacing wage growth. And it took an average of 34 days to complete a sale, compared to 47 days a year ago.

In March, sales rose in the Northeast, Midwest and South but declined in the West.

It's possible that more Americans are devoting their incomes to housing as retail sales have struggled in recent months, said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

"Although spending on doo-dads may have slowed, perhaps more of their funds are being directed towards housing," Lee said.

Demand might increase further as mortgage rates began to dip in recent weeks.

Home loan costs had been climbing after President Donald Trump won the November election, under the belief that the government would engage in forms of stimulus such as tax cuts and greater deficits that could cause higher levels of inflation. But major initiatives such as tax reform have stalled in recent weeks as the administration has yet to put forward a proposal, prompting more doubts as to when and whether any stimulus might arrive.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average interest rate on 30-year fixed-rate home loans declined to 3.97 percent this week from 4.08 percent last week. The average is now at its lowest level in five months.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Arkansas' unemployment record fell to another record low, dropping to 3.6 percent in March from 3.7 percent in February.

The state Department of Workforce services said Arkansas' civilian labor force gained 3,188 workers, with 4,428 more employed and 1,240 fewer unemployed Arkansans.

"The unemployment rate decline to 3.6 percent marks a new record low for Arkansas, breaking last month’s previous record low of 3.7 percent," Susan Price, the department's BLS program operations manager, said in a news release. "Arkansas' jobless rate has fallen each month since December, after remaining fairly stable throughout most of 2016."

The U.S. unemployment rate was 4.5 percent in March, down from 5 percent in March 2016.

Arkansas' unemployment rate was 4.1 percent in March 2016.

The state was among four that posted record low unemployment rates in March. Colorado, Maine and Oregon also reported their lowest rates. At 2.6 percent, Colorado had the country’s lowest.

In all, the Labor Department said unemployment rates fell in 17 states in March and were mostly unchanged in 33. Employers added a significant number of jobs in just three states last month and cut them in four. 

Employment was mostly unchanged in the other 43 states. Hiring nationwide was weak in March but strong in the previous two months.

In Arkansas, growth was posted in seven major industry sectors, as four sectors declined. Among them:

  • Employment in educational and health services rose by 7,000, mostly in health care and social assistance (4,900). 
  • Professional and business services added 5,800 jobs.
  • Jobs in manufacturing rose by 2,600, with hiring in nondurable goods (3,700) more than offsetting losses in durable goods (1,100). 
  • Small increases occurred in trade, transportation and utilities (1,600), leisure and hospitality (1,500) and other services (1,300). 
  • Jobs in government fell by 2,100, with decreases in local (1,600) and state (500) government.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

CHICAGO - Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s chief executive officer received a 13 percent increase in total compensation to $22.4 million in the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, according to a regulatory filing on Thursday, as sales growth at the world's largest retailer remained robust.

CEO Doug McMillon's compensation, which included cash and stock, compared with $19.8 million the previous year, according to the filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

McMillon took over the top job at Wal-Mart in February 2014.

In the recently ended fiscal year, Wal-Mart's operating income fell 5.6 percent to $22.8 billion, compared with an 11 percent drop a year earlier, and sales rose 0.8 percent to $485.9 billion. Excluding the impact of currency Wal-Mart said sales rose 3.1 percent to $496 billion.

The retailer's core U.S. operations have shown improvement, with sales at existing stores rising 1.3 percent in the last fiscal year, excluding fuel. The company has said investments in wages and training have led to better customer service at its more than 5,000 stores, including the Sam's Club warehouse chain.

Wal-Mart's effort to lower prices has attracted more customers, leading to a ninth consecutive quarter of customer traffic growth at its stores during the quarter ended Jan.31.

Greg Foran, head of the U.S. business, received total compensation of $11.55 million, a slight increase from $11.54 million a year ago.

U.S. e-commerce chief Marc Lore, who joined Wal-Mart in August from e-commerce startup, received a payout of $243.9 million, including restricted stock units given when Wal-Mart acquired Jet. Excluding that, Lore earned $7.6 million.

VARNER — Arkansas carried out its first execution in nearly a dozen years despite a flurry of legal challenges that had spared three convicted killers, but courts still could scuttle the remainder of the nation's most ambitious death penalty schedule since capital punishment was restored in 1976.

