Mary Beth Brooks, president and CEO of The Bank of Fayetteville, has deep roots in Northwest Arkansas as well as Fort Smith. Born and raised in Fort Smith, Brooks and her three sisters were encouraged to pursue any profession they wanted, and taught they could do whatever any man could do.
Raised by a grammar teacher mother and an attorney father (Mary Ellen and Brad Jesson) the girls were encouraged to seek non-traditional careers for women.
“I believe our mother wanted to push us to do the things that she did not pursue.”
The family dynamic was intellectually driven. The girls were encouraged to have opinions of their own. Dinner table topics included politics, religion and current events.
“There weren’t any forbidden subjects,” said Brooks.
Proper grammar was stressed by her mother, and her father was notorious for choosing words which often sent the girls to the dictionary to look up the meaning. Not knowing the meaning of a word was not acceptable.
“Our parents tried to peel more information from us,” she said. “We were encouraged to have deep thoughtful conversations. Our education at Southside (High School in Fort Smith) was great, but the home education we received was invaluable.”
NEGOTIATING WITH ADULTS
Growing up near Hardscrabble Country Club in Fort Smith allowed Brooks to spend many hours on the tennis court where she became an avid tennis player. If adults came to use the court her parents instructed her to get off.
“I never wanted to get off the court, so I ‘negotiated’ with the adults to stay and play. I constantly interacted with them.”
Working as a life guard allowed Brooks to pay for tennis. Tennis honed her skills for dealing with pressure and competition.
“Learning to deal with others, both older and my own age played a huge role in shaping me.”
Although she was not strong in math and science, she enrolled in industrial engineering at the University of Arkansas, following in the footsteps of an older sister. Brooks recalls her engineering graphics experience.
“There were 72 guys and me. I looked at my grades and I was just in the middle of the pack. I had a hard time accepting average so I bailed, and then I called my parents.”
The phone conversation with her parents didn’t go well at all when she told them she was going to change her major to business. She was following two sisters who attended law school, and another sister who majored in engineering. Her declaration had just set the low mark for the family.
“I found my groove there,” Brooks said of the UA business classes.
‘FIRST REAL SLAP’
The first experience with the 1986 world of male vs. female in the workplace was at the end of her senior year. She interviewed during her last semester with a bank in Fort Smith for a management training program. The interview went well and she was positive she would be hired. Several weeks went by and she reached out to the bank to confirm her forthcoming employment, but no one returned her call. A student in her class informed her he had been hired in that position. Thinking they were going to hire two trainees, she called to speak to one of the interviewers. She was told she was extremely qualified; however they felt they needed a male in that position.
“For a girl that had been brought up thinking I could do anything even being a woman, well that was the first real slap I experienced. This incident made me realize not everyone was like my parents.”
Brooks then went to work as a bank examiner in Little Rock, dealing with all the Arkansas banks. The only other time an issue of her sex arose was when a male bank executive in Crossett told her boss she couldn’t be the examiner in charge because she was a woman. Her boss stood up for her and quickly settled that issue.
“I learned as much as I could about all areas of the banking business,” Brooks said. “One of the things my dad used to stress to me is that no job is beneath you.”
He advised her to take every job like it would be the last job she would ever have and do the job to the best of her ability. She earned the trust of people she worked with. Always willing to move for her job, she moved from Little Rock to Memphis. The move was difficult. She didn’t know anyone in the Memphis area, but working with National Bank of Commerce was one of her best experiences as she consulted with banks in 10 states, learning all aspects of banking.
“I had to grow up fast. I was traveling constantly and had a large territory,” she said.
The territory encompassed the east coast states from New Jersey to South Carolina. Traveling became an education in itself.
BACK TO ARKANSAS
An opportunity to return to Arkansas and work for Arvest manifested itself. She was mentored by Burt Stacy who worked for Jim Walton. Brooks’s position was to set up branches inside grocery stores and hire the staff. She had her own profit and loss for the around 50 branches she managed. Stacy and Walton were great role models.
“I could see Jim Walton from my space. I saw him work as hard as everyone else. He held himself accountable. He would even use the PTO plan (paid time off) to get his hair cut. He was just so accountable.”
She and Stacy were working unbelievable hours when she met her husband. Brooks recalls that she was scared to tell Stacy about her engagement, thinking he would assume she might not work as hard, so she decided to concoct a plan that would make him happy she was only getting married. Smiling she shared how she told him she was pregnant and would be getting married. After the initial shock of the announcement hit home, he was excited when she told him she wasn’t pregnant, but she was getting married.
When Brooks did decide to have a child, she knew traveling wasn’t going to work. She needed to be in a stable area. Walton asked her in which bank she wanted to locate. She chose Fayetteville. Her baby was born with complications.
“I was so blessed to have people to work with that supported me being off for five months.”
She was approached by The Bank of Fayetteville to come on board.
“I turned them down a few times. One day I came home and John (Lewis) was sitting on my front porch. To say the least he was very convincing.”
Brooks believes the key to combining the roles of a wife, mother and bank president is balanced responsibilities at home. It is fortunate she and her husband’s super busy times seem to not happen together. When there have been time conflicts, she took her son to work or she took work home.
“I set boundaries that family comes first. Fortunately my husband is a passionate cook and does his part; actually he’s a gourmet chef, so I don’t have to worry about cooking.”
Brooks said she is like all moms, as she does have some regrets. She confesses she is not the best mom at school, and admits she is a “helicopter” mom. She is adamant about helping her son find his way in something that clicks for him as the health problems he experienced in his infancy have created some struggles for him.
“I do worry about working and being a mom. I have working mom guilt. I think Tim (husband) and I do very well; however I didn’t want to miss those magical moments, and have the baby sitter be the one to experience those. Those moments are very important.”
Discussing her biggest professional struggle to date, she said the real estate down turn in Northwest Arkansas between 2009 and 2011 was the toughest time in the banking industry.
“There wasn’t any past history to fall back on; it was a whole new ballgame. It was so tough knowing I was at the helm. I could see the recovery would be long. I just wanted to fast forward to when it would end. This was the lender liability lawsuit era. What got me through this time was a combination of my team as we just hunkered down, put our arms around each other and waded through it together, and my tremendous family support. My goal was just getting everyone through it. It truly was the dark years.”