The almost 6,000 people in Northwest Arkansas working for the about 1,300 companies in the area vying for space on Wal-Mart shelves have become a valued resource pool from which churches, charities and other area community groups actively recruit dollars, volunteers and leadership.
Pick any poster or marketing material from a charity event in Northwest Arkansas and the sponsors are likely to be a who’s who of the leading consumer packaged goods brands.
The strategy to recruit the dollars and volunteers from the Wal-Mart vendor community requires patience, diplomacy and a lot of networking, according to those involved in both sides of the equation.
With respect to diplomacy, one source for this story who wished to remain anonymous said the recruitment effort has become “a little too much,” with some vendors receiving numerous e-mails daily asking for their time or money.
With charitable dollars becoming harder to acquire, the source said an emerging problem vendors face is discerning between charitable requests from local and out-of-area groups.
For the local groups who garner the favor of Wal-Mart execs, the rewards are nice.
“If Walmart supports it, most of the suppliers will follow. For these Gala’s, the corporate jets fly the big boys in,” noted the source.
Toni Luetjen, director of marketing and membership relations for Pinnacle Hills Country Club, worked at Wal-Mart for 10 years, and worked about seven years for a vendor. She then worked in the hotel industry for a few years. All that experience taught her one thing about the best way to connect with vendor company decision makers.
“Network, network, network,” Luetjen said with a laugh. “When I’m out networking, I’m planting seeds.”
She said the Club’s website and area Realtors help the club recruit vendor execs. The process of a person deciding to join Pinnacle requires several months. They come for a visit, maybe a tour, and then two or three months later they buy a house and decide to join.
“When school is out, that’s a big time. They move their families here and then they are ready to sign up,” Luetjen explained.
She also said the networking has to be strategic.
“That’s my biggest thing, is finding the right event. It has to be the right type of networking event. ... I don’t have tons of time to network at all of them,” she said.
In addition to recruiting Wal-Mart and the vendor employees, Luetjen said physicians are a big part of the membership push.
“Otherwise, it’s entrepreneurs who have their own business and they come here to network with the other professionals,” she explained.
NOT THIS CHURCH
Some churches in Northwest Arkansas have aggressively sought to boost their outreach through the support and attendance from retail industry leaders.
Mickey Rapier, a minister at Fellowship Bible Church of Northwest Arkansas, said the church does have a lot of supplier and Wal-Mart execs, but the church does not actively recruit them.
“We don’t have a strategy. We just reach out to those who come to church here,” Rapier said. “We just try to preach the gospel and give the people a place to come worship.”
Rapier also said the church does not look at resumes when considering nominees for church leadership roles.
“We don’t make any distinction about their job,” he said.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
Rob Farinholt, a business development associate with Casestack, said all groups, including churches, benefit from finding “creative ways to have a personal contact” with vendors and other retail-sector leaders.
Like Luetjen, Farinholt is a big believer in networking. But he takes it a step further by suggesting that churches, country clubs, charities and other groups “should consider an event-oriented approach,” and online media to get their message out.
He said sending out “blind e-mails could be annoying.” And he advises: “Don’t ask for money initially, ask for volunteers.” He said grassroots efforts to get vendor employees involved will pay off, because the “corporate team on the ground” in Northwest Arkansas “has a lot of influence” on corporate decisions about where to spend entertainment and charitable dollars.
The bottom line, according to Farinholt, is to figure out a way to create events that are casual, but attract the right crowd in which to network.
“You have to cloak it in an event. If you don’t tie a date to it (an electronic or mailed invitation) and tie an event to it, then you’re not going to get a return out of it,” Farinholt said. “The region here is a lot larger than it used to be, but It’s still a small enough community that you can really leverage that personal contact.”