Ledell Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. Thursday, four minutes before his death warrant was due to expire at midnight, capping a chaotic week of legal wrangling. Arkansas originally wanted to put eight inmates to death before the state's supply of midazolam, one of three drugs used in its lethal injection process, expires at the end of April.

Three of those executions were canceled this week because of court decisions. Another inmate scheduled for execution next week has received a stay. But Arkansas wants to put two other inmates to death Monday, and one next Thursday.

Lee, 51, was put on death row for the 1993 death of his neighbor Debra Reese, whom Lee struck 36 times with a tire tool her husband had given her for protection. Lee was arrested less than an hour after the killing after spending some of the $300 he had stolen from Reese.

After a hiatus of nearly 12 years, the execution was carried out without any apparent glitches. There had been concern because midazolam was used in some flawed executions in other states. Lee showed no signs of consciousness two minutes after the lethal injection, which began at 11:44 p.m. With arms extended, covered with a sheet, his head and hands covered with leather straps, Lee made no final statement and showed no apparent signs of suffering during the execution.

The state originally set four double executions over an 11-day period in April. That would have been the most by a state in such a compressed period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Lee's execution went ahead after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected last-minute appeals from his lawyers. But at least one high court justice expressed serious reservations about what critics have called Arkansas' rush to the death chamber.

"Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the 'use by' date of the state's execution drug is about to expire...In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.

Arkansas dropped plans to execute a second inmate, Stacey Johnson, on Thursday after the state Supreme Court said it wouldn't reconsider his stay, which was issued so Johnson could seek more DNA tests in hopes of proving his innocence.

State justices also on Thursday reversed an order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray that halted the use of vecuronium bromide, one of three drugs used in the state's lethal injection process, in any execution. McKesson Corp. says the state obtained the drug under false pretenses and that it wants nothing to do with executions.

Justices also denied an attempt by makers of midazolam and potassium chloride — the two other drugs in Arkansas' execution plan — to intervene in McKesson's fight over the vecuronium bromide. The pharmaceutical companies say there is a public health risk if their drugs are diverted for use in executions, and that the state's possession of the drugs violates rules within their distribution networks.

The legal delays in the executions frustrated Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state officials. Lawyers for the state have complained that the inmates are filing court papers just to run out the clock. Prisons director Wendy Kelley has said the state has no way to obtain more midazolam or vecuronium bromide.

But after the resumption of the death penalty on Thursday, Hutchinson's spokesman J.R. Davis said: "Justice was carried out."

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Bear State Financial Inc. of Little Rock reported Thursday first-quarter earnings of $4.9 million, up 48 percent from the same quarter last year.

The company (Nasdaq: BSF) said diluted earnings per share reached 13 cents, up from 9 cents in the same quarter last year. "Core earnings" were $5.9 million, or 15 cents per share, compared to $3.7 million, or 10 cents per share, in the same quarter last year.

Bear State also said quarterly revenue reached a record $23 million, up 12 percent from the same quarter of 2016. 

The company also cited efficiency improvements, citing an efficiency ratio of 63 percent in the first quarter, down from 74 percent in the first quarter of 2016. The company said its core efficiency ratio was 56 percent, down from 72 percent in the same quarter last year.

Total assets were $2.17 billion at March 31, up 13 percent increase compared to $1.92 billion at March 31, 2016. Total loans were $1.64 billion, up 12 percent from last year. Total deposits were $1.67 billion, up 4 percent increase from last year.

Home BancShares Inc. of Conway on Thursday reported first-quarter profit of $46.9 million, up 13 percent from the same quarter last year, as the company closed two acquisitions and announced a third that pushed the company farther beyond the $10 billion-asset mark.

The parent company of Centennial Bank (Nasdaq: HOMB) said diluted earnings per share was 33 cents, up about 14 percent from the same quarter last year.

"We were active on many fronts during the first quarter of 2017, and we delivered solid quarterly financial results in spite of the additional expenses associated with the recently closed acquisitions of GHI and Commerce," Chairman Johnny Allison said in a news release. "We also look forward to the completion of the merger with Stonegate Bank in Pompano Beach, Florida later this year and the opportunity to welcome them to the Home BancShares family." 

