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After 50 years, Walton's little bank is state's largest.

A BANK IS A SERIOUS PLACE where serious business is conducted.

That's what Lisa Ray believed, until the day in 1988 when she accompanied her mother, Barbara Benson, to the Bank of Bentonville.

"I was from the West Coast," Ray recalled. "When I went into a bank, you could hear a pin drop and the people who worked there were kind of stuffy. You waited in line until a light came on to tell you where to go, and there was just no personal interaction."

Ray, now president and CEO of Arvest Bank at Siloam Springs, was visiting her mother in advance of a permanent move to northwest Arkansas later that year.

"When we were walking in," Ray said, "I asked Mom again why we were stopping at the bank and she said she wanted to introduce me to some of her friends. We went inside and all of these ladies actually got up and came out of their offices, just so happy to see her and [saying] 'Oh, Barbara. Is this your daughter you've been telling us about?' They were just the nicest ladies."

When the two women left, Ray again asked her mother how she had become acquainted with the women who worked at the bank on Bentonville's downtown square.

"Well ... from the bank," Benson answered.

"But you said they were your friends," Ray replied. "How did you get to know them?"

Again, Benson answered, "From the bank."

Not long after that, Ray discovered just how authentic--and serious--the customer-first philosophy is throughout Arvest Bank Group Inc., which traces its beginnings to the acquisition of The Bank of Bentonville in 1961. She was offered a job in 1989 by the bank's then-president and CEO, Burt Stacy, with a clear objective: Take exceptional care of the customer.

"I had no financial background at all," Ray said. "The idea was to take a salesperson and turn them into a banker. I decided to join Arvest because I could tell by the answers to the questions I asked that we had the same values.

"In my prior life, it was all about selling a product to a customer whether they wanted it or not, and at the end of the day I didn't know that I had done anything to help somebody.

"Here, we've just never done that. Our objective is to find a product or service that's going to benefit the customer's life. I could feel that culture in my interview and it just felt comfortable. That's the thing that made me want to he a part."

Ray has now been part of the company for 22 years, part of a non-traditional leadership structure that's helped Arvest "support rapid expansion while maintaining nationally recognized levels of customer service," an Arvest release said.

As Arvest celebrates its 50th anniversary this year--officially on Aug. 31--it has risen from a bank with $3.5 million in assets in a small town in northwest Arkansas to by far the largest Arkansas-based banking company with more than $11.5 billion in assets--more than doubling in size since 2003. As of Dec. 31, it was the 97th largest bank in the country.

Arvest Mortgage Co., formed in 1981 and originally named Bankers Mortgage Co., continues to lead its market, too. It has originated more than $1 billion in new loans for eight consecutive years, and currently services about 53,000 loans at just less than $6 billion.

But despite all the success measured by the balance sheets, it is service to customers that still permeates every part of the industry giant.

"The customer has always been our focus," said Dick Trammel, 73, who was hired by Arvest founder Sam Walton and is celebrating 36 years with the bank this year. "It's not the bricks and mortar. It's not how big we are or great we are or anything like that. It's the customer."

Historical Perspective

Although Arvest's charter is dated 1871, this year's anniversary marks 50 years as one company working together with a shared vision of local leadership and community involvement, according to Arvest spokesman Jason Kincy.

The charter date, Kincy said, is tied to the charter of Mcllroy Bank & Trust in Fayetteville, acquired by Arvest in 1986 when the company began a phase of rapid expansion.

"It's the oldest charter of any that were held by the holding company," he said, "so a decision was made to consolidate under that charter."

By the end of 2002, 14 separate bank charters were consolidated under the McIlroy charter. At that point, all Arvest banks began using the Arvest name and logo.

Walton and his wife, Helen, purchased the original Arvest branch, The Bank of Bentonville, in 1961 for about $300,000. The bank had fewer than 50 employees and about $3.5 million in deposits.

Walton already was a respected retailer, though his first Wal-Mart store would not open until 1962 on Walnut Street in Rogers.

The name Arvest originated in the early days as the result of a brainstorming session among bank leaders and associates. RVest was their original idea, but in a giant nod to the principles of retail business, it was determined that an 'A' should be added to make the company appear at the top of the listings in the telephone book.

In 1963, Arvest began to expand its footprint in Benton County when it acquired The Bank of Pea Ridge, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its original charter in May.

In 1975, the group acquired First National Bank & Trust Co. in Rogers. On July 1 of that year, Trammel began his career with Arvest as vice president of FNB Rogers. Trammel, currently the executive vice president of Arvest at Rogers and a member of the board of directors for 34 years, was a banker and active civic leader in Pocahontas.

He also had helped build Wal-Mart Store No. 71 there and had become friends with Walton.

"I just wanted to make a change," Trammel said. "I drove over [to Bentonville] on a Sunday afternoon to meet Mr. Sam and we negotiated and I've been here ever since."

Trammel can recall Benton County's first ATM machine, installed in the late 1970s at the old West Walnut Street branch of First National Bank.

"We didn't know if people would like that sucker or not," he said. "But we had our people stationed on that ATM from 6 a.m. to midnight for two weeks showing customers how to use it. Today our bank has more ATMs in northwest Arkansas than any other bank."

To go along with its 86 ATM machines in northwest Arkansas--which includes a few in extreme southwest Missouri and east Oklahoma that belong to branches in Benton and Washington counties--Arvest also has more bank locations in Oklahoma and Arkansas than any other bank.

Jim Walton, the Sam and Helen Walton's youngest son, started his Arvest career as a teller at The Bank of Pea Ridge and now carries on his family's banking legacy as chairman of the company that employs more than 5,000 associates in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas.

Were he alive today, what would Mr. Sam say about that kind of growth?

"He wouldn't believe it," Trammel said. "He just would not believe where Arvest Bank is today."

Celebrating Success

Arvest will celebrate its anniversary in its communities with customer functions and other special events, but there are no plans for a large-scale celebration.

Arvest associates will combine for 50,000 volunteer hours this year, emblematic of the 50-year anniversary.

A program that will also highlight the year is the 1 Million Meals initiative--a plan to provide one million meals throughout the 90 communities it serves across tour states.

"That ties into our roots of community involvement," Kincy said. "Oftentimes we have a local effort, but we wanted to do something this year that touches every community we're in and it emphasizes our focus as one company working together."

By Paul Gatling

PGatling@NWABJ.com
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Author:Gatling, Paul
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:May 2, 2011
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