In April of this year, I was honored to witness what I consider the shattering of an incredibly longstanding glass ceiling at the Arkansas Bankers Association Convention. Cathy Owen, Chairman of Eagle Bank & Trust based out of Little Rock, Arkansas, was the first woman in 128 years to be elected chairman of the board of directors of the Arkansas Bankers Association. Let me say that one more time… first woman in 128 years! In other words, Cathy is the first woman EVER to hold this position in Arkansas. I sat in the conference room literally fighting back tears (hey, this is a big deal to me) as she received a standing ovation from the crowd which was perhaps made up of 90% men. I’m certain I heard the sound of shattering glass as she approached the stage.
I have been itching for months to get a chance to talk to Cathy about a post on the Girl Banker and feel incredibly fortunate that she took the time out of a very busy schedule to answer a few questions I sent her way. Cathy had no intentions of being a banker but started her banking career at her father’s suggestion in 1974 and hasn’t looked back. Her Girl Banker story is so inspiring and I have no doubt that her words below will leave a lasting impression on all of the Girl Bankers who read this blog!
What was the biggest challenge you have faced in your banking career?
Being a female in banking, combined along with being the majority owners/founder’s daughter, and being “given” a leadership role in our bank at a very young age have been my biggest challenges. It also didn’t help that I am petite and looked younger than I was when I started in banking. I began my career at 16 years of age, as a summer job, because my father wanted someone in the family to learn about banking. On my first day on the job, the Bank President informed me he didn’t want me there. He said he wasn’t going to “babysit some spoiled child all summer” and I was only there because my father wanted me there. He told me not to go home and report what happened each day to my father. I knew immediately I could either quit, walk out, and prove him right, or I could work hard and prove him wrong. I chose the latter option. The Bank President placed me in a closet-sized room with a shredder and piles of old documents stacked floor to ceiling, with the intention it would take me all summer to shred all of the documents. I shredded everything within a month. Then he gave me several bushel baskets of purple hull peas to shell, which I had never seen, much less shelled, but I figured it out and accomplished it in short order. He then decided, maybe I was okay to work with the rest of the staff. He let me start answering the telephone and learning about other positions within the bank. By the end of the summer, he wanted to know if I would be able to return to during Christmas break and the following summer.
For seven summers I returned to the bank to work under his tutelage. Then in 1980, at 22 years of age and less than a month after graduating from college, I received a call from my father that the Bank President had a massive heart attack and died. My father told me he needed me to run the bank. I then obtained my first loan from one of the big banks in downtown Little Rock to purchase a large block of bank stock that had belonged to the Bank President. I continued to live with my parents and nearly every penny I made went to pay down this loan. It was one of the scariest and best decisions I’ve made in my career. Through the years, I found myself continually and quietly proving myself and my role to those inside and outside of the bank. My father taught me how to think, stand tall, and present myself with confidence. Confidence doesn’t mean you know everything, but it does mean you are smart enough to recognize what you don’t know and to reach out for help when you need it.
Have there been any other women in banking that have had a direct impact on your career or who have served as role models or mentors?
There is one female in my banking career that has served as a role model to me. I have since shared this with her, but at the time I am sure she had no idea of her impact on me. Betty Wilkinson, Chairman of Farmers Bank out of Greenwood, Arkansas. She served on the Arkansas State Bank Department Board, which was the highest role I was aware of that was filled by a female banker. Early in my career, in order to open a new branch, we had to plead our case in front of the ASBD Board. It was apparent that not only was she very knowledgeable, but also when she spoke, the men listened. Watching her showed me that it was possible for women to hold the highest of roles in banking. I have been very fortunate to have many additional people serve as mentors, but they are primarily men and not within the field of banking.
If you could give women in banking one piece of advice, what would it be?
It is difficult to only come up with one piece of advice, but if I have to pick one, it would be to “treat others as you want to be treated.” This time-tested golden rule has never failed me. As people move up in their career, they often forget these basic rules. I believe this one goes beyond how you treat people. It encompasses how you think of others and how you want them to think of you, how you speak of others and how you want them to speak of you, and how you feel about other and how they feel about you.
What lasting impacts do you hope to leave on the Arkansas Bankers Association as a result of your leadership?
I hope to serve our association well and be recognized as having been a good leader during my term. I want to be a good role model for other females and hope I am able to encourage banking leadership to give more females opportunities for higher ranking positions within our industry.
For more background on Cathy’s career, check out this article in the Arkansas Banker by the Arkansas Bankers Association!