Apr 4, 2024 - News

Manager of defunct Cooks Venture left wake of businesses

Illustration of briefcases surrounded by abstract shapes.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Editor's note: This is part four of a series about the sudden suspension of operations by Cooks Venture of Decatur.

Blake Evans, the current leader of Cooks Venture, can be found at the edges of several historical economic storms in Northwest Arkansas.

Why it matters: The closure of the five-year-old poultry company in Decatur is the latest in a series of booms and busts across his career.

State of play: Evans was appointed CEO of Peterson Farms in 2004 at age 29. At the time, the poultry enterprise founded by his late grandfather, Lloyd Peterson, made an estimated $128 million in annual revenue.

The big picture: The global financial crisis of 2008 was a turning point.

  • The recession hit banks with overextended real estate portfolios, but also impacted poultry companies plagued by high grain prices and low demand.
  • Evans was at the intersection of both.

Catch up quick: Evans and his parents held about a 30% stake in ANB Financial of Bentonville when the bank failed in May 2008. All three were on its board of directors, and the family lost an estimated $50 million.

  • The Evans family still owned Peterson Farms but sold its meat-producing and propane operations to Simmons Foods of Siloam Springs later that year.
  • The Peterson breed was sold in 2010 to Aviagen, one of the world's largest poultry genetics companies.

They also owned Decatur State Bank, founded by Evans' grandfather, Lloyd Peterson, in 1954. Run in part by Evans and his mother — Peterson's daughter — the bank lost money in 2010 and 2011, and was under an enforcement action by the FDIC in 2012.

In 2013, Crystal Lake Farms launched using much of the old Peterson Farms land and infrastructure in Decatur. Evans was a co-owner and president in 2017 when Crystal Lake was sold to West Liberty Farms of Iowa.

  • An entity managed by Johnelle Hunt, widow of trucking founder J.B. Hunt, was listed as the seller in land records.
  • Under the new ownership, Evans was named vice president of industrial affairs.

The latest: West Liberty Foods sold the company in 2018 to Matthew Wadiak, who created Cooks Venture.

  • Wadiak paid $2 million for the Arkansas land and buildings and at least $4 million for Oklahoma land and buildings, according to records.
  • Evans was named an executive vice president of Cooks.

That same year, Evans declared personal bankruptcy, estimating his assets between $100,000 and $500,000 and liabilities between $10 million and $50 million.

The intrigue: Through all the ups and downs, it's not clear how Evans has managed to keep a tenuous hold on parts of the company founded by his grandfather in 1939, now known as Cooks Ventures.

What they're saying: Wadiak declined to talk with Axios about Evans' employment at the company, citing personal reasons.

  • Others with familiarity of Cooks Venture's operations declined to speak on the record out of concern for their future career prospects.

The bottom line: Evans declined to talk with Axios on the record for this story after several attempts spanning three weeks.

  • "If there was anything else that … popped out at a later date that we could talk about or whatever … I'd certainly let you know that," he said in one phone call.

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