Business News - Local News
June 11, 2004 print edition, online 6-14-2004

Washington News, Washington Business Journal, Washington Newspaper

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Her place at the table

Call it financial sensitivity or a marketing stunt, companies are making concerted targeting efforts to attract the wealth that women command

Merrill Lynch & Co. wants women's business.

To that end, it will sponsor a breakfast for women business owners in July here in Boston.

It's part of Merrill Lynch's Women's Business Development initiative, launched last year as a way to make it the firm of choice for wealthy women.

"We have a network of financial advisers, and the network is composed of men and women who want to focus their business on women. You have to understand women and their needs in order to work within this space," said Caroline Gundeck, the initiative's director.

Merrill Lynch is not alone in its efforts to target women. Many financial firms and financial planners have special programs designed to serve what they say are the unique financial needs faced by women.

Others, however, doubt whether such efforts are valid, saying that experienced advisers know that each client has his or her own unique circumstances that need consideration.

"If you're focusing on every unique aspect -- risk tolerance, their goals, their familial situation -- that's how financial planning should be practiced," said Gary Schatsky, an attorney and financial adviser in New York City and former chairman of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers.

The trend toward offering gender-based financial services isn't new; industry experts said major brokerage firms have been rolling out such programs for more than a decade.

But the issue has taken on a new immediacy, with recent studies showing that women make up 52 percent of the U.S. population and control $13 trillion of the wealth in the country, a number that will climb to $22 trillion during the next decade.

"It's definitely an area we need to focus on," said Gundeck, who cited other statistics that showed women will make 85 percent to 90 percent of household financial decisions over their lifetime.

Her Women's Business Development initiative is targeting women in philanthropy, women executives and women business owners. Merrill Lynch's program offers education to these women to help them achieve more financial success, Gundeck said.

"It's a sensitivity and knowing the market and knowing how to approach the markets the right way," she said.

Women and Co., a New York-based membership program owned by Citigroup Inc., based its business model on that notion. The company started two years ago after research done by Citigroup found women were dissatisfied with the advice from many traditional financial outlets, said Women and Co. spokeswoman Barbara Zakin.

At the same time, research showed women have different financial needs than men, Zakin said. They live longer; they tend to stay with companies for shorter periods of time, which means they're often not vested in pensions and 401(k)s; and they generally spend less time in the work force, as they take more years off for family reasons.

Women and Co. gives advice to members to help them navigate financial challenges, Zakin said. Its seminars, conference calls, newsletters and other educational tools tailor the advice for women.

"The response has been extremely positive. Many ask, 'Why hasn't this been done before?' " Zakin said. She wouldn't discuss membership numbers, but said they measure in the thousands.

Sharon Rich has been targeting women and families since starting her Belmont-based Womoney financial advising business in 1984. Rich said she founded the business after seeing a need for women to have a safe place to talk about money and financial planning.

Like others, Rich said women and men approach money differently. Women, for example, see money as a measure of security and as a way to take care of their families; men often see money as a measure of their success.

She also said financial planners in the past didn't always give women the same respect they gave male clients. Those advisers might have delivered the "don't worry your pretty little head" speech when talking about money management.

But even as more women take on more responsibility for money, Rich cautioned against saying that they need different advice just because they're women: "I don't think we necessarily need separate, just sensitive."

However, Schatsky, the former chairman of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers, said well-trained financial advisers do that for all clients. Those advisers need to look at each client and his or her circumstances in order to give the best advice. He also said advisers' efforts to target women are more often marketing pitches than programs that offer substantially different services.

"You're seeing most of the push being done on the sales side," he said.

Jenny Engle, a spokeswoman for Boston-based fund giant Fidelity Investments, also said that women investors have many of the same needs as men.

"Our emphasis has been really providing education and information (for everyone)," she said. "In general, people's investing needs are very personal."

While many financial experts agreed with that thought, they also said they give women additional services to both help the women reach financial goals as well as to tap into this growing market.

"In general, there has got to be more education," said Chitra Staley, chief investment officer with the Boston-based Mintz Levin Financial Advisers LLC, which has held seminars aimed specifically at women. "More education is needed because what one is seeing is that there are new groups that now have something to invest that they perhaps didn't (in past years), and they have not necessarily been trained in their homes to do their investing. So is there a need? Yes."