The pitcher gathers up the baseball, takes a deep breath and then turns to stare down the batter.
The pitcher, armed with an underwhelming 85 mph fastball, isn’t in the envious position of simply throwing the ball by the hitter. Instead the pitcher has to find his way to get the ball past the hitter while passing through some portion of the 17-inch plate. The calculations begin.
Brent Birch is equipped to do those kinds of calculations and that made him a successful left-handed pitcher for the Arkansas Razorbacks. The same kind of mind he used facing down batters has made him a perfect fit for the job he holds now, the sole employee of Little Rock’s Tech Park.
While the name might suggest a sprawling complex, the Little Rock Tech Park, a project coming out of the 2011 Little Rock sales tax referendum, is currently limited to a building on Main Street in downtown Little Rock. Glass walls and a sleek Blue Sail Coffee shop are outward signs of the Tech Park’s inward activity, housing small companies working with the cutting edge of technology. These innovative businesses are pushing into the future in fascinating ways. Two examples of the diversity of Tech Park companies — Mob X is developing signature apps for ESPN and Spektron Systems is working on new ways to analyze data for the medical field.
For the last five years, Birch has steered the Tech Park and taken on a wide variety of tasks in the process including strategic planning, accounting and stocking break rooms with paper towels.
“I do have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Birch says. “I have always worked in the corporate world. I like to stay up with technology. With my wide-ranging background of experiences, I can relate to what these companies are trying to do. This is somewhat of a commercial real estate project. I can relate to the tenants. I can talk tech with them as well as talk to them about the small business aspect.”
Birch’s special skill set has the Tech Park thriving. Phase Two of the Tech Park is in the works with a new set of office spaces for a yet-to-be built building in a lot next to the current facility.
“I think [Birch’s] success springs first of all from his belief in the program,” says Dickson Flake, a member of the Tech Park board and a longtime commercial real estate figure. “Second, his background in so many areas that make him valuable to tech park. He knows the territory. He’s like them [the businesses working at the Tech Park]. At the same time, he’s totally dedicated to make it work for them. He has so many relationships in the central Arkansas community.”
Birch’s childhood in North Little Rock has an easy-to-detect theme — the great outdoors.
“I played every sport there was,” Birch notes. “Basketball, football, baseball. I didn’t play soccer because it wasn’t a big deal then. I was outside almost year ’round. Like most kids my age, my parents pushed me out the door in the morning and said be back in time for dinner. We rode bikes around the neighborhood. It was pretty easy to find a pickup game.”
The outdoor life extended to a serious dedication to fishing and hunting. Birch’s father, an executive at Twin City Bank, would take the family on duck hunting trips that would also serve as occasions to entertain bank clients.
“My best memories as a kid duck hunting-wise were at the Crocketts Bluff Hunting Lodge,” Birch says.
Sitting near the White River in eastern Arkansas, Crocketts Bluff has an extensive history beginning in 1938. The lodge landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
“It’s a historic place that we were lucky enough to get to hunt. My interest really peaked just getting to be around this club. My dad was busy with bank customers he took there. I got to run around with the guides at this place. That’s where I became fascinated with calling ducks. I thought the guides were the coolest guys on the planet.”
That early encounter with duck hunting made a lasting impact on Birch.
“Duck hunting became a big family outing for us,” Birch says. “Now my kids are into it. We have three generations doing it pretty heavy.”
By the time Birch was old enough for high school, his devotion to baseball had been nurtured through various leagues.
“My mom doesn’t get enough credit for being patient and supportive raising two boys while running a very effective taxi service getting my brother and me to all our various practices and games, rarely at the same place.”
In baseball, Birch held the crucial position of starting pitcher. Pitching from the left side added value to Birch’s baseball resume. The competition, even as Birch began to pitch for Northeast High School, was fierce.
“I didn’t get to pitch a whole lot in high school because the team was so good,” Birch says. “The North Little Rock School District didn’t even have baseball until I was a sophomore. The first year that we had baseball we finished runner up in the state to Pine Bluff. We had some older guys on that team who were really, really good.”
Birch was no slouch himself, baffling batters with his array of pitches even though they didn’t light up the radar gun. Attention by college baseball programs didn’t come to Birch until he had already graduated high school.
“I didn’t get to pitch until my senior year,” Birch recalls. “I didn’t get on the college baseball radar until the summer after my senior year. I had the good fortune to pitch well in front of Doug Clark, who was the hitting coach at the time at University of Arkansas. Eventually the pitching coach saw me and then coach [Norm] DeBriyn saw me. I signed pretty late, considering.”
Birch arrived at Fayetteville when DeBriyn and his Razorbacks were a force to be reckoned with, making regular appearances in the College World Series.
“I definitely dreamed of playing [for the Razorbacks],” Birch says. “When I was in high school, they were having a successful era like they are going through now.”
Birch admits it was no small challenge being on the baseball team while earning a finance banking degree.
“It was extremely difficult. I was not a good college student. I was a C student. At the same time, I took some hard classes. My degree was tough. It’s very hard if you are in baseball because you are gone a ton, more games than any other sport.”
Birch pitched very well for the Razorbacks. A starting pitcher for a high-profile college program is naturally going to get attention from Major League Baseball scouts. Birch soon came to the conclusion that his ability to pitch in college wasn’t going to translate to a professional career.
“I didn’t think I was gonna be a big leaguer,” Birch notes. “I had a good grasp of what professional baseball looks for and I didn’t fit that profile. I didn’t throw very hard. I probably hit 85 or 86 [on the radar gun]. I didn’t have the tool set that pro ball was looking for. I didn’t get drafted.”
