April 2019 Magazine People

Power Couple: Coming Home

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by Caleb Talley 

Photography by Meredith Mashburn 

Rebecca and Aaron Burkes feel at ease in Northwest Arkansas. The couple spent the last decade working in Iowa, Wisconsin and even Little Rock before settling back in, in late 2018, to the place they called home for nearly 20 years.

Aaron, CEO of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA), is a Northwest Arkansas native, having spent much of his childhood in Fayetteville and graduating from Southside High School in Fort Smith. He met his wife, Rebecca, a Richardson, Texas native, while earning a post-graduate degree at Baylor University.

In 1993, the couple graduated, married and moved to Northwest Arkansas, a homecoming for Aaron. They both took jobs with quintessential Arkansas companies; Aaron went to work for Jim Lindsey at Lindsey & Associates, and Rebecca, after a stint with a local law firm, landed a job in Walmart’s legal department.

In the years since, it’s become evident that there is probably no job in which both Aaron and Rebecca can’t excel. After a couple of years learning from Lindsey in one of the mid-south’s largest real estate firms, Aaron went to work for Moore Mortgage, a subsidiary of Delta Trust & Bank. It wasn’t long before he and his wife felt the call to start their own business, building office buildings and eventually residential homes. 

“When I was with Moore Mortgage, I managed their Northwest Arkansas home lending before quitting and going full time in our own business,” Aaron says. “We built our first office building in 1997, and then we were building, pretty much, a building a year, owning them and leasing them out.”

By 2004, the Burkes were full-time builders, having expanded their operation to homebuilding. Much of their residential focus was in the growing Northwest Arkansas community of Bella Vista, while their commercial projects were mainly in Lowell. One such commercial project, which now serves as an Arvest Bank in Lowell, was recognized for its architectural innovation. 

“This was a 25,000 square-foot office building on 4.8 acres,” Rebecca says of the Lowell construction. “The building was completed in 2002, designed by our architecture firm Benham, and was one of the first projects in Northwest Arkansas to use permeable pavers in the parking area to help control stormwater runoff and reduce soil erosion.”

In addition to building offices and homes across Northwest Arkansas, Aaron tried his hand at public service, having been elected to serve in the Arkansas General Assembly. He served as a state representative for the district that encompassed Lowell. During his term, he sponsored or co-sponsored 50 bills – 33 of which were signed into law. 

In 2010, Aaron followed his aspirations to Iowa where he served as the executive director of a regional planning commission, known as a council of governments, that served five counties. 

Rebecca, who has referred to herself as “a trailing spouse,” always managed to find a place to thrive wherever the couple has landed. Upon moving to Iowa, she took a job teaching at Luther College.

The Burkes moved to Madison, Wisconsin, two years later, as Aaron went to work as a real estate manager at Madison College. He quickly moved up the ladder. 

“I was hired as a real estate manager, initially, because they just passed a referendum for $134 million in new construction projects,” Aaron says. “In four months, I was promoted and stepped into the role of vice president of finance and administration.” 

Rebecca, too, had no trouble in finding professional success. She landed a position with the University of Wisconsin School of Law as a clinical professor in their Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic. 

“Their Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic was founded in about 2007,” Rebecca says. “So, it was pretty young when I arrived. They help startup companies with their initial legal issues, such as intellectual property, patents, all kinds of things. I was a supervising attorney and professor in the clinic, which was a lot of fun.”

After three years in Wisconsin, Arkansas came calling. 

“We wanted to come home,” Aaron says. “My dad has Alzheimer’s, and he and my mom live in Lowell. So, coming back was our goal. I actually applied for a job at the University of Arkansas as the associate vice chancellor for business affairs, and I was offered the job.”

The Burkes were in the process of moving back to Arkansas in 2015 when Aaron made a trip to Little Rock for business. Gov. Asa Hutchinson had just begun his first term, and his chief of staff Michael Lamoureux saw Aaron as the perfect fit to lead the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. 

“I had served with [Michael] in the legislature,” Aaron says. “Long story short, he tells me they have a job for me. And I tell them, ‘Well, I’ve already got a job.’

“The governor can be very persuasive,” Aaron adds with a laugh. “I ended up taking the job as president of Arkansas Development Finance Authority.” 

Rebecca, again, found no trouble landing in a position that suited her numerous professional strengths. She was hired on as the deputy director and general counsel for the Department of Arkansas Heritage, a job she instantly fell in love with; “It was fantastic,” she says.

The Burkes were enjoying their careers in Little Rock when, in 2018, another opportunity fell into Aaron’s lap. XNA was in search of a new CEO, and a friend and former boss told Aaron he was the man for the job. His friend was right, and in October of that year, he took the reins of the regional airport that had served more than 21 million passengers since opening its doors. 

In December, Rebecca took a job as vice president and general counsel of Specialized Real Estate Group, a real estate development and management firm led by Jeremy Hudson, CEO, and Seth Mims, president.

