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Sun, Nov 11, 2007 - Page 12 News List

Banks turn their focus to growing female client base

Female-oriented banking is not about frivolity and bows, but about profit. As the gender gap closes, targeting a hitherto ignored clientele is very big business

By Antoinette Odoi  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

"People are able to make their mark [in business] earlier. Women are coming through in investment banking they're becoming corporate executives and are earning lots of bonuses," she says.

Coutts' aim is to create a culture that fosters female entrepreneurship. What started as a small lunch program two years ago has grown into an array of networking events, charity fundraisers and the launch of Coutts Woman online magazine, which had 6,000 hits in July.

The private bank is also making a niche for itself by linking finance to fashion, and is sponsoring an exhibition of designer Matthew Williamson's work at London's Design Museum.

But Catherine Tillotson, a partner at the wealth management consultancy Scorpio Partnership, says private banks are often guilty of "wrap[ping] up their services in pink ... now it's becoming [clearer] the issue is not about whether women should be treated differently. [Banks need] a different marketing approach, rather than different service."

She says British banks were at the vanguard of female-oriented banking 10 years ago but banks on the European mainland had now moved ahead.

"It's a shame because the UK is such a strong financial centre ... and a major honeypot for very high net-worth individuals," she says.

North American banks are also addressing women's needs. Just two decades ago, it was commonplace for a female entrepreneur to have to get her husband to co-sign a loan, says Kris Depencier, national manager of small business and women's markets at Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). After setting up a business specifically for women, RBC hoped to address this.

Fifteen years on, the success of women entrepreneurs has shown the idea to be fruitful and still relevant today.

"[Women] don't have the same legacy of established networks and availability of mentors that perhaps some of their male colleagues have had," she says. "I would suggest that is changing rapidly as more and more women go into business."

But do female-oriented strategies render women a homogeneous group and contradict their shared underlying mission to emancipate them?

Rauscher disagrees.

"[Female banking] is just a concept so employees can be more sensitive to women's lifestyle approaches and the goals and dreams that they have. It's still important to ask women individually [what their needs are]," he says.

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