In her role as Renee Buchanan on ABC's "One Life to Live," actress Patricia Elliott plays the wife of a Texas oilman and real estate magnate she describes as "one of the richest men on the planet," in his heyday.
"He was--what else?--a John Wayne-style Texas oil tycoon who mined minerals such as uranium and was, of course, a large landowner," muses Elliott. The Tony Award-winning performer admits she has little in common with her TV persona. The character Renee is a former madam-turned-society matron who personifies the stereotypical picture of the well-to-do American woman--someone who learned to lean on the man in her life for all means of support and direction, despite her own capabilities and resources.
In real life, however, Elliott is a successful and affluent businesswoman now starring in "Vita & Virginia," an off-Broadway production based on correspondence between authors Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Elliott says she has never in her life been tempted to become involved with a man because of his money. "To marry for money felt like prison to me," she says. And like a growing number of professional women, Elliott not only trusts a professional advisor to help keep her financial house in order, but she has also chosen another woman to play that highly critical role.
Elliott is in good company: According to research by Barclay's Wealth, women are not only more interested in detailed guidance than males, but they also prefer getting that advice from other women. An article posted on the British newspaper Web site Telegraph.co.uk at the tail end of 2006 reported that women are specifically asking to deal with other women at private banks (as are some men, interestingly enough); thus these institutions are increasing the ranks of women advisors. The piece in question quoted Barclays Director Heather Maizels as saying that Barclays was looking to recruit more female private bankers as a result of the trend. Maizels, the piece stated, is experienced at bringing in women from non-banking backgrounds and training them for the job.
Meanwhile, a more recent study from The Phoenix Companies of Hartford, Conn., released in October 2007, found that the number of wealthy female decision-makers supervising household investments is growing, (see BOX on page XX), and that these decision-makers seem to be a lot more interested in working with advisors than their male counterparts. Whereas 27 percent of the men in The Phoenix survey of 1,800 affluent households said they make financial decisions with "little or no input from anyone," only 21 percent of the women made the same statement. Moreover, women's risk tolerance is not as high as men's, Phoenix finds, and women are more concerned about financial security at retirement, health insurance costs, and care for elderly parents and in-laws--all factors that suggest opportunities for advisors willing to respond to women's particular needs and--let's face it--feminine style of communication.
For example, one thing Elliot didn't want was an elaborate sales pitch. Neither was she enticed by certain professionals' ho-hum attitude. Some brokers she came across at Smith Barney and a couple of other large firms either aggressively pushed their favorite "hot stuff" stocks, or communicated that it was a waste of their time meeting with someone of Elliott's "meager" assets--even at close to $1 million several years ago. Given her disappointing experience with stockbrokers, the actress was relieved when she finally met Karen Altfest, CFP and vice president of New York City-based L.J. Altfest & Co., who was recommended by a retiring female CFP Elliott had also worked with.
Altfest specializes in educating professional women about money, often conducting seminars for women from her Park Avenue office and addressing women's professional and investment groups. The first time Elliott phoned the office, she appreciated the fact that Karen herself got right on the phone and briefly quizzed her to get a sense of Elliott's investment needs. When they met in her office, Altfest spent 90 minutes with Elliott answering her questions respectfully and with an attitude Elliott describes as "simpatico." Their relationship has born plenty of fruit since then: With Altfest's help Elliott's portfolio has grown an eye-opening 50 percent over the last seven years. But that's not what Elliott remembers most when she speaks of her advisor. Although the actress had to do some checking to come up with the growth statistic, she is quick to report that Altfest has helped her to beat the S&P every year while keeping an eye toward "socially responsible things" such as the Domini Social Index. Furthermore, Altfest views Elliott "as a person," she says, as opposed to a source of income. "Karen is socially aware and concerned about society at large," Elliott adds.
Other professional women interviewed by Wealth Manager echo her concerns. One after another, these women confront the old asking-for-directions clich? of the female whose partner has been driving around lost for what seems like an eternity. She wants to ask directions; he wants to tough it out on his own no matter how long he drives around in circles.
"The men I went to were just more intimidating with the most fundamental questions for someone starting from square one," explains Julie Stauffer, a client of Lori Price of the Wilton, Conn.-based Price Financial Group LLC. "I liked Lori. I liked that she was a woman, and that she could empathize. There was a comfort with her. I wasn't shy about asking her questions that were fundamental and elementary from the get-go."
Stauffer was divorced in 2004. She has two daughters and lost a son to leukemia in the late 1990s. "In my marriage I paid the bills but made none of the investment decisions," explains Stauffer, a 63-year-old photographer and grandmother of two. "I had to be brought up to speed--losing a child, selling a house, buying a house, securing a mortgage, determining health care, purchasing a new car--all in the midst of celebrating the wedding of my older daughter! There was no way I was going to manage what I had to do on my own," she says, "--especially since my ex-husband had always done it himself."
Price helped Stauffer to decide between four different long-term care programs and premiums, helped her "work the trusts" for her children, and begin to think about how to structure investments to properly leave money behind to charitable institutions and her own children. "I have learned the basics, and [Lori] is always more than willing to take me to the next step; she empowers you to make decisions in a new realm without pressuring you," says Stauffer. "And every time I had a question she couldn't handle, she would refer me to someone who could."
