Mary Beth Brooks is the Director of the Arkansas Small Business Technology and Development Center. Before assuming this role in 2018, she was president and CEO of The Bank of Fayetteville from 2004 to 2015. Mary Beth is an alumna of the Walton College and received her BSBA in Finance and Financial Management Services.
00:06 Matt Waller: Hi I'm Matt Waller Dean of the Sam M Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education in your life today. I have with me today Mary Beth Brooks who is director of our small business development center, she is Executive in Residence in the Walton College, and she's an alum of the Walton College, she has an extensive background in banking, she was Executive Vice President of Arvest Bank for many years, and president and CEO of the Bank of Fayetteville, she worked in the bank of Fayetteville from 2004 to 2015, she also has a consulting practice as well. So Mary Beth, you really rose through the ranks in banking at a time when there weren't very many women in banking, what was that like.
01:13 Mary Beth Brooks: I guess I didn't really know any better, I just was raised to just do the best I could do and to dive into any job regardless what it was. Didn't have any banking people in my family raised by a lawyer and a teacher, and just really... Once I got in, I started as a bank examiner. Back... Right out of school, and then took it from there, and my goal was really just to learn absolutely every part of the bank and every side of the bank, so many people in banking end up operating in silos and just being one side or the other. So it was just to keep learning and find mentors along the way. Who would help me and take me under their wing and encourage me along the way. And I had several people I worked with over the course of time, who made such an impact that I didn't really think about the difference of being the so often the only female in the room.
02:08 Matt Waller: And of course, we're thrilled that you're involved in the Walton College, and the University of Arkansas and you're working with small businesses.
02:18 Mary Beth Brooks: Every day Matt. [chuckle]
02:19 Matt Waller: Everyday. And this is an important part of the mission of university because we have the land grant mission as well. Tell me a little bit about the Small Business Development Center.
02:30 Mary Beth Brooks: We provide free consulting services to small businesses as they get started, and small businesses who are trying to grow and then we also help we're spending quite a bit of time on people who are looking at buying businesses as that world continues to change and as a lot of folks who are selling their businesses are in their 50s, 60s, 70s are looking for, for people to buy, so we help them assess and evaluate.
02:57 Mary Beth Brooks: So when the new businesses, as they get started, it is helping those people to write a business plan to get ready for their lender. I spend a lot of time with financial projections and trying to help people really think through what it's going to take for them to be successful. So often I can tell you, you'll find me in our office with my sitting on a laptop next to some next to my client with a laptop, and we are just digging through how many people they have to sell to every single day in that month one, that month two getting through their first year at what exact price and then we do a lot of competitive pricing to figure out where they would have to be, and then to help them decide both. Is this realistic and can I truly do this, as well as preparing for their bank to make sure that when they come to in front of that lender are they prepared and will the lender know that that person is ready to go And has that commitment. We also do a lot of market research within... We have access to like 17 databases and it is... That part has been super fun for me, it was not what I had done before.
04:06 Mary Beth Brooks: And I find myself just diving into that market research, but it's amazing what you can learn. And so say a client is trying to start a new dog park or a new dog boarding business, I can help them by understanding that within a five mile radius to a 10-mile radius of a specific location that 42% of people in Bentonville own a dog, and that then another 20% own a second dog and that they spend X number of dollars a year, on their boarding and they spend X number of dollars a year on the grooming and what size those pets are. It's crazy how much information we can learn from that market research and it helps those business owners. Then both understand where to locate but also had a best market to their potential clients if they're... So crazy helpful information. And what's amazing to me is that we do all this for free because the University of Arkansas... And we have a small grant from the Small Business Administration as well, is willing to put that money into our group to help people get their businesses started and to grow.
05:09 Matt Waller: There's a growth in entrepreneurship in Northwestern which is great. People starting new businesses, sometimes in completely new areas, but there is a lot of opportunities still to buy existing businesses, and make them better in some ways. That's a lot easier.
05:27 Mary Beth Brooks: Absolutely, because... So some people, I probably have right now about 20% of my client base is it's a group of people who are looking to buy businesses, so sometimes it might be someone who has considered buying a franchise, then they decide, "Well maybe if I approach the existing franchise owner or I'm looking to start... Get something started and they realize, Wow, if I know I've targeted... And we've even helped them with the market research to where they understand what existing businesses are out there. And then they've approached some of those businesses or they've gone to a good business broker to then try to help them find that particular business that interests them and... But then they already have an existing client base for themselves, and it's already an operating business. We help them look through a lot of the financials to determine, what they maybe would be able to shift and what they would do or what expenses maybe they could get rid of to where they could make the amount of money that they need to.