“We’ve known Seth for a long time, and we’ve been following their work and really love what they do,” Rebecca says. “They have a lot of passion for what they do. It seemed like a really good fit. It’s a small company, and my background is in business administration and legal. With all of their growth, that was an area where they needed a little support.

“It’s different [than the Department of Heritage],” she adds. “It’s certainly different, coming from a state agency to a small, innovative, fast-moving company. But a lot of the things I learned at the Department of Heritage also apply here. We had the historic preservation program at Heritage and also the Natural Heritage Commission, and those are two things that connect well with what Specialize Real Estate Group does in terms of preserving historic buildings and the conservation of land. It’s has been a perfect next step for me.”

Aaron is quick to commend his wife for her dedication to the family and willingness to follow him in his pursuits. “Rebecca has always been the trailing spouse, but it’s always worked out great,” he says. “I think she’s landed in something that she loved every time.”

“Every single time,” Rebecca adds. “Every move was sort of precipitated by his moves. And during the time that our kids were young, and we were running our own business, that gave me a lot of flexibility to be the primary in the family in terms of caretaking. That worked out really well; the ebb and flow have been really positive.”

But in moving to Northwest Arkansas, the Burkes weren’t necessarily chasing a dream. They were coming home. 

“We love Northwest Arkansas,” Aaron says. “We’ve had the benefit of coming in to visit family and still have investments here, so we were never completely disconnected from the area. 

“We have an incredible network of friends up here. It really is like coming home.”

In moving back, the Burkes have also recognized the amazing growth that’s taken place throughout the region. “It’s pretty amazing what has happened in the eight years, from 2010 to 2018, in Northwest Arkansas,” Aaron says. 

And through her work at Specialized Real Estate Group, Rebecca will have the opportunity to be a part of the growth moving forward. The firm is preparing to embark on a significant project on Markham Hill, the acreage of meadows and forests that surround Fayetteville’s Pratt Place Barn, a property also managed by the firm. 

“Markham Hill is a very exciting project for Specialized Real Estate Group, and I am so proud to be able to contribute to it in some little way,” Rebecca says. “Markham Hill will be the area’s first conservation community, meaning that the development is designed to permanently preserve at least half of the land as forest or green space.

“These preserves not only provide ecological benefit, but they are also valuable amenities to the people who will make their homes in the neighborhood,” she adds. “Along with single-family homes, the current Pratt Place Inn will grow to become a true retreat center, with more guestrooms, meeting spaces and a full-service restaurant.”

The project will mirror, in ways, the neighborhoods that surround Fayetteville’s Wilson Park, where homes are always in very high demand. The firm also developed Fayetteville’s Uptown Apartments, The Cardinal at West Center and Eco Modern Flats, among others. Also in the works are the Brick Avenue Lofts and Park Central in Bentonville. 

Rebecca says she’s looking forward to adding more LEED and green buildings in the region. “I’m also very interested in getting more involved in the Northwest Arkansas Urban Land Institute,” she says. “I’m pursuing some designations through LEED and things like that.”

Aaron, too, has his hands full at XNA, as the airport works its way toward a major renovation of its terminal. 

“We’re in the design phase for the new front of the building, the new terminal,” he says. “They call it the TRIP – the Terminal Renovation Improvement Plan. That’s going to be a potentially $25 to $30 million project. We’re right in the midst of that. And we’re always trying to find ways to bring new carriers and routes to market.”

Rogers architecture firm Hight Jackson Associates was hired for planning and programming services related to the project. XNA recently completed a $35 million parking deck. 

Aaron hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility of another run for the Arkansas Legislature, either. But he says don’t expect anything any time soon. 

“Maybe someday, but not in the immediate future,” he says. “I have committed to the long haul for the airport. It’s hard to do other things, even as a part-time legislator. People don’t realize how much time it takes away from your day job or your business. 

“I believe I can do a lot of good through the airport,” Aaron adds.

But that doesn’t mean Aaron and Rebecca aren’t looking for additional opportunities to give back to their community. After all, they’re now empty nesters; their oldest son, Nathan, is studying economics at Vanderbilt University, and their youngest, Nicholas, is a freshman at Baylor, studying accounting. 

The Burkes are no longer a part of the day-to-day operations of the construction business, but they’re still invested in it, and they have fond memories of their time spent working together, building the company and helping develop some of the region’s growing communities. 

“We have always mixed business in with our personal life,” Aaron says. “It’s always been a business partnership in addition to a marriage. There were many nights when we’d put the kids to bed and go to our home office and work until midnight.”

“It’s something we did together, and that made it fun,” Rebecca adds. “I think about Bella Vista, taking those drives on Saturday and Sunday with the kids in the backseat, looking for lots and places to build. It was just something we always did together. It never felt like work.”