He left Razorbacks baseball without a major league contract but he hasn’t completely left baseball behind. For the last five years he has served as a volunteer pitching coach for Catholic High School’s team.
“It’s been a ton of fun,” Birch says. “I felt a responsibility to baseball to give some [of what I got] back. Not just wins and losses but mentor-ship to young men. I’ve had a blast doing it. I love the game itself. It was my way of staying in touch with it.”
Of course he has followed his former team in Fayetteville.
“I’m a season ticket holder [for the Razorbacks],” Birch says. “I’ve had some kids I coached go up there and play. I know coach [Dave] Van Horn. Besides being a fan, I’ve stayed in the loop being a former player.”
Birch, clearly proud of his days playing college ball, points to his relationship with his former head coach as a highlight.
“Norm DeBriyn was tough but honest with you. He was very hard-nosed but that made you want to play harder for him. He was a big influence on me personally. That guy is an awesome human. A remarkable guy.”
“He had great command,” says DeBriyn of Birch. “He was a great contributor to the team and a wonderful teammate. He’s also a great coach. You could see that in players that he has coached. I’ve stayed in touch with him over the years. I have been duck hunting with him and his father. He’s an admirable person.”
WEBSITES AND DUCK BLINDS
Post college degree, Birch started out working for Worthen Bank. It gave him the chance to get up close and personal with the computer technology of that time, which was the early ’90s.
“Toward the end of my time at Worthen, I got exposed to the technology side of things,” Birch says. “I was involved in some of the audits of all the computer-based systems the company was involved in. That was when my interest peaked in technology.”
When not at work, Birch explored another technology avenue on his own. He paired his new knowledge with a long-held passion.
“I taught myself how to build rudimentary websites. Never had a class. The sites I would build would be duck-hunting related. I would build websites for duck guides. That way you could market to hunters out-of-state. When I was in school, there wasn’t a computer class and it certainly wasn’t part of my major.”
Birch’s love for duck-hunting has led him to be on the board of directors for the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation. Birch wrote and published The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting’s Hallowed Ground, which dug into the history of duck-hunting in Arkansas.
In 2000, Birch began work for Arkansas Business Publishing Group.
“I was chief information officer. We started a web design firm there, Flex 360, that’s in existence today.”
However, the lure of running a program immersed in business and cutting-edge advances proved to be too strong.
“We’re providing world-class office space for burgeoning tech companies,” says Birch about the Tech Park. “But it’s more than just a place where you plug in your computer and work. It has created the headquarters for central Arkansas’ tech community. It’s the hub of activity whether you are a tenant or not. Everybody in the space is going through the same experiences. So they are able to learn from each other and collaborate. We have created an environment for these type companies so they can evolve. It allows them to stay here instead of moving to Dallas or Nashville or Austin. It gives them an opportunity to see the talents and opportunities that are here. They want to be part of Little Rock’s technology scene.”
Birch is naturally proud of what the Tech Park has already accomplished. He points to Appategy, the Little Rock-based business offering community platforms for schools. It was one of the first companies at the Tech Park and, at that time, it only had a single employee, founder Justin George. Appategy grew too large and had to leave the Tech Park for bigger office space.
Birch’s talk of the Tech Park and the work going on for Phase II speaks to his straightforward, no-nonsense approach and his optimistic attitude that feels exactly right for someone who is in a position to move central Arkansas forward in the competitive world of technology. He sounds like he’s ready to take on the next batter.
“We haven’t had the next Facebook yet but it will happen.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 11, 1970, Little Rock
IDEAL BREAKFAST: I’m not much of a breakfast eater but those Chicken Minis at Chickfil-A sure are good.
WHAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND ABOUT WHAT I DO: Not necessarily what I do but how important the Little Rock Technology Park project is to central Arkansas. If our region isn’t able to grow and retain technical talent and have available jobs for those types, we will lose them to regional competitor cities and have a gaping hole in our future economy. This facility plays a huge role in giving our local tech community a sense of place and confidence they can improve their skills and grow their company here.
A RECENT TECHNICAL INNOVATION THAT IMPRESSES ME MOST: Not a single technology but all the innovation going on related to agriculture (AgTech) has captured my interest lately. Technology is quickly revolutionizing farm operations and becoming affordable for smaller farms. There is so much opportunity to create for effective and efficient farms and that will surely benefit one of Arkansas’ leading industries.
MY FAVORITE PLACE TO VACATION: Not sure if it’s considered a vacation but I sure do enjoy duck camp in Geridge, Ark. As far as a true vacation, my wife, Mollie, and I had a blast chasing bonefish in the Marls off Abaco Island in the Bahamas.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM BASEBALL THAT STUCK WITH ME TO THIS DAY: Don’t ever sell yourself short. With the right blend of talent, hard work and the intuition to seize opportunities when they are presented, anything is possible. Occasionally, a little luck helps too.
THE FOUR GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: My grandfathers (one of which passed away before I was born), Ted Williams and Otis McCollum (the ‘architect’ of the Big Ditch Bottoms on the Grand Prairie).
ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Driven
“With my wide-ranging background of experiences, I can relate to what these companies are trying to do.This is somewhat of a commercial real estate project. I can relate to the tenants. I can talk tech with them as well as talk to them about the small business aspect.”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.
“With my wide-ranging background of experiences, I can relate to what these companies are trying to do. This is somewhat of a commercial real estate project. I can relate to the tenants. I can talk tech with them as well as talk to them about the small business aspect.” – Brent Reid Birch