by Dwain Hebda
Herren Hickingbotham will be remembered in the annals of Arkansas business for the companies he helped build, the ventures he launched, the jobs he created and his philanthropic gestures large and small.
But it was what he failed to do that may have played the most significant role in all of it coming to pass.
“I went to the University of Arkansas and got an undergraduate degree in banking and finance,” he says. “I wanted to get an MBA and I was accepted at the University of Arkansas, but I thought, I’ve been here four years, I’d like to go somewhere else. I thought Dallas sounded good, SMU. I applied there and I didn’t get in, my test scores weren’t good enough.”
“I was pretty disappointed because usually when I put my mind to something, God helps me succeed. So, I thought I’ll just test again. I did and still didn’t get in.”
Hickingbotham returned to Little Rock with an eye on investment banking and nearly joined the legendary local firm Crews & Associates when his father, Frank Hickingbotham, unveiled a new business venture he’d discovered.
“When I came back is when Dad decided to open the first TCBY store, and I was fortunate enough to be the first store manager,” Hickingbotham says. “I was in Little Rock for that first year of TCBY, the opening of our other stores and the decision to franchise.”
“I tell people, looking back on it, if I’d been in Dallas, I couldn’t have been the first store manager. So, God’s plan was for me to be in Little Rock and get an MBA in frozen yogurt.”
What followed was one of Arkansas’ most profound business successes, a company that so captured the public’s imagination that in less than 20 years, TCBY would reach 3,000 outlets in 70 countries. In hindsight, Hickingbotham didn’t really miss out on that MBA after all, so much did he learn across the counter from the public and helping build a national brand from the ground up.
“Dad always told me it doesn’t matter how many years of school you have, you’re going to learn more your first year out of school than you did all your years in school,” he says. “And I certainly did that working with him in helping get TCBY off the ground.”
Prior to frozen yogurt, Frank tried a lot of professional roles, many of them entrepreneurial and in the food service industry. Herren routinely came along for the ride.
“My first job within the service business, Dad had bought a franchise called A.Q. Chicken out of Northwest Arkansas,” he says. “I was working with Dad when I was 12, not because I had to but because I wanted to. I was cutting up chicken.”
Asked what he learned from working alongside his father, Hickingbotham rolls off a list that includes the importance of quality products, outstanding customer service and the value of a proven concept. Although, he’s also enamored with the process of start-ups, which he and his father pursued in equal measure. In fact, forced to choose between the two, Herren Hickingbotham says he prefers the start-up over the proven item and the challenge of building something from nothing.
“When you are involved with a start-up it takes a lot of faith in the people and the concept to invest and to build something,” he says. “I think starting something from scratch is very exciting.”
Hickingbotham has enjoyed a good deal of that entrepreneurial excitement during his career. Between him and his patriarch, the range of businesses the family has built is dizzying, from truck lines and retail clothing to food manufacturing, banking and car dealerships. The junior Hickingbotham further expanded the company’s portfolio, launching successful restaurants, a home furnishings line and most recently, premium spirits. He’s part of a trio behind Texas-based Roxor gin.
“It’s a delicious product, great package, great brand. I just felt like it was something I could get involved with and help grow,” he says. “We’re in five states now and looking at several other states for this year. People ask how’s it doing and I say, ‘Well, the baby’s been born but I’m not sure if it’s still at the hospital or in the car on the way home.’”
Doubters believe such aw-shucks at their own peril: Hickingbotham has proven time and again the veracity of his eye for opportunity and his nose for what’s next. The same year TCBY launched, automaker AMF unloaded what it considered a clunker of product line, wheezing its last breaths. That line, Harley-Davidson, would stage one of the greatest comebacks in American manufacturing history, with the Arkansas Hickingbothams along for much of the ride. Today, the family holdings include multiple Harley retail stores and dealerships in three states, including the Rock City Harley-Davidson in Little Rock, opened this year.
Hickingbotham’s list of community service rivals that of his business interests and includes sitting on several boards and commissions, as well as supporting many more causes both with his time and financially. Some Hickingbotham serves on his own, some in tandem with his wife, Susan, and all as a continuation of the longtime example set by his father.
“My dad always emphasized that we should be involved in our communities and return a portion of the financial blessings that we receive back to the communities,” Hickingbotham says. “When we had TCBY, I was very active in the community, and when we sold TCBY it was important to me and to my father that we continued our involvement in the community at the same or even a greater level.”
“I think it’s a privilege to be involved in my community and I believe it’s a responsibility as well. I’ve always enjoyed it. I enjoy serving. I enjoy giving back. Also, the friendships you make in these different organizations is always a blessing and a gift. You’re giving back, but you also receive. It’s very rewarding to be involved with these organizations.”