Last month, the company announced that it would acquire Stonegate Bank of Pompano Beach, Florida, a $778.4 million deal that expands Centennial's presence in the Sunshine State. Once the deal is done, the combined company will have about $13.5 billion in total assets.

The purchase is Home BancShares' 22nd and the latest of many in Florida, where it just wrapped up a deal to buy Giant Holdings Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in an $88.5 million transaction. In November, it announced that it was the successful bidder to buy The Bank of Commerce, a Florida state-chartered bank that operates in the Sarasota area, from its parent company, Bank of Commerce Holdings Inc.

Home BancShares CEO Randy Sims said the company recorded its 24th consecutive most profitable quarter in the firm's history, when excluding merger expenses and other one-time items.

"Our team continues to do an excellent job of controlling expenses," he said. "We have been able to maintain a strong core efficiency ratio of 36.96 percent, even though we added nine branch locations with the GHI and Commerce transactions in the first quarter of 2017."

Total loans receivable were $7.85 billion at March 31, compared to $7.39 billion at Dec. 31. Total deposits were $7.57 billion, compared to $6.94 billion at Dec. 31. Total assets were $10.72 billion, compared to $9.81 billion at Dec. 31. 

LITTLE ROCK — An aggressive effort by the state of Arkansas to carry out its first executions since 2005 stalled for the second time this week as courts blocked lethal injections planned for Thursday, prompting Gov. Asa Hutchinson to express frustration at legal delaying tactics.

While the latest court rulings could be overturned, Arkansas now faces an uphill battle to execute any inmates before the end of April, when one of its lethal injection drugs expires.

The state originally set eight executions over an 11-day period in April, which would have been the most by a state in such a compressed period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. But Arkansas has faced a wave of legal challenges.

The first two inmates scheduled for execution on Monday were spared — one of them by the U.S. Supreme Court minutes before his death warrant expired — and one of the two rulings on Wednesday could scuttle the entire schedule.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray blocked the state from using the drug vecuronium bromide, siding with McKesson Corp., which had argued that it sold Arkansas the drug for medical use, not executions. The company said it would suffer harm financially and to its reputation if the executions were carried out.

Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said the state will appeal that ruling.

More: The AP explains how and why the high court can stop executions.

In another setback for the state on Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court voted 4-3 to grant a stay of execution for Stacey Johnson, one of the inmates scheduled to die Thursday, drawing a rebuke from death penalty supporter Hutchinson.

"When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases, but I expected the courts to allow the juries' sentences to be carried out since each case had been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each," Hutchinson said in a statement.

Four of the eight inmates originally on Hutchinson's schedule have now received stays of execution, leaving four remaining who still could be put to death.

More: Legislators, governor critical of the state Supreme Court halting executions.

It was unclear if Attorney General Leslie Rutledge would appeal the stay of execution for Johnson to the U.S. Supreme Court after the state lost an appeal to the high court on a case involving another inmate Monday night.

Deere, the attorney general's spokesman, said the state was reviewing its options regarding Johnson's case.

In the drug case, a state prison official testified that he deliberately ordered the drug last year in a way that there wouldn't be a paper trail, relying on phone calls and text messages. Arkansas Department of Correction Deputy Director Rory Griffin said he didn't keep records of the texts, but McKesson salesman Tim Jenkins did. In text messages from Jenkins' phone, which came up at Wednesday's court hearing, there is no mention that the drug would be used in executions.

Pharmaceuticals companies and other suppliers have objected to their drugs being used in executions and have been trying to stop states from getting supplies for lethal injections.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Price McKeon, a Floridian by way of the University of Georgia and KOKI, Fox23 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has hired on as reporter at KARK-TV in Little Rock.

News director Austin Kellerman announced the hire Wednesday, calling McKeon "the type of person who immediately connects with everyone she meets" and hailing her performance at the Tulsa station. He was particularly impressed with McKeon's coverage the high-profile police shooting of an unarmed man, Eric Harris, and deadly tornadoes in northeastern Oklahoma.

