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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 14, 2006

Companies court female clients

By Kathy Chu
USA Today


  • Between 1997 and 2006, the number of majority women-owned firms increased from 5.4 million to 7.7 million, an increase of 42 percent, almost double that of all firms (23 percent).

  • In 2006, majority women-owned firms are expected to generate $1.1 trillion in revenues and employ 7.2 million workers.

  • The largest percentage of majority women-owned firms is in the service sector (69 percent), followed by retail trade (14 percent).

    Source: Center for Women's Business Research

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    Not so long ago, Wall Street firms wooed female investors with spa treatments and tea parties. Lately, they're becoming more creative and aggressive about attracting women's financial assets.

    PNC Wealth Management hosts a silent auction of upscale handbags in Cincinnati today to encourage affluent women to take "control of their purse strings" and to tell them of the firm's philanthropic services.

    For the past year, Merrill Lynch has been exhibiting a "Women of the World" art show in major cities that allows its advisers to meet with female investors. Other firms are courting women with business-networking events and health forums.

    These catchy, and sometimes quirky, strategies come as a rising number of women are out-earning their husbands and taking greater control of their families' finances. In 2004, in one-fourth of two-income families, wives earned more than their husbands, according to Census data. In 1981, that had been the case in only about one-sixth of two-income families.

    Women are also establishing more businesses. From 1997 to 2006, the number of companies owned by women grew 42 percent, nearly twice the growth rate for all businesses, estimates the Center for Women's Business Research.

    Financial firms can't necessarily court women the same way they do men. Compared with men, many women, regardless of their level of sophistication as investors, say they appreciate a more personal style of investment advice.

    "I'm looking for someone to give me advice that fits me," says Hilda Tsang, a 52-year-old early retiree in San Gabriel, Calif., who manages her family's investments. "I don't want what everybody else does. I don't need what 99 percent of the other people are doing." What's important to her, Tsang says, is that the adviser be "empathic" and listen to what she needs, rather than just pitching products based on her income level.

    Events such as Merrill's art show aim to give women "experiences that are unique" and show them the firm doesn't employ a "cookie-cutter approach" to managing finances, says Paula Polito, a senior vice president at Merrill. "Our efforts are not around stereotypical things, like spa treatments and that kind of stuff," even though those might appeal to some women, Polito says.

    Wall Street has good reason to approach women differently than it does men. Female investors tend to rely on financial advisers more than their male counterparts do. They also tend to be more conservative and deliberative investors, in contrast to men, who are more likely to act on a hot stock tip, according to research by Merrill Lynch Investment Managers.

    Because women live longer than men the average 65-year-old woman will live to about 87, nearly three years longer than a 65-year-old man will healthcare also tends to be a higher concern to them.

    Women believe that "if their health falls apart, everything else in their life follows," says Mindy Ross, a managing director at Citi- group's Smith Barney unit, which has an annual women's health forum for clients.

    Longer life spans mean that women will have to take responsibility for their own money matters at some point and perhaps for many years after. High divorce rates could also thrust women into the financial world unexpectedly.

    "The Prince Charming theory that someone will save you from financial disaster is not reality," says Lynne Sebastian, a financial adviser for UBS who works with Tsang. "You have to save yourself."