Bank marketer hopes ‘The Girl Banker’ website can be ‘a true voice’ for women to share challenges, opportunities

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,294 views 

Natalie West Bartholomew, chief marketing officer/lender at Grand Savings Bank in Bentonville

She played banker with her Barbies using bank forms her grandfather would bring from his office at Farmers & Merchants Bank in Prairie Grove. She was in high school when she pulled together her first loan package. She would secretly pocket credit card application forms on mall trips, only because she liked to fill out financial forms.

“No,” she said, shaking her head in the negative, with an I’m-telling-you-straight smile, when asked if she ever wanted to be anything other than a banker.

There is no spoiler.

Natalie West Bartholomew, 35, is a banker. Since February, she has worked as the chief marketing officer/lender at Grand Savings Bank in Bentonville. Prior to that she worked in a similar role for 3.5 years at First National Bank of NWA. She spent 12 years with Arvest Bank working from the bank’s Prairie Grove office. She’s on the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Northwest Arkansas board, and a board member and secretary of the Washington County Fair.

She’s also married to Colt Bartholomew. He’s a “real life cowboy,” she says. He works their cattle and manages other farms around Prairie Grove. They have two boys, Brody, 7, and Witten, 18 months. Colt and Natalie were high school sweethearts at Prairie Grove High School. They dated seven years before getting married in August 2006. Colt and Natalie’s families have deep roots in the Prairie Grove area. She’s a third-generation banker. Her grandfather, Wilford Thompson, was a banker “when handshakes could make deals,” she said.

The deals are certainly more complicated, and so can be the path for a woman seeking to enter and advance in the financial industry. Bartholomew’s success so far is a function of her passion and determination, and support from family and mentors. The family piece is big, especially with a job that has a 90-minute roundtrip commute each day. Her husband and the grandparents are able to help with the two boys.

“The family support has been a big factor. My career would be a lot different without that family piece,” Bartholomew said.

Mentors like Jill Castilla, president and CEO of Oklahoma-based Citizens Bank of Edmond, and the 2015 Community Banker of the Year winner by leading trade publication American Banker, have also helped Bartholomew navigate what remains a male-dominated industry.

With more than 16 years under her banking belt, Bartholomew recently began wondering if it was her turn to encourage women to enter the industry, and, once in, provide a hub for submitted advice, and encourage women to support each other. Part of her marketing job would take her to high school job fairs where few, if any, females were interested in a financial career option. Even young ladies in college were rarely interested.

“There’s nothing sexy about banking,” Bartholomew said, adding that many young women already realize it’s a male-dominated sector, “so why fight it?”

She plans to fight it. Her primary tool will be “The Girl Banker” website.

“Advocating women in banking, working moms and community banking is a passion of mine, and I’m thrilled to finally find a way to put that passion into words,” she said in a Facebook note teasing the new effort.

Bartholomew stressed repeatedly in the Talk Business & Politics interview that she wants most of the focus on industry opportunities, and not industry inequities. A goal is to be a resource for not only women in the industry, but young people interested in career success. While she plans a few series, such as a focus on some of the mentors who have helped her, much of the website material will be observations geared around promoting discussion.

“This isn’t me being an expert on anything. I’m not an expert, just ‘here are my experiences and let’s talk about it,’” she said. “There is not a true voice out there where women can just talk to other women … to coalesce all the issues into one spot. I really think a lot of us could learn from each other.”

Mary Beth Brooks agrees. She spent almost 30 years in banking with stops in Fort Smith, Little Rock and Memphis. Her last stop was as president and CEO of the Bank of Fayetteville between 2004 and 2015. She left the bank when it was acquired by Stuttgart-based Farmers and Merchants Bank in November 2015.

“That’s a great idea, and let me tell you why,” Brooks said when asked about Bartholomew’s planned website. “More of my problems were when I got higher up, because when you get higher up, very few of your peers are females.”

Not only are there fewer women in banking, Brooks explained, but some of the traditional means of networking rarely favor women. Golf, for example.

“Among bankers, especially if you end up with a group of bankers at some event, a group of CEOs, the way they do that [network] is playing golf,” Brooks said. “I wasn’t a golfer.”

Challenges for women in banking is not a lone observation by Bartholomew and Brooks. A quick internet search will deliver dozens of pages of articles about bias against women, double standards for handling relationships between co-workers, and retaliation against women for reporting bias and/or harassment.

There are efforts at high levels to respond. The Bank of Montreal is spending money on a marketing campaign about how women are overlooked. The bank in past years has taken action that now results in women being 40% of senior management. The American Banking Association’s Stonier Graduate School of Banking did not allow women until 1964. The 2017 class was 44% women.

Bartholomew’s primary concern with the website is that some will see it as political instead of practical — especially in today’s partisan environment.

“I have to be careful that I don’t come across as this is some big feminist movement, because that’s not it. That’s not what this will be,” she said, adding later, “This is to get the conversation going. … I know it won’t move the needle immediately, but as an example, I want to show women why you need to find a mentor, or why you need to be a mentor.”

To that point, Bartholomew believes not all men are the problem and not all women are the answer. Her boss, Grand Savings Bank CEO Guy Cable, is one of her “best supporters” of the new website. And women, she observed, can be jealous or otherwise non-supportive of other women in the industry.

“Sometimes we can be the worst to each other. We need to stop doing that and instead be advocates for each other,” she said.

As for other expectations with the website, Bartholomew suspects the conversations will begin to provide insight into the pressing issues and direction on how to address such issues.

“I think I’ll find out more of the ‘whys’ while I’m doing this,” she said.

But she is certain about one goal.

“We need more people who still want to play bank, especially little girls.”