story by Aric Mitchell
“Feeling like you don’t have any opportunities means that you won’t have any opportunities,” former Alltel CEO Scott Ford told The City Wire at Thursday’s CEO Forum hosted by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Ford was the featured speaker at the event held in downtown Fort Smith at the Holiday Inn City Center. He shared his journey from Alltel, a company he was president of from 1996 to 2001, to Westrock Coffee and the Rwanda Trading Company.
“There’s a common denominator (with the Occupy Wall Street movement) that I understand. But what they could learn from Rwanda is this: if instead of being angry, they could figure out how the system works and have an economic impact within that system rather than just a political one, they could actually form the world they want to form,” Ford said.
Ford formed the Rwanda Trading Company as a for-profit coffee exporter in 2009. More than 500,000 Rwandan farmers produce the country’s coffee crop with “many others” helping the process of commodity preparation for export.
“By creating a thriving, competitive coffee business, Rwanda Trading Company is changing the lives of the families that rely on coffee as a source of income,” the website states.
Ford shared his journey at the event as well as similarities he sees in Rwanda of 1994 and the Occupy movement that has been the subject of national media attention.
“We’re really not working on solutions right now. We’re working on our political positions. Until we get sick and tired of being sick and tired with our lack of progress, and we get a set of leaders in that will fix it, nothing will be solved. I don’t think we’re sick and tired of ourselves enough yet, but I think we’ll get there in the next five years. I hope we do,” Ford said.
Ford compared the “We are the 99%” Occupy protest slogan to the turmoil that existed surrounding Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. There, he pointed out, was where 90% of the poorest looked upon the 10%, “who were wealthy enough to own cows,” and said “that we the 90% being the bravest people we know are so poor, and the 10% are so rich, they must be cheating. How can they be making more money than us? They’re less than us,” Ford said.
Ford continued: “And from there it went to ‘you (the 10%) are subhuman.’ Then, the political leadership and the wife of the (Rwandan) President embraced it. They gathered their children together and held seminars for how to use a machete. From that point, it went from, ‘you are subhuman’ to ‘you are cockroaches and need to be killed.’”
“In 90 days, they killed a million people by hand,” Ford said.
Bringing the comparison home, he noted the Occupy movement is “so dangerous economically that you should be putting money in other countries.” He clarified he didn’t see the Occupy movement turning to the violent extremes found in Rwanda, but that “when you start this kind of class warfare, it ends not with people doing better, but worse.”
Words Ford wants Fort Smith to remember, especially as Thursday saw the announcement that Whirlpool would close its Fort Smith operation in 2012.
“It’s not a positive thing short-term,” Ford said of the closure. “Nothing like that ever is. We just have to work hard and pray something good comes along so people can reapply their skills. But you have to work hard to make that come true. It’s not going to fall out of the sky.”
Ford noted that Westrock’s success has been aided by a government that now wishes “to compete effectively and drink from the cool water capitalism flows in,” he said.
“They come to us, and they ask things like, ‘What else can we do to make it easy for you to do business in our country and make more money? What can we do to help lower your tax rate?’” Ford cited a current tax burden of about 72% and wondered aloud whether he was “paying my fair share.”
Ford left the audience, mostly area business people, with encouragement, that once the current “class warfare” mentality has subsided, “People like you, who make a living and help others to make a living, will be honored again, and you should be honored for being in business, not castigated.”