06:23 Mary Beth Brooks: And so then it's really a great opportunity for so many people. Who are looking to sometimes get out of the big corporate world or sometimes... I have a couple of clients who have moving... Moving to Northwest Arkansas because they're trailing spouses, and their spouse has taken a new position with the university or with one of the big companies locally, and that person was kinda tired of the corporate world so they wanted to do something different own their own business. So.
06:47 Matt Waller: You have a long experience in working with companies that are starting up, people buying businesses because you've been in the banking business for so long, but if you were to start a business right now. Suppose you really wanted to start a business right now, would you lean towards buying a business, or starting something completely new?
07:08 Mary Beth Brooks: I think it would be totally based on whatever my passion was because as an entrepreneur you have to be so committed. It's all based on numbers for me I admit. It's passion, but it's also numbers. How quickly can I break even if I'm purchasing that business and there's a lot of blue sky in there, how fast can I repay that basically? But we can help folks to be able to decide. Is it worth it if you're gonna buy the business, if you can get it paid back in three years? Is it one-year pay back, those kind of things to really help them make that good sound decision. If I were doing it though Matt, I think I would... Again, I think it really is about whatever my passion is right then. There have been some fabulous business opportunities for sale, though there is no doubt. I think it all depends on... As folks are aging and if they don't have a family member or they don't have somebody in that business who's ready to be able to step up and buy it. There's some great opportunities out there right now.
08:09 Matt Waller: Do you know Bob East?
08:10 Mary Beth Brooks: I don't.
08:11 Matt Waller: Bob lives in Little Rock but he's not alumnus of our college and owns East Harding Construction, large construction.
08:20 Mary Beth Brooks: Absolutely, I see it all the time.
08:21 Matt Waller: And very successful. But he is such an entrepreneur, in his construction business, many years ago, he started noticing that lots of cable was going into buildings, right? When the internet and World Wide Web really started taking off and he thought, "Maybe I should get into that business." Rather than starting from scratch, he found a business in Rogers, and it was called Advanced cabling. And he looked at the financials, he looked at how it was being operated and he thought I can take this a lot further. Plus he's got a construction business, right? So there's a synergy there. He bought it and ran it for many years, he got into other things, not just cabling, they started getting into security, AV, all kinds of things and that company became extremely valuable. And he sold it recently.
09:19 Mary Beth Brooks: I think that's so interesting because that's what also my group... What we all focus on is trying to help people think through those things on what are those other companies... Those other companies that could be ancillary. You don't worry about it maybe the first year or two, but then as you get really good at it, then you try to figure out what's the next step, what's that other product that I can sell, what's the other company that I can buy, that would be a perfect combination for the two. So it's really trying to help people think through what would be a good mix and then the next product, or the next company to buy.
09:53 Matt Waller: But it's really neat that you have had your career in banking, and now you've come back to University and you're helping us, working with us, working with... Externally with companies, with students, with faculty, etcetera. And I'm grateful for that as the Dean of the Business School to have someone like you involved with us. Reflecting on your time in the Walton College, what do you value about your degree, what things come to mind?
10:21 Mary Beth Brooks: I can assure you Matt, that my degree is far more valuable today [chuckle] than it was from... I'm so proud, I could now wear it as a badge of honor that I'm a graduate of the Walton College. It was not the Walton College, I was at The Business College at the time. So I was here from 1982 to 1986 the most important class to me was Dr. Kennedy's portfolio management class.
10:47 Matt Waller: I hear that a lot.
10:47 Mary Beth Brooks: Just think about... That was a long time ago, but it was still... And that was prior to as many classes where you're getting out of the classroom as much. And that allowed us a full year, and we at the time, I think we only had 12 students, but hand-picked group and a very specific hand-picked group to where it was from different majors and where everybody had their own say-so, and could add different components in for making those investment decisions. So if I had to go back and say, that of any class that made the biggest impact on me, it was definitely that. But it was also forming relationships with the professors as well as of course so many students that I still see about it all the time. Truly a couple of those students that I talk to about every couple of weeks.
11:34 Matt Waller: Coming back to the Walton college and being involved in what's going on. As you said, a lot of things have changed and the real, I think a pivotal point was really that 50 million dollar gift from the Waltons.
