Javier Zavala heads Christmas at Peel event second year in a row, sharing his passion for Peel properties
At the Peel Museum and Botanical Gardens, the halls are decked to grand effect and waiting for 200 guests to join in the merry-making for the Christmas at Peel gala on Dec. 2. The event has been sold out for sometime.
Eagerly anticipating their arrival are Javier Zavala — founder of retail consulting business Natural Bay and now partner at Traverse Group/Legacy Retail Solutions — and his wife Meagan, the returning chairmen for the fundraising event for the Peel Compton Foundation.
The organization has grown it properties in recent years far beyond the historic Italianate style mansion built for Samuel West Peel, Arkansas’ first native-born congressman, its gardens and arboretum. It now includes nearby Osage Park and the 300-acre Coler Mountain Bike Preserve. Over the course of 2022, the four Peel Compton properties saw more than 600,000 visitors.
This year’s event will include seasonal music, gluten-free dinner crafted by Chef Matt Cooper of CONIFER and an auction. Proceeds further the foundation’s four main functions: to connect the community to nature, recreation, education and preservation.
“Javier and his wife Meagan served as co-chairs of Christmas at Peel Museum in 2021, and brought a fresh enthusiasm and mission-forward perspective to this signature Northwest Arkansas event,” says Lucie Patton, senior marketing manager for the Peel Compton Foundation. “We’re excited to have them back as co-chairs this year as they help us share the story of (the) foundation’s important work preserving nearly 400 acres of community space.”
Javier Zavala can’t think of a better organization to stay involved in than one that strengthens the community bond with nature and recreational opportunities. He’s served on the board of the foundation since 2021 and is passionate about getting others out to enjoy these free green spaces.
“We really want to make sure everybody feels welcome,” he says. “Nature and recreation should be democratized … you’ve got to be able to have great spaces for people to come together and feel comfortable.”
While attending Drury University in nearby Springfield, Mo., and later when he was working in New York, Zavala always prioritized a good mountain bike ride when he would return home to Northwest Arkansas. But back then, Bentonville’s trails were just getting started.
“Now, with a trail in my back yard, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is so fun, the access to get into nature and clear your mind, that flow space you can go into,” Zavala says. He describes it as a meditative experience that he wishes more people could enjoy, which is why he donates his time with the organization. “Peel has a lot of cool history and heritage. For my friends and my generation, I really want to help support the growth of the foundation and get people on board with what we’re doing.”
Cycling through the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve on a recent warm, sunny day just before the weather turned wintry, we pass through a bridge that sets off musical, windchime-like tones when it detects motion. Zavala points out some favorite aspects of the grounds as he rides the flat, paved path that runs through the center of the property.
The most obvious features are the mountain biking trails to either side, then the newer, lesser known Coler campgrounds and various art-in-the-wild pieces like the colorful gate-like entrance to one of the trails. The latest feature is a newly constructed staircase that allows visitors a place of exercise and access to a different side of the grounds.
As we stop at The Homestead, an area that has a barn, a place to cross the creek that pervades the whole preserve, a nicely constructed building with a neon “Paradise Found,” and an open-air cafe, Zavala smiles as he talks about bringing his 21/2 year-old son, Sebastian, for a morning of balance bike riding and a requisite stop for breakfast tacos.
“We go (through Coler) all the time,” Zavala says. “He’s experiencing this at a young age, this access and immersion to beautiful, natural spaces and seeing a lot of other kids doing the same thing. It’s important that this area is preserved for the next generation.”
Javier Zavala enjoyed a strong connection with nature from early childhood. Among his earliest memories is walking out into the Santa Lucia mountains each morning to the birds singing and spending a lot of time outdoors, playing with his dog.
Zavala was born in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras; his parents had met while studying at a university in Mexico. His father was an architect of Spanish descent; his mother, who is Puerto Rican, a teacher; and his grandfather was an obstetrician.
Having a doctor in the family came in handy more than once. Not only was his granddad the one to deliver him at birth, he also patched him up when at 4 or 5 years old, Zavala fell into the family’s water filtration system, a contraption fairly similar to a well. He still has the scars today.
