The credibility builder

Government Relations Council Chair Cathy Owen on how a good reputation paves the way for effective advocacy and leadership

By Khalil Garriott

Nearly five decades. That’s how long Cathy Owen, chairman of Eagle Bank and Trust Company and chairman and CEO of State Holding Company in Little Rock, Arkansas, has worked in banking. Many people across all professions don’t come close to such longevity in their industry—let alone experience such success.

For Owen, her success story becomes more improbable when she reveals that she never intended to go into banking. But after a summer job at age 16—in spite of being tasked by a surly bank president with shredding documents in a closet-sized room—she fell in love with banking and committed to making it her life’s work.

“I love what I do,” Owen says. “I don’t think you can be truly successful in what you’re doing if you don’t love what you do and if you aren’t excited to get up every morning, come to work and enjoy the challenges that every day brings to you.”

‘The most important thing we own is our name’

With 49 years of experience, Owen wields influence belying her 5-foot frame. She’s seen firsthand the many changes affecting the financial services industry over almost a half-century, which results in broad expertise earning peer respect and admiration.

“She is a stalwart of Arkansas banking, and her leadership in the industry throughout her career is amazing,” says Lorrie Trogden, president and CEO of the Arkansas Bankers Association. “I consider her an amazing mentor. She has taught me so much about banking, leadership, commitment and walking softly while carrying a big stick.”

Owen’s ability to stay aligned with her core values is key to her sustained success. Her tried-and-true motto is the Golden Rule; she treats others as she wants to be treated.

“I was raised that the most important thing we own is our name,” says Owen. “When I talk to students in schools, I always ask them what the most important thing is they own, and of course they come up with all kinds of things. When I tell them it’s their name, they’re kind of taken aback, but they agree in the end.”

Owen brings longtime involvement with the Arkansas Bankers Association as its former chairman to her current role as chair of ABA’s Government Relations Committee. Her service as the first woman to chair the Arkansas Bankers since its founding in 1891 is a pride point since that election in 2018, but she hopes she’s not the last.

Elevating women in banking

Not long ago, Owen often was the only woman in the room. As she has directly experienced, opportunities exist for women to rise to the top in banking. During her ascension up the ladder, the detail-oriented Owen—unknowingly or not—has inspired women in Arkansas and beyond to do the same. They’re fortunate to be in her orbit.

Kirsten Sutton, ABA’s EVP for congressional relations, admires Owen for pursuing a career in a traditionally male-dominated field, earning respect and establishing credibility along the way.

“As she has grown in her career, she has brought others along behind and beside her,” says Sutton, echoing Trogden when calling Owen a mentor.

Shelly Loftin, CFMP, a marketing leader at Arkansas-based Arvest Bank, says Owen’s legacy in the banking world is proof of the opportunities available for women in the industry to succeed if they stay true to themselves.

“For her to succeed . . . is a testament to her resilience, determination and unwavering commitment to her goals,” Loftin says. “She has paved the way for future generations of women to rise to the top and continue to shatter the glass ceiling.”

Owen grew up around and working with males from a young age; her father was a very successful businessman and she has all brothers. Her husband works in health care, so industry regulations in their two sectors certainly come up in conversation.

“The industry is wide open for opportunities,” says Owen, an honoree at the 2022 Most Powerful Women in Banking conference. “But don’t stretch yourself too thin to where nobody wins in the end. Think about your timing. And always work on being prepared for the next opportunity.” She adds that giving last year’s opening toast at the Most Powerful Women in Banking awards ceremony was “an unforgettable moment.”

Arkansas attractions

Asked to share some attractive characteristics about Little Rock, Owen reels off a laundry list. She points out that the Natural State has much to offer, and on that list is the iconic Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock.

“We are full of hunting and fishing, and hiking and cycling are huge,” she points out.

Some perceptions about Arkansas don’t quite jive with Owen’s lived experiences. “We also offer a lot of culture that most people don’t expect right here in Little Rock.”

A renaissance woman who can drive a semi truck and a backhoe, Owen enjoys exploring her surroundings. “We’re the rice capital and the duck-hunting capital of the world,” notes Owen, referring to hour-away Stuttgart, Arkansas.

Leadership experience

“I admire Cathy Owen’s incredible leadership, longevity and commitment to Eagle Bank and Trust, and to giving back to the financial services industry,” Loftin says. “Cathy is a trailblazing leader who has proven with her hard work, grace and willingness to break barriers that anything is possible. Leaders like Cathy are critical in today’s ever-changing landscape within the banking sector.”

This focus on leadership has day-to-day implications for Owen’s bank. “Labor is a constant challenge,” Owen says. “We’re in such a changing environment from the labor side as a small community bank. We train people really well, and we do our best to keep them. We’re also excited when they’re able to move on to a bigger position in a larger bank, but that impacts us as well.”

Those close to Owen say she doesn’t just talk the talk as a leader; she walks the walk.

“She truly cares about the people around her,” Trogden says. “She is committed to her family, community, bank and employees. Whether it is formal, she is a mentor and makes herself available when you ask for help.”

Policy priorities as GRC chair

As GRC chair, Owen is confident that the association’s Blueprint for Growth will continue empowering banks of all sizes. She draws on her deep banking experience to help ABA drive change in Washington, D.C.

“We have to educate our delegations in Washington,” Owen says crisply. “They’re bombarded every day with issues from every industry out there, and if we’re not well represented and we’re not there educating them, other industries are going to be there educating them, and they’re going to be hearing those voices. They “need to know how important these items are for our banks and our entire industry.”

With Owen at the helm, the GRC will continue its focus on driving a healthy and inclusive economy, supporting a dynamic and innovative banking industry, and protecting consumers with consistent regulation.

“The regulatory side is a tremendous burden for all of us, and I find it a challenge to constantly read and stay on top of that work with our other managers as well as our compliance team,” Owen admits.

Importance of advocacy

With Owen modeling the way, GRC members are active in ABA’s political engagement programs. Community bankers need their voices heard in the nation’s capital, says Owen, whose bank has approximately $475 million in assets. Her lifelong learning mindset and ability to self-advocate have helped her develop her voice and effectuate change.

“Cathy’s vast knowledge of our industry and her ability to convey it in a story about how it affects customers and constituents is critical to advocacy,” says Trogden. “We go to D.C. at least twice a year, and we all work very hard to help bankers understand how vital our government relations program is and how important those trips are. The Arkansas Bankers Association is also here to support her however we can with GRC.”

“As a leader, she possesses a quiet charm and unassuming demeanor that draws others to her,” Sutton adds. “Cathy’s leadership on GRC ensures that ABA’s policy priorities are driven by our members, which is critically important to get members invested in and willing to participate in our advocacy.”

Khalil Garriott is a senior editor of the ABA Banking Journal.