11:49 Mary Beth Brooks: [chuckle] That's for sure.
11:51 Matt Waller: At the time, that was the largest gift ever given to a public business school, it really made a splash, but it also really helped us because they created a bunch of endowed chairs which allowed us to go out and get unbelievable faculty. It was so transformative. It's really hard to imagine. And it's still happening. It created a virtuous cycle.
12:14 Mary Beth Brooks: It created an energy too. So, so many of us who weren't around during that part of the time, but yet now it makes it so valuable for us and that we're also proud to have been a part of it. Which I think really helps when you have alumni that are active and want to be a part of it and proud to do it. And now sending... So many of my friends are now sending their kids here, because of that.
12:37 Matt Waller: Yeah, and my oldest daughter graduated from here, three and a half years ago, my son graduated from engineering and I've got a junior here in Walton College and a junior in high school who plans to go here. So I've been around their friends for so many years that are now going here. It's fun to see them being able to leverage the internships that we have...
13:03 Mary Beth Brooks: Absolutely. And that's something that was so different from when I was here and that makes a true difference. And even as an employer over the course of time, those people who have had those good internships, they are so much more prepared to then get out and get their real first job because they have that experience. They understand... They kind of understand how things work, versus those who don't have those. 'Cause many of us back in the '80s, we were going back home. I grew up in Fort Smith. I was still going back home and doing jobs. I worked at the Whirlpool on the assembly line, building a refrigerator for two summers when I was in college. [chuckle] So I guess I learned a lot.
13:46 Matt Waller: Yeah, I bet.
13:47 Mary Beth Brooks: Definitely, that I wanted to finish my education and not necessarily be working on the assembly line because... But that was really hard work, but it was really good work. It taught me a lot.
13:58 Matt Waller: Oh, I bet. So now that you're back involved in the Walton College, and in the university as a whole, what are some things about it, the change that you've seen, that really stand out to you? We talked about the internships. That's clearly one. Is there anything else that really stands out to you?
14:17 Mary Beth Brooks: Well, and maybe it's just because of my age, but I love the energy of the students, and that it's... The constant thinking through when every student I visit with as to how it is. But what I love about it the most is that it's both, how it is that I'm going to get my... Get the job, my dream job, but also how am I gonna make a difference in the world? And that's a lot of a difference from when I was getting out of school. It was so much more focused on me, myself and I and what each of us were going to do. This student group is truly focused on what's going to work well for them, but also how they are gonna make a difference, how their impact is going to do something that maybe their parents didn't do.
15:05 Matt Waller: You've seen the Walton College while you were here. You see it now. You're very familiar with the university, the business environment here. What would you like to see the Walton College do better, or more of, or strategically add, or change?
15:22 Mary Beth Brooks: One of the things that I feel like that they are doing... That you are doing better than when I was in school was also the cross training within. I think more students are better at if they are a finance major, they have more marketing skills or the cross training from within the college that it's not just 100% focused on accounting or on marketing or on finance or whatever it might be. That gives, I feel like, graduates a better understanding, kind of a whole well-rounded understanding, in comparison to just 100% on numbers or on one specific area. There's no doubt that has... That that difference has happened. If I were going to do anything... And I also, by the way, totally appreciate this whole bringing in certain parts of the arts and other components as a... In looking back, I always felt like 10 years out of school and 20 years out of school and way... And 30 now, I wish that I could have had more classes in history [chuckle], and some of those kind of things that I could have learned and just broadened some of my horizons. But that's pretty tough to condense things down into four years, or five or whatever it might be, but I feel like bringing in some of the art programs that you all are trying to incorporate just gives those students yet a better, well-rounded approach.
16:53 Matt Waller: I totally agree. The humanities are such a foundational component of the university. And, yeah, I mean, I've been out of college... Undergraduate, for over 30 years myself and I feel the same way. I wish I would have had Art History for example. Learning a lot about the different functions of business. We did make a strategic change a while back where... So as you know, the first two years our students don't have to pick a major. They can, even if they do, they still have to take everything. So the first two years they're taking every discipline and they're taking Business Law, Data Analytics, Accounting, a couple of accounting courses, Finance, Marketing Management, Supply-chain Management, Information Systems, etcetera, etcetera. And so then, by the time they're a junior they have an idea, "Oh, this is what I tend to be drawn to," and they can select then. But this is why I... One of the big initiatives we've had is pushing internships earlier. So most students do internships the summer before their senior year, and I think that's great, but I think it's better to do it earlier if you can, like after your freshman year.