"Price has a great track record of digging up unique stories and bringing them to life," Kellerman said."I'm confident she'll be an instant hit with viewers across Arkansas."

McKeon, from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, earned a degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of Georgia in 2011. Her Twitter account, where she described the Little Rock move as "exciting news," declares "Go Dawgs."

After leaving KOKI in May 2015, McKeon worked in her mother's Tampa medical practice.

At KARK, she will be following in the footsteps of Jessi Turnure, who was promoted to statewide political correspondent and the host of the Sunday political program "Capitol View" this month. That opening came after Drew Petrimoulx, the weekend show's host, took a Nexstar reporting job based in Washington, D.C.

USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren said Wednesday that it had hired Jason Bates as executive vice president and CFO, filling a post left vacant by James Reed, who became CEO in January.

Bates joins the publicly traded logistics company from Swift Transportation Co. of Phoenix, where he had served as vice president of finance, revenue services and investor relations officer since 2010.

"Jason is an extraordinary financial executive with a strong track record with one of the largest and most sophisticated companies in our industry," Reed said in a news release. "Among my immediate objectives as CEO has been assembling leaders who embrace the intensity and accountability necessary to improve the company's financial performance and enhance shareholder value. Jason not only embodies all of those qualities, he brings an outstanding reputation in our industry and immediately strengthens our leadership team by bringing the credibility and experience to make us better every day."

Before his most recent role at Swift, Bates was the company's vice president and assistant treasurer. He started at Swift in 2003.

The company also said it recently hired Cheryl Stone as its senior vice president of human resources. Stone most recently served as chief administrative officer for consolidated technology services, and previously was a vice president at Tri Marine International.

"Cheryl adds significant depth to our efforts to ensure the high-performance culture we are creating takes hold," Reed said. "Her experience in the marine business which, similar to our industry, operates with thousands of remote team members, provides a great framework for understanding and improving the challenges inherent in a transportation company the size of USA Truck."

Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff on Wednesday reported first-quarter net income of $22.1 million, down 6 percent from the same quarter last year.

The company (Nasdaq: SFNC), which announced three acquisitions since November, reported diluted earnings per share of 70 cents, down from 77 cents in the same quarter last year.

Included in the most recent quarter were $412,000 in net after-tax merger-related and branch consolidation costs. Excluding those costs, "core earnings" were $22.5 million, or 71 cents per share, the company said.

"We are excited about our previously announced mergers," George Makris Jr. said in a news release. "As we have indicated, Simmons Bank will enter new and very attractive markets as a result of the Bank SNB and Southwest Bank mergers and will be able to expand in our current markets with the First South Bank merger. We look forward to closing these mergers and integrating these new markets."

The deals, the last of which are set to close in the third quarter, will push the company beyond the key $10 billion-asset mark, a milestone Makris noted in his comments on Wednesday.

"We continue to experience excellent loan growth throughout our market," he said. "While our core expense control remains relatively stable, our non-interest income experienced some usual seasonal declines along with a softer mortgage market during the first quarter. As we prepare for the $10 billion asset threshold, we have managed to offset most of our increases in audit and regulatory affairs expenses with economies gained because of our size and scale."

Total loans were $5.8 billion as of March 31, up 17 percent from the same period in 2016. Legacy loans — all loans excluding acquired loans — grew $1.2 billion, or 33 percent. 

Total deposits were $6.8 billion, up about 12 percent from the same period in 2016.

Quarterly net interest income was $72.4 million, up 3 percent from the same period last year. Net interest margin was 4.04 percent, a 37 basis-point decline from the same quarter last year. 

Non-interest income was $30.1 million, up $557,000 compared with the first quarter of 2016. Simmons attributed the increase to additional trust income, service charge income, debit and credit card income resulting from internal growth and as a result of its most recent acquisition. 

NEW YORK — The math behind your credit score is getting an overhaul, with changes big enough that they might alter the behavior of both cautious spenders as well as riskier borrowers.

Most notably for those with high scores: Abiding by the golden rule of "don't close your credit card accounts" may now hurt your standing. On the other side, those with low scores may benefit from the removal of civil judgments, medical debts and tax liens as factors.

Beyond determining whether someone gets approved for a credit card, a credit score can affect what interest rate and what spending limit are offered.

