Brooks Time at BOF Marked by Thrills, Chills and Change

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Mary Beth Brooks was executive vice president and sales manager for Arvest Bank Group Inc. in Rogers when she was chosen as a member of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s 2003 Forty Under 40 class.

Less than a year later, Brooks was the late John Lewis’ handpicked successor as president and CEO of the Bank of Fayetteville. In her first three years, its assets grew from $355 million to $441 million and net income tripled.

As a result, Brooks was listed No. 13 on U.S. Banker magazine’s list of 25 “Women to Watch” in 2007. She also was named Arkansas Business’ Business Executive of the Year the same year.

“The first four years were pretty darn fun,” Brooks said.

Then all you-know-what broke loose.

“Every day was something new, it seemed like, another fire to put out,” Brooks said.

Those fires were sparked by the national recession and fueled by the particular problems felt far and wide in Northwest Arkansas. Among those were a crumbling real estate market, massive bankruptcies and a bevy of lender-liability lawsuits.

Brooks characterized much of the period from 2008 until just recently as filled with “angst, anxiety and turmoil.”

“It’s been a learning experience, a growing experience, a challenge on my family, all those kinds of things,” she said during a two-hour conversation at her downtown Fayetteville office.

Brooks also spoke of the recent flirtation between BOF and First Bank Corp. of Fort Smith. FBC is the parent company to First National Bank of Fort Smith, among other institutions. An FBC acquisition of BOF was considered a done deal by many in the local banking industry as recently as October, and was just the latest in a string of such talk involving other suitors dating as far back as 2005.

“I’m just not a quitter, and probably more than anything, I’m stubborn,” Brooks said. “I just want to prove that we can do it.

“So, not selling the bank was the very best thing for me because I can continue on and I think it’s so important for a community like Fayetteville to have a true community bank.”

Brooks also said BOF is “probably 80 to 85 percent of the way to the end of the tunnel” in terms of coming through the recession.

“I can see the end of the tunnel, I can see a light, and I can see that it’s not a train,” she said.

There were times during the last four years when Brooks wasn’t sure that was the case. The lender-liability lawsuits against BOF and Brooks, in particular, seem to have been among the most stressful of events.

“They don’t just sue the bank,” Brooks said. “They sued me personally, and when you’re being sued for $265 million by four or five different borrowers … it gets personal, no doubt.

“We won every single one of them, but we spent probably $400,000 or $500,000 defending ourselves in the process. But it’s not just the money spent. It’s the time, the effort and energy. The mental energy is just overwhelming.”

Brooks joked that a side effect of all the litigation is a new aversion to attorneys.

“I was raised by one and I’m married to one,” she said with a laugh, “and I wish I could never see another one again unless it was my dad or my husband.”

And while Brooks admits to being somewhat jaded by the stresses of recent years, she expressed a sense of renewal about leading BOF. The bank, its shareholders, and customers clearly mean a lot to her, and trying to do what was best for them resulted in one the biggest lessons the tough times taught her.

“In difficult times, the best thing to do … is to huddle together as a team,” she said. “So much of it mirrors what a family does, the hunker-down approach. You hold hands and try to get through it.”

Brooks said she’s well aware significant challenges remain. One that’s particularly frustrating, it seems, is the continuing evolution of the Dodd-Frank act.

“The regulatory challenge, I think, is that it’s crushing small banks,” she said.

Mostly, though, Brooks seems to be finding joy in the same things that have anchored her over the years — “traveling and spending good quality time with my family and friends.”

As for her professional future, Brooks said in 10 years she hopes to be “at the Bank of Fayetteville and continuing on with our tradition, providing the best kind of service and serving our community.”