The truth is that many modern women--particularly those in their late 40s, 50s and 60s--still have more experience running the home and paying the bills than running investments. But as female entrepreneurial expertise continues to blossom, there is reason to believe that wealthy businesswomen will be seeking more professional advice going forward. According to a fall 2007 news release from all-female Smith College in Northhampton, Mass., women are still rare at the top of the corporate hierarchy--accounting for less than 12 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs--yet their small-business acumen is growing by leaps and bounds.
No less than 38 percent of small business owners are women, and more than two-thirds of all new businesses are initiated by women, according to the Smith release, which quotes psychologist Sue J.M. Freeman, author of Managing Lives: Corporate Women and Social Change. Freeman and Smith Economics Prof. Manaz Mahdavi point out that currently, most mothers with children under six work full-time, and only 14 percent of families have a male breadwinner and a female at home full time. Not only that, but a quarter of women in two-income households now earn more than their husbands, while women continue to serve as primary household managers--making 80 percent of all consumption decisions.
Often, after a life-changing experience such as death, divorce or illness, such career women turned to male advisors who they felt treated them either like the helpless "little woman" or showed impatience and intolerance when asked simple questions about investing. Standard seminars, newsletters and Web information posted by advisors often leave women cold, according to a study of affluent women with a minimum of $500,000 in investable assets released by Spectrem Group in October, 2006. They preferred account statements and face-to-face meetings although one Spectrem focus group participant opined, "It might be nice if the seminars were geared for women and done by women."
Clearly, women seek advisors who are patient as well as financially savvy. Like Hispanic and African-American consumers who find they click best with advisors who share their cultural roots and speak the same "language," women say they find a woman's advice more emotionally supportive and nurturing than a man's, and they don't mind saying so.
Susan Moran is a good example of a woman whose female advisor helped her through a rough time and through critical health issues that might be apt to make a male advisor squeamish and evasive.
Moran's talent for home renovation has earned her a good deal of wealth. It was during her marriage to a commodities broker that Moran--once a successful buyer and merchandise manager for Blomingdale's--found that her abilities could be highly lucrative. While completing two small home renovations during the early years of her marriage, her family moved into a house in New Canaan, Conn. Moran expanded it from the original 7,400-square-feet to 9,400 square-feet. Lo-and-behold, her improvements--implemented "while I'm raising two babies!"--turned a $975,000 fixer-upper needing some $400,000 in improvements into a stately, classic brick Georgian that ultimately sold for $2.7 million.
What's more, Moran managed to do it all over again when she and her family moved on to another home New Canaan. Once again, her efforts--which included securing a permit for a new septic tank system for the six-bedroom house--increased the home's value substantially, and when it was sold, she netted another $1 million-plus. Yet her marriage was feeling the strain. Moran's husband wanted her to keep it up. "He saw what I could do and wanted me to move my babies around over and over and make this money all of the time, when I just wanted to settle down," she says.
Not only that, but for all her rainmaking ability, Moran was in the dark when it came to the family's financial future. "It was a crazy marriage," she says. "My husband handled all of the finances for us. I had no idea what our net worth was when I filed for divorce....I was clueless. I figured we'd retire comfortably and there would be money for the children."
What Moran didn't figure on was a divorce that occurred while she was handling tough care-giving obligations for her aging parents and a bout with cancer that was diagnosed less than a month after the divorce trial.
"No less than 30 days after the trial concluded, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer," says Moran. While she is doing fine today, her condition required several hours of surgery. It happens that Lori Price is a divorce consultant which is how both Moran and Stauffer first met the advisor. Moran recalls, "It was when the decision came down that I heard about Lori from friends."
"The judge gave me a generous decision," she says, but, "when I finally met Lori, I was just three months out of surgery. I needed to pay close attention to the kids--who were scared--and to breathe and not have to think about the money issues for a while." At a time of real need, Moran was struck with Price's presence and bedside manner.
"She didn't know anything about me, and suddenly I'm telling her about my mom, and telling her that six days after surgery I was lying in bed with a bladder bag when the decision came down.
"We were in tears," she recalls. "We were emotional. Lori got it. She kept telling me, 'I cannot believe how courageous you are!' I just wanted to hand her the money and say, 'Do your best for us.' She's so positive about things and so full of energy and positive about what she does, I'd recommend her to anybody."
Like Moran, women who applaud their female financial advisors often speak of how they would trust these professionals with their lives, how they are much less anxious about uncertainties and market swings because their advisor is looking after them. While they clearly don't want to be treated like the "little woman," they do want to be made to understand how their funds are being invested and to learn something about the mechanics of the process as well. "My initial interview of Lori Price left me with snippets of advice that saved me $25,000," says Moran, "and I hadn't even hired her yet."
"I don't mean to sound like a Pollyanna," says Sandy Walker, a client of Susan Spraker of Spraker Fitzgerald Tamayo & Moisand in Maitland, Fla., "but I don't worry because I know Susan's on top of it, and if there's a problem, she'll call me.
"She's called after I've gotten the quarterly statement to say, 'I want you to look at it, and I want you to understand [the changes Spraker is interested in making]. When we first started working together it was like she was giving me a quiz to make sure I knew what she was saying." Spraker made Walker feel like she knew more than she thought she did about investing. "She feels her job is to [educate women] and make them feel more confident," says Walker.
Price and Moran have since developed a friendship that often finds them together on the golf course, whereas Walker and Spraker, who were each planning individual trips to Seattle this summer, have since decided it would be more fun to go together.
Janet Aschkenasy, a New York-based financial writer, is a frequent contributor to Wealth Manager who wrote about advisor technology in the February issue.