North By Northwest: Cattle Baroness: Cynthia Coughlin
Cynthia Coughlin at Coughlin’s Ranch.
Photography by Beth Hall
She was a New York City girl who had to look up Arkansas on the map. She only expected to stay in the rural town of Bentonville for two years, at most. Thirty-three years later she’s still here, managing a 2,000-acre ranch and working tirelessly to integrate non-profits into the community.
Cynthia Coughlin is owner/manager of Coughlin’s Ranch, a registered Angus breeding operation, and is well known for her charitable involvement and contributions.
“If I had not moved here, I can’t imagine what my life would have been,” she said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have seen this coming. First, just to be in the middle of the country, but second to be agriculturally involved, it’s been fabulous. With the exposure of working with the biggest retailer in the world, we’ve had a lot of different experiences just coming here.”
Coughlin moved to Bentonville from Cleveland, Ohio, in 1978 when her husband Tom was offered a position at Walmart. While she was still in Cleveland, Tom sent her articles about the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (SoNA) knowing she would be more willing to make the move from a big city to one with a population of 4,000 if she had opportunities for involvement in the community. Her desire to be involved was heightened when she got to Bentonville and saw the Walmart culture.
“Sam [Walton] was instrumental in getting everyone to do nonprofit work,” she said. “He insisted his store managers become involved in the community. I also watched the executives’ wives and what they did in this small place, and Helen [Walton] was just unbelievable.”
Within their first few years in “B-ville,” as the Coughlins lovingly call it, Coughlin was instrumental in getting SoNa and musical programs in the school system; in the creation of the Benton County Boys and Girls Club; helped Helen Walton with fundraising for the Walton Arts Center; and had her first child.
“There were so many things that weren’t provided here when I first came; so many people were coming in from Walmart and they were used to having those activities and organizations, so it wasn’t difficult to get it all started, and up and going,” Coughlin said. “It’s a very caring and giving community.”
On top of all that, there were the cattle. In 1984, the Coughlins kept about 20 cattle on a 65-acre ranch. Today, they keep 150 to 200 cattle on a 2,000-acre ranch.
When Tom started traveling overseas for work, Coughlin realized the necessity of her involvement in their operation. Having grown up in big cities her entire life, she had no background in ranching and wanted to absorb it all, from castrating to selling and management. Now she couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“I enjoy the slower life and being outside more,” she said. “There’s just something unique about working with animals. It’s very different than what I was exposed to. I loved looking out the window and seeing the [calves] running around. They’re actually like little dogs when they’re young; they play and scamper around — they’re really cute.”
Now that the Coughlins’ three children are grown, Coughlin splits her time between the managing of the ranch and her continuous work with nonprofits, something she believes is one of the most valuable things she could do with her time and resources.
“When you’re raising your own children here, you can see the need, and in our area we have such diverse economic conditions,” she said. “If you can make a difference like that, why wouldn’t you?”
Coughlin has been awarded the Freedom Corps Award for volunteerism from Pres. George W. Bush; the “Rabbit Dickerson” Award for volunteerism; and the Louise Thadden Business Woman of the Year from the Bentonville Chamber of Commerce.
“I know I can help nonprofits from a business perspective. I love the marketing and trying to raise the awareness of the organization, and that’s key,” she said. “If you make everyone aware of the need, it will sell itself.”
Coughlin currently serves on three boards: Circle of Life Hospice; Botanical Garden of the Ozarks; the Police Athletic League (P.A.L.); and is on the advisory committee for SoNa, which she was president of in 1980.
Near and dear to her heart is P.A.L., a nationwide program brought to Benton County in 2009. P.A.L. is a youth crime prevention program that utilizes educational, athletic and recreational activities to create trust and understanding between police officers and youth by offering free, year-round programs for any child between the ages of 4 and 17. They are constructing a building to host P.A.L. activities and to have a place for the police officers to spend time with the kids, rather than using the Boys and Girls Club and Rogers Activity Center. The Coughlins donated the land for the building.
“Exposing the children of Bentonville to the symphony or Walton Arts Center or playing sports with policemen, you’re just making the world, the whole community, better,” Coughlin said. “I don’t think anyone knows how they touch another person’s life.”