Javier grew up speaking Spanish in his household and continues even now, often speaking to his own son in Spanish in hopes that he will learn it, too. In 1987, when Zavala was 5 or 6, his parents split up. He and his mother Maria moved to Little Rock, where her sister lived and she had secured a job as a Montessori teacher.
As a boy, Javier loved all things nature-related — going on hikes, fishing, always drawn to the outdoors. He played a lot of sports, too, at times having four or five that he kept up with. Then his mom earned a place at Walmart International and the two moved to Bentonville, where she began to teach and train associates about Latin culture as the retail giant expanded. Javier was 13 then and homing in on tennis as his preferred sport.
“Tennis really stuck with me; I played it for a long time,” Zavala says. His teenage years were spent at Subiaco Academy, then during his senior year of high school he left home to spend a full year training at John Newcombe Tennis Ranch, a tennis academy in New Braunfels, Texas. “It really helped my tennis game get better, and I was really dedicated to it.”
The hard work paid off, securing him a scholarship to play on the men’s tennis team for Drury University, where he studied international business, particularly the commerce side, and Spanish.
Zavala enjoyed attending the school that was only a couple hours’ drive away from his home in Bentonville, partially because of those budding mountain biking trails like Slaughter Pen, but also to come to know his new family better. His mother remarried when he was 15 or 16, which gave him three stepbrothers who all lived in the area at the time.
“Soon after meeting Javier, he shyly mentioned he had always hoped for older brothers,” says Chris Seay, CEO of Runway Group and Javier’s stepbrother. “It was just such a wonderful, genuine moment. I have always thought this soft, open-hearted remark was such a perfect expression of who Javier is.
“Not once have I heard Javier say anything negative about anyone.”
Seay was technically the one to introduce Javier’s mother Maria to his father Tom, but it’s more complicated than that, and a major contributing factor was tennis.
While his father Tom was an executive at Walmart, he was working out at the fitness center after a Saturday morning meeting when he met Kim, an industrial engineer who also worked at Walmart headquarters. Tom casually introduced Kim to Chris, who was there also, and the two hit it off.
As the couple grew together, Kim picked up tennis herself and suggested arranging a doubles match with Javier’s mother, Maria, and asked Seay to schedule his father as the fourth player.
“So the funny part of the story is while (my wife) Kim and I did introduce my father to Javier’s mother, my father also introduced my wife to me,” Seay says.
Before long, Zavala was involved with Walmart himself.
As a college student, he earned an international internship with Walmart that took him to live in Puerto Rico for a year, where he worked in merchandising and operations. After that, he interviewed and secured a merchandising job at Walmart, where he was trained as a buyer.
“I really enjoyed retail,” Zavala says. “I had been really intrigued by that industry; my mother would always take me shopping with her when I was young and I was just (captivated by) the retail environment.”
He had, after all, imagined it would be nice to work for a large company, especially a multinational one, so he could use his Spanish. Zavala spent five years with Walmart in various capacities of merchandising, but among his favorite experiences was in the seasonal department. He was responsible for Christmas trees, Halloween costumes, Easter decor and more.
“That was a really fun category, where I spent time with merchants who had been in that role a long time,” Zavala says. They took him to other countries, such as China and Korea, for buying trips. “It taught me a lot about what happens behind the scenes. You’re on one side of the desk, helping suppliers understand expectations, but you … have to see what they’re going through to bring a product to life.
“What blew me away was how much impact you have when you make a decision as a merchant at Walmart, (on) factory workers to designers to developers.”
A couple years into Zavala’s time with Walmart, he was promoted to the apparel department, where he worked primarily in men’s wear. He began going to New York City with increasing frequency to meet with suppliers and on market trips to learn about trends in a variety of categories and collaborate with developers before returning and putting together new assortments.
In 2008 Walmart moved its apparel office to New York. As he continued to work from Bentonville with his product development team in the Big Apple, he got a taste of city life and the energy it exuded.
