Then & Now: Jennings is still big on small biz banking

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,312 views 

Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the April 24 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.


Eileen Jennings is in her 19th year as a banker in Northwest Arkansas, all with one of the state’s largest banks.

She’s held various commercial credit and lending roles working at Fayetteville-chartered Arvest Bank, the $26.4 billion-asset lender owned by members of the Walton family.

Since the fall of 2021, Jennings has worked for the Arvest Opportunity Fund, a wholly owned non-bank subsidiary providing loans and lines of credit to small businesses that fall below bank loan policy requirements.

In a recent interview, she said the new job is a continuation of the best part of her career — getting to know customers and figuring out ways to connect them with needed cash.

“It’s one thing to look at someone on paper,” she said. “But when you get to know their origin stories and how they started their business, it’s fun to learn and figure out how to help them grow and be successful.”

Jennings’ passion for small business is personal. Her mother ran an H&R Block tax office in Fayetteville for several years. Her husband, Walter, owns a small business in the city.

Jennings grew up in St. Paul, a rural town in south Madison County. That upbringing also helped form her desire to help small business owners.

“There were a lot of self-employed folks in farming or a side business,” she said. “It always interested me to see people that had a great idea and wanted to figure out how to monetize it. Usually, those ideas were born out of a need they saw in their community and a way they could make it better.”

Jennings attended the University of Arkansas and earned bachelor’s degrees in international economics and finance. She worked in Kansas City, Mo., for a few years but moved back to Northwest Arkansas in 2004 to work as a credit analyst at Arvest Bank in Bentonville.

She quickly moved into loan review and spent the next decade working closely with many customers to start new businesses and expand current ones. Jennings supported the bank’s Small Business Administration lending — Arvest is an SBA-preferred lender — and the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center. She also created the Understanding Commercial Customers classes in Fayetteville, which the bank has put into action across its four-state footprint (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma).

The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal named Jennings, a vice president with the company in Fayetteville, to the Forty Under 40 class in 2014.

Two years later, her success drew more attention. Arvest Bank promoted her to senior vice president, and the central Arkansas chapter of the Risk Management Association (RMI) named Jennings its 2016 Commercial Banker of the Year. RMI, a community development corporation based in Jefferson City, Mo., partners with community banks to provide SBA 504 loans.

After beta market testing in mid-2022, the Arvest Opportunity Fund was launched across Arvest’s four-state footprint in August 2022. As of April 20, it’s delivered more than $2.8 million in small business loans, and customers must agree to go through financial education coaching as part of their loan agreement.

When the bank began discussing the idea of forming the subsidiary, Jennings was immediately interested.

“I might have been a little persistent with the decision-makers,” she joked. “I knew small business would be a big part of it, and I wanted to be involved.”

Jennings, the director of community lending and investment, is part of Arvest Opportunity Fund’s four-person founding staff, led by CEO Hillis Schild, who is based in Little Rock.

“I am super proud of Arvest and the ownership for trying something new and different to help [underbanked] folks in our communities,” Jennings said.

Jennings is an RMI board member and serves on the group’s Arkansas loan committee. She’s also a longtime board member for the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, a Fayetteville nonprofit that protects over 6,000 acres in the region.

A two-time breast cancer survivor, Jennings and her husband have a daughter, an eighth-grader at Ramay Junior High School, who is an avid volleyball player. They live on a farm south of Fayetteville.

“We mostly grow ticks and rocks,” Jennings joked.