18:22 Mary Beth Brooks: Absolutely, well think of how much a student grows between when they graduate from high school and one year later. I mean, that is such a transformative time.
18:30 Matt Waller: It is.
18:30 Mary Beth Brooks: So why not allow... Why not be out there? I would be promoting the same thing. And friends of mine who have kids at other schools, they are now... Everyone is starting to do far more. And I feel like, as they then graduate, think of if they can have internships their freshman... In between freshman and sophomore. And each one of those years, even if they can have one or two in a summer, the difference that that can make. And then some who were doing those throughout the year as well. Because what I would love to be able to see is the student who does some of the internships with some of the big companies to really understand that, but then here I am working with small businesses every single day.
19:09 Mary Beth Brooks: And I deal with small businesses, who need some of those students who can come in and truly make a big difference in understanding their systems, their marketing, their accounting, because some of those business owners are... If they decide they're gonna start their own business at 55, then maybe they're not the greatest at handling a lot of those things. And what I'm constantly preaching to them is, "You need to find somebody who can do that because you don't want to spin out of control and spend so much time trying to force yourself to understand it."
19:43 Mary Beth Brooks: They can bring in those students in that small business and that person could transform that company. Maybe they want to be a small business owner in the future or maybe they want to just work for a large corporation, but I promise you that that would be super invaluable experience over the course of that small business type internship. And so I feel like it's great to have a really good mix of those type of internships.
20:09 Matt Waller: I agree. You know, some of the big companies won't hire many students until their summer after their junior year, but smaller companies will.
20:17 Mary Beth Brooks: I can promise you, they will.
20:19 Matt Waller: And I have asked... The board you're on, we didn't mention the DREAM board.
20:27 Mary Beth Brooks: Yes.
20:27 Matt Waller: Dean's Roundtable of Entrepreneurs and Market Makers, and we've got 60 or so small business owners, everything from pre-revenue high-tech to growth companies that are over a 100 million in that group. And so a year and a half ago when we had our first meeting, I asked them, they said, "What could we do to help you?" I said, "Put our students in internships earlier." 'Cause they had complained a little bit that they go to the career fairs and the big companies gobble up all the students. I said, "Well, if you get in earlier you'll get them." And so they did it immediately. That's the other thing about these small businesses, is they can change on a dime.
21:14 Mary Beth Brooks: Right, it doesn't have to go through the levels of authority [chuckle]
21:17 Matt Waller: No.
21:17 Mary Beth Brooks: It can happen. But I can promise you, there are so many small businesses who will do the same kind of thing, but they will get just as much from those students as those students will get from them, because so many of those small business owners that we're working with, they are all ages, but so many times if it's somebody who isn't as great on the technology, or isn't as great on the social media, think of those people who have been in the corporate world for 25 years and then decided to start their own business, they used to have the help desk, right? They had their IT guys and they had the people in marketing who helped them with a lot of that. Now all of a sudden, it's them. So they need those kind of students to help them to make the right decisions and to kind of think of it more globally for that company rather than it just being that person who may be used to be able to rely on others.
22:05 Matt Waller: Well you know, we have an unusual culture, I think, in Northwest Arkansas. We've got so much business activity with the 1500 supplier firms that are here, the three Fortune 500 companies, and yet, we only have half a million people [chuckle] in this area. It's really incredible. But at the same time, so many of these companies are run by our alumni and their willingness to give back like you do and... Which is invaluable. But we have a lot of that going on.
22:43 Mary Beth Brooks: So to me it's so interesting, and I think I did decently at it when I was younger, but I feel like as I get older it's far more about how... I feel like sometimes my primary mission is how am I helping the next generation to make it a better place and to make those people happy, and how can I help. I somewhat used to make fun of people like me. And here I am now, I'm one of those who's really focused a lot more on that. And I feel like that Northwest Arkansas really supports that kind of movement to where it's people trying to help that generation and it's not just about us again. So I feel like Northwest Arkansas businesses, of all sizes, are really supportive of that.
23:29 Matt Waller: Well, Mary Beth, thank you for being willing to get involved in the Walton College and the university again and really helping us in so many different ways. We really appreciate you.
23:39 Mary Beth Brooks: I appreciate you.
23:43 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic podcast, one word that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now Be Epic.