As a single guy living in Bella Vista, “I was ready for a change,” Zavala says. “I was reflecting on what I really wanted to do.”
He moved to New York and joined a manufacturer designer distribution company that worked closely with Walmart.
Zavala would stay for the next 10 years, working in business development, sales and leadership with two different companies. That’s where he learned about the ideation and product development stages, branding and licensing, distribution of products through many retail channels, mostly brick-and-mortar accounts like Target and Kohl’s.
It diversified his mostly Walmart oriented experience.
One Memorial Day about six years into his New York phase, Zavala headed to Soho to a supper club with a few buddies. By chance he got seated next to Meagan, who was there with a few friends herself. The two got to know each other.
“Right away I noticed how cool and collected Javier was,” Meagan Zavala says. “From the start, he struck me as a focused, grounded and confident person … his demeanor was calming and refreshing to me.”
The conversation was easy, and they exchanged numbers at the end of the night. When Javier called her the next day, he was intrigued to find that she was throwing a Frisbee in Central Park.
“She was so easy going from the very first moment we met,” he says. “We really meshed very easily from day one.”
Their first date was “pretty epic,” Meagan Zavala says, starting with drinks at Soho House in downtown Manhattan followed by dinner at Minetta Tavern, a chic restaurant her mother remembered dining at when she lived in New York.
When Javier proposed, he re-created that date, starting with the rooftop bar followed by the same favorite restaurant, with a menu custom printed to read “Meagan & Javier — The First Date That Never Ended,” which is now framed in their dining room. After a third place for dessert, he led her to Central Park with the promise of seeing the boathouse, a place she had always wanted to see.
While walking through the park, rain turned to a torrential downpour. As they took shelter at the gazebo, Zavala proposed. Afterward, the rain stopped. They looked up only to realize they had the whole place to themselves. Not just the gazebo, but as far as they could see in Central Park. A friend captured the moments with photos of them walking the famous mall with not another person in sight.
They married in 2015 in New York, honeymooned in Thailand and have had many celebratory dinners at Minetta Tavern since.
During the last three years of Zavala’s New York experience, he was working for a British company, helping establish their North American presence by building a small, autonomous office in the city. Ultimately he hired about 25 people for work in sales, trade marketing and third party logistics, and it gave him the opportunity to travel a lot.
Both Chris Seay and Meagan Zavala say his success stems not just from being driven and focused, setting goals and standards and working to accomplish them, but the caring, thoughtful manner he uses in every scenario.
“Javier is not shy or uncomfortable when it comes to traveling to a new place, immersing in a new culture … or meeting a new person,” Meagan Zavala says. “He’s very mindful of others and deeply respectful of every person he engages with. Javier possesses the ability to meet everyone at their level and finds ways to relate to their life experiences to form a deeper connection … the true definition of worldly.”
“While he is an incisive and strategic thinker, to my mind, it is his emotional intelligence that keys Javier’s business and personal accomplishments,” Seay says.
As much as Zavala loved the city, in the back of his mind was an increasing desire to move back to Arkansas. He was already intrigued by the extraordinary growth that his hometown area was experiencing when the CEO of the company he was with told him they were in the process of selling.
In 2018, Zavala spent six months on tour with the CEO exploring their options for the buyout, going to Raleigh and Durham, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas. Zavala pushed and got Bentonville added to the list. In the end, the company didn’t relocate to Arkansas, but it gave Zavala the confidence to move there and start his own consulting business, Natural Bay. It helped new and prospective suppliers trying to get their foot in the door at Walmart and Target, a process he knew very well by that point, having both buyer and business development experience.
By 2020, Zavala had enough work that he faced a choice to hire people or partner with a big company, which is how Natural Bay was acquired by Traverse Group, where he’s now a partner.
The first house he and Meagan rented when they returned was right on a mountain bike trail.
“Coming from 10 years of living in the concrete jungle … and then all of a sudden you’re in this house with trees all around and a trail across our back yard was such a nice change,” Zavala says. “It was like ‘Wow, what? This life is amazing.'”
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