The new method is being implemented later this year by VantageScore, a company created by the credit bureaus Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. It's not as well-known as Fair Isaac Corp., whose FICO score is used for the vast majority of mortgages. But VantageScore handled 8 billion account applications last year, so if you applied for a credit card, that score was likely used to approve or deny you.

Using what's known as trended data is the biggest change. The phrase means credit scores will take into account the trajectory of a borrower's debts on a month-to-month basis. So a person who is paying down debt is now likely to be scored better than a person who is making minimum monthly payments but has been slowly accumulating credit card debt.

"This is a really big deal," said John Ulzheimer, an expert in credit reports and credit scoring. Ulzheimer said taking trended data into account has long been considered by the credit score industry, but hasn't been implemented on a meaningful scale. He expects more lenders to adopt it.

People with high credit scores may be affected the most, since the goal of trended data is to see warning signs long before a borrower actually gets into serious trouble.

"When it comes to prime borrowers, you may not have bad behavior on your credit file, but a trajectory provides very powerful information," said Sarah Davies, senior vice president for research, analytics and product development at VantageScore.

The change also shakes up the maxim that had people keeping open accounts they'd opened long ago. An important metric in calculating credit scores has been the portion of their available credit people are actually using. A person with $5,000 in credit card debt with a $50,000 limit across several cards could score better than someone with $2,000 in debt on a $10,000 limit because of that ratio.

But VantageScore will now mark a borrower negatively for having excessively large credit card limits, on the theory that the person could run up a high credit card debt quickly. Those who have prime credit scores may be hurt the most, since they are most likely to have multiple cards open. But those who like to play the credit card rewards program points game could be affected as well.

Taking civil judgments, medical debts and tax liens out of the equation comes after a 2015 agreement between the three credit bureaus and 31 state attorneys general. The argument was that civil judgments and tax liens —which can significantly hurt a person's credit score — were often full of errors. Medical debt was being reported on a person's credit report before there was time for insurance to reimburse.

People with those items on their credit reports now could see a bump of as much as 20 points. But it won't help much if they also have negative marks like delinquencies and debts that have gone to collection.

Mortgages, though, won't be affected. The government-owned mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require a FICO score for eligibility. Because of their outsized influence on the market, few mortgage lenders use VantageScore.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

The effects of changing consumer shopping habits are starting to show up in northwest Arkansas commercial real estate trends, according to the latest Arvest Bank Skyline Report on real estate.

The report, released Wednesday, details occupancy rates for commercial and multifamily real estate in Benton and Washington counties during the last six months of 2016.

The report shows more than 1 million SF of commercial space  — a combination of new and existing space — were absorbed during the second half of last year. The vacancy rate for all commercial space fell from 12.7 percent in the first half of 2016 to 11.7 percent in the second half.

In all, commercial space in the two counties saw a net positive absorption of 463,941 SF, up from 11,847 SF in the first half of 2016, the report said.

More: Download the report's commercial highlights.

The report also noted changes in the retail and warehouse markets. The report said retail saw an increase in vacancy rates to 9.4 percent, up from from 9.2 percent in the first half of 2016. Warehouse properties, meanwhile, saw a significant decrease in vacancy rates year-over-year, falling to 8.1 percent in the second half of 2016 from 11.5 percent in the second half of 2015. 

Kathy Deck, the lead researcher for the Skyline Report and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said the trend is likely a result of shoppers' changing shopping preferences.

"As consumers have increasingly embraced online shopping, it stands to reason that these new shopping preferences will have an impact on different types of commercial real estate with the retail real estate market softening while the warehouse market begins to tighten," she said. "I think that is what we are likely witnessing here in northwest Arkansas."

The report showed strength in among office properties, which added 155,933 SF in the second half of 2016 and showed a net positive absorption of 115,463 SF.

From July 1 to Dec. 31, there were $137.2 million in commercial building permits issued in northwest Arkansas, down from the $206.5 million in the first half of the year and $112.8 million in the last half of 2015.

"Overall, the commercial real estate market can be described as both very active and well-balanced at this time," Deck said.

