WHAT'S THEIR SECRET? Three unlikely locales -- one named for the beaver -- have produced a remarkable crop of industry-beating FORTUNE 500 companies. Folks who live there take it in stride.
By Laurie Kretchmar

(FORTUNE Magazine) – THINK OF the great American business centers, the kinds of places where the entrepreneurial spirit thrives and tremendous wealth blossoms. Go ahead. Name a few. Columbus, Ohio? Northwestern Arkansas? Beaverton, Oregon? They didn't exactly roll off your tongue, did they? But they should have. True, Columbus ranked only moderately well when Moran Stahl & Boyer surveyed executives for the main article in this package, and it's no bargain. Northwestern Arkansas is too small, and Beaverton is just a suburb of Portland. But among them, these three enclaves are home to 14 FORTUNE 500 and Service 500 companies -- and not just ordinary large enterprises, but in many cases contemporary legends of American business. Names such as Wal-Mart, Banc One, the Limited, Nike, J.B. Hunt Transport, Tyson Foods, and Wendy's do roll off the tongue -- especially if the tongue belongs to an investor. So what's the deal? Is there something in these places' drinking water? Some competitive edge that helps small businesses thrive and then roar onto the national scene? Can it be bottled or exported? The people who live in these hotshot locales see nothing unusual about their success and are puzzled that you'd have to ask. In Ohio and Arkansas the term ''work ethic'' comes up often, while in Oregon you're more likely to hear about quality of life. In all three, locals cite such mundane but important elements as affordable housing and a vibrant middle class. As to why many of these companies got founded where they did, the answer seems simple: It's where the owners grew up. That's the case with the Limited's Leslie Wexner in Ohio, Tyson Foods' Don Tyson in Arkansas, and Nike's Phil Knight in Oregon. Banc One's John B. McCoy, who built his grandfather's bank into the one with the best return on assets among the top 50 U.S. banks, thinks ''success breeds success.'' He figures that one reason Columbus has prospered is that it had no dominant FORTUNE 500 companies ten years ago and wasn't controlled by any one industry. Result: few preconceptions or inhibitions. A singular thing about northwestern Arkansas is how hard it is to reach from anywhere else and how hard it is to tell when you've arrived. Really a bunch of big businesses spread out in little towns with names like Rogers and Springdale and Bentonville across a 100-mile arc of the Ozarks, there is no there there. Unlike Columbus, the region has thrived despite the lack of a strong infrastructure. Locals say credit goes to the hardworking people. Says J. B. Hunt: ''The rich people here don't even know they're rich. They haven't had time to count their money.'' Hunt is proud that his employees arrive at work early, leave by 4 p.m., and then hop on tractors and bale hay before going to bed. Says he: ''That's different from the guy who goes into the city for work, goes home, opens a six-pack, and watches TV. He's sluggish the next morning.'' Beaverton's origins are small-time and unromantic: It got its start as a swamp, inhabited by (you guessed it) beaver. Now drained, it has become the athletic shoe capital of the world through Nike, as well as the heart of Silicon Forest. Since 1946, when two Oregonians founded Tektronix as an electronics company, dozens more high-tech companies have sprung up in and around Beaverton. Others, like Intel and various Japanese companies -- Epson, NEC, Fujitsu -- have set up factories. Lifestyle is Beaverton's main attraction, with coast and mountains both about an hour away. Nike chief Phil Knight believes that is part of the area's business magic. ''I think it's a creative place to do business,'' he says. ''Urban settings sort of close in on me.'' If you're a city kind of person, Portland is just a hop away. There you can fish for salmon from the downtown waterfront or water-ski. But natives say they don't want too many people to discover them, nor does the city necessarily embrace business: Portland ranked 36th out of 50 for pro-business attitude in the MS&B survey. Columbus. Northwestern Arkansas. Beaverton. We went, we drank the water, and we're still not sure why they're incubators of entrepreneurial fortunes. Residents think that's our problem.