Multifamily Vacancy Remains Low

The report said vacancy rates in multifamily real estate rose slightly from the first half of the year but remain at low levels. The overall vacancy rate was 3.2 percent, up from 2.4 percent in the first half of the year. The report tracks 336,159 multifamily units in 735 multifamily properties in the two counties.

"We are visiting with a large number of clients who have been very encouraged regarding the real estate development market here in northwest Arkansas," Craig Rivaldo, president of Arvest Bank of Benton County, said about the report. "They have been seeing and hearing what this report indicates – that the market is well balanced, and there are plenty of good opportunities for intelligent commercial and multifamily projects now and in the future."

More: Download the report's multifamily highlights.

Springdale has the lowest vacancy rate in the region, 0.9 percent, followed by Bentonville at 1.3 percent, Siloam Springs at 1.8 percent, Rogers at 2.7 percent and Fayetteville at 4.7 percent. 

Fayetteville's vacancy rate was up from 3.6 percent in the first half of 2016. Deck attributed the rise to a "substantial" number of "by-the-bed" rental units targeted to college students coming onto the market after the start of the fall school semester.

Increased demand put upward pressure on lease rates; the average monthly lease price for a multifamily property unit in northwest Arkansas rose to $627.04 from $608.88 in the first half of 2016.

"We are running out of adjectives to describe the multifamily market in northwest Arkansas," Deck said. "Considering that what is generally considered the normal vacancy rate in multifamily properties is 5 percent, for the overall rate in northwest Arkansas to be in the 3 percent range and to have stayed under 4 percent since the second half of 2014 is remarkable. 

"With so many new multifamily properties under construction or recently announced, we anticipate that we will likely be in the more normal range of 5 percent within 18 to 24 months," she said. "And with so many of the newer properties having a more robust set of amenities, it won't be surprising if we see higher average rates at that time, even with a higher overall vacancy rate."

The Arvest Skyline Report is a biannual analysis of the commercial, single-family residential and multi-family residential property markets in the two counties counties. The report is sponsored by Arvest Bank and conducted by the Center for Business and Economic Research in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the UA.

Rock Dental Brands of Little Rock on Wednesday announced that it will acquire Arkansas Dentistry & Braces (ARDB), owned by Dr. Benjamin Burris and Dr. Justin Bethel.

Rock Dental said the deal would further expand the availability of its services and specialists.  

The parties declined to disclose the purchase price for the deal, which has yet to close. It's the latest in a series of dentists selling to a larger group practice, an attractive option to dentists close to retirement age and those looking to avoid the challenges of ownership and focus on taking care of patients.

Dani White, chief marketing officer for Rock Dental, told Arkansas Business that the company plans to hire more people to staff its headquarters. The company employs about 56 there now.

White said that while Burris and Bethel are not retiring, they won't be working for Rock Dental. The dentists called the sale of their business the "best course of action for our patients, our team members and our community."

"Delivering access to quality dental care is a huge undertaking and Rock Dental Brands has far greater logistical resources and experience in delivering care at this scale," Burris and Bethel said in a news release.

ARDB provides dental and orthodontic services in 19 locations: Benton, Bentonville, Blytheville, Brinkley, Fayetteville, Forrest City, Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Paragould, Russellville, Searcy, Sheridan, Siloam Springs, Springdale, Van Buren and West Memphis. 

Burris bought a small practice in Jonesboro in 2004 and grew it into the largest individually owned orthodontic practice in North America, according to ARDB's website.

Bethel graduated from the University of Tennessee Dental School in 2000, then started a practice in his hometown of Benton. He expanded it to several additional locations in the following years.

In 2014, Burris and Bethel formed Arkansas Dentistry & Braces.

Founded in 2015 by orthodontists Bryan Hiller, Mark Dake and his son Merritt Dake, Rock Dental already has 34 locations in Arkansas and Missouri, under the names Westrock Orthodontics, Leap Kids Pediatric Dental and Impact Oral Surgery.

It acquired five more in December from Dr. Jordan Cooper, under the Rock Dental Brands' Rock Family Dental name.

Murphy USA Inc. announced a preliminary first-quarter loss of $3 million in a filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission on Tuesday afternoon, results bad enough to lead the El Dorado gasoline retail giant to revise its investor guidance numbers downward for all of 2017.

In a news release, the company said it rarely discusses full-year guidance on a quarterly basis, but "weaker-than-expected first-quarter results will reduce the likelihood of achieving" a profit of $140 million to $190 million that the company expected when it filed its fourth-quarter and full-year guidance expectations on Feb. 1.

The company's new 2017 guidance predicts a full-year profit of $90 million to $160 million, a shortfall of at least $30 million from the February full-year guidance. The company blamed unfavorable market conditions leading to soft retail fuel volumes and lackluster results from its product supply and wholesale activities. 

"These market factors include, but are not limited to, record-high gasoline inventories, subdued retail demand and discounted pipeline space volumes," the news release said.

The company, which operates about 1,400 gasoline and convenience locations in 26 states, said it expects market fundamentals to return to a "more normalized state" later in the year, and pointed out that previous first quarters have been among Murphy USA's worst since the company was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 2013, even in years when profits substantially rebounded.

"The first quarter is typically a period of lower earnings for the company, but a variety of market conditions along with regulatory and political events have converged that will result in short-term underperformance," said President and CEO Andrew Clyde. "In our history, we have weathered a wide variety of challenging market conditions, which eventually experience mean reversion and we expect that this year will be no different. 

"While we don't expect discussions around guidance on a quarterly basis going forward, we are prudently level-setting expectations to maintain transparency with investors and affirm our commitment to long-term value creation for shareholders."

Separately, the company announced that Daryl Schofield will join the company as executive vice president of fuels, effective May 3. Schofield will oversee the entire fuels value chain and fuels organization for Murphy USA, the company said. 

Schofield will join the company from Tesoro Corp. of San Antonio, Texas, where he was senior vice president of commercial business.

Murphy USA's annual stockholders' meeting is scheduled at 1:30 p.m. May 4 at the South Arkansas Arts Center in El Dorado.

Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale is focused on growing in Arkansas, president and CEO Tom Hayes said Tuesday during the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation Luncheon at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.

Hayes was the keynote speaker of the event, hosted by the AEDF and the Arkansas Industrial and Economic Development Foundation. Gov. Asa Hutchinson also spoke briefly, and John Tyson, chairman of the Tyson Foods board of directors, introduced Hayes.

Hayes was appointed to CEO in December. The former company president joined Tyson Foods in 2014, when the publicly traded firm acquired Hillshire Brands of Chicago in an $8.5 billion deal.

The acquisition was a deal that John Tyson said allowed Tyson Foods to take the next step toward becoming an "integrated consumer products company," one that aims to go far beyond commodity proteins into value-added packaged products.

Hayes announced elements of the new strategy in February, shortly after the company revamped its leadership team. In addition to placing great emphasis on valued-added branded products, Tyson Foods is emphasizing sustainability and new food technology to lead growth.

On Tuesday, Hayes said the company will aim to create a sustainable food system because it's what consumers demand and will ultimately drive profits.

"We're dead set on having no trade-offs, on making sure we have healthier animals, a healthier environment, healthy workplace, healthy people, healthy food," he said. "But it's important to do all of those together. We're not about changing one out for the other."

Hayes also dispelled a misconception that the company is moving toward focusing exclusively on plant-based protein. While projects like Beyond Meat are a recent addition to Tyson Foods' portfolio, Hayes said the company wants to grow in every area, and that animal proteins remain a driving force for the company.

Hayes also spoke generally about how Tyson Foods, as a so-called "Big Food" company, would raise expectations by working toward solutions for feeding the world.

The New Hampshire native called Arkansans talented, hard working, warm and generous. He said the beginnings of Tyson Foods were impressive too, but humble.

Hayes also said he would soon be a full-time resident rather than a commuter; he has purchased a home near the Springdale-Fayetteville line.

Leaders should tell the truth, be transparent and communicate regularly with stakeholders during a crisis, says Fitz Hill, a former college football coach and college president, in Part 2 of Arkansas Business' new video series on leadership.

Hill, the executive director of the Scott Ford Center for Entrepreneurship & Community Development and the Arkansas Baptist College Foundation, sat down with Online Editor Lance Turner for the first installment of Arkansas Business' "Foundations" video series.

The series aims to highlight key tools for success for businesses, nonprofits and other organizations. The first four videos of the series, which will premiere over the next two months, focus on leadership and feature interviews with Hill, Gina Radke of Galley Support Innovations Inc. of Sherwood and Jon Harrison of VIP2.

In Part 2 of a two-part conversation, Hill talks about his time as president of Arkansas Baptist College, the challenges he faced there, and his new role leading the Scott Ford Center. The center, which launched in 2012, is aimed at developing a trained corps of entrepreneurs prepared to start businesses in underserved communities. 

You can watch Part 2 right here:

(Part 1 of the interview is available here.)

During his time as college president, Hill dealt with cash flow problems as the school quickly took on more students. Calling it a humbling experience, Hill said he learned that leaders must always be upfront with stakeholders and confront problems directly, even when the answers don't come easy.

"When that phone rings, answer it, and tell them what your situation is," Hill said. "Don't not answer the phone … don't delay calling them back — make the call first [that] you don't want to make."

An Arkadelphia native, Hill graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in 1987. He received a master's from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in 1991 and a doctorate in higher education leadership from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1997. 

Hill rose to become Razorback assistant head football coach before becoming head football coach at San Jose State University in 2001-05. He was executive director of the Ouachita Baptist Opportunity Fund from 2005-06. In 2006, he became the 13th president of the historically black, 132-year-old Arkansas Baptist College. He left the president's post in 2016 to lead the college's foundation.

VARNER — Arkansas officials vowed to carry out a double execution later this week after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a setback to the state's plan to resume capital punishment for the first time in nearly 12 years with a ruling sparing an inmate just minutes before his death warrant was set to expire.

The court's decision was the second time Don Davis has been granted a reprieve shortly before execution — he came within hours of death in 2010. It capped a chaotic day of legal wrangling in state and federal courts Monday as Arkansas tried to clear obstacles to carrying out its first executions since 2005.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson had set an aggressive schedule of eight executions by the end of April, when the state's supply of midazolam, a key lethal injection drug, expires. If the state had been able to move ahead with its 11-day execution plan, it would have been the most inmates put to death by any state in such a short period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The executions of Davis and Bruce Ward were supposed to be the first two, but Ward received a stay from the Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday and the state did not appeal the decision. The state did challenge a stay granted to Davis, but the last-minute U.S. Supreme Court ruling ensured that he would not enter the death chamber Monday.

Attorneys had requested the stay while the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a separate case concerning inmates' access to independent mental health experts.

"The Arkansas Supreme Court recognized that executing either man, before the Court answers this question ... would be profoundly arbitrary and unjust," Scott Braden, an assistant federal public defender for the inmates, said Monday.

Davis had already been served a last meal of fried chicken, rolls, beans, mashed potatoes and strawberry cake, and witnesses were being moved toward the execution chamber when the Supreme Court ruled just minutes before his death warrant expired at midnight.

Davis was sentenced to death for the 1990 death of Jane Daniel in Rogers, Arkansas. The woman was killed in her home after Davis broke in and shot her with a .44-caliber revolver he found there.

Despite the setbacks, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said Arkansas would press ahead with other planned executions, including two set for Thursday — Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson.

"There are five scheduled executions remaining with nothing preventing them from occurring, but I will continue to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners," Rutledge said.

Lawyers for the inmates were not immediately available after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Earlier in the day, the state had cleared two of the main obstacles to resuming executions. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge's ruling blocking the executions over the use of midazolam, a sedative used in flawed executions in other states. The state Supreme Court also lifted a lower court ruling preventing the state from using another lethal injection drug that a supplier said was sold to be used for medical purposes, not executions.

The high court's order sparing Davis offered no explanation, but none of the justices voted in favor of lifting the stay. Monday marked the first day that the U.S. Supreme Court was in session with new Justice Neil Gorsuch on the bench.

Arkansas enacted a law two years ago keeping secret the source of its lethal injection drugs, a move officials said was necessary to find new supplies. Despite the secrecy measure, prison officials have said it will be very difficult to find a supplier willing to sell Arkansas midazolam after its current stock expires.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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