NEW YORK - At age 19, Mary Sterk was divorced with two children, earning minimum wage and buying her groceries with food stamps. Now, 14 years later, she regularly pilots a plane to meet with wealthy investors whose assets are among the $110 million managed by the financial advisory firm she founded.
"There are tremendous opportunities for women in the industry,'' says Sterk, whose Sioux City, Iowa, company, Sterk Financial Services Inc., is affiliated with Woodbury Financial Services Inc., a unit of The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.
But for all the opportunities, women still make up only 20 percent of the advisers in the United States.
Recruiting and retaining female advisers is a priority for firms these days. Diversity initiatives haven't kept pace with the rapidly growing - and largely untapped - pool of wealthy women, many of whom would prefer to be advised by another woman.
Now firms such as Citigroup Inc.'s Smith Barney, Wachovia Corp. and Raymond James Financial Inc. are looking for new ways to ratchet up the numbers.
Securian Financial Services Group Inc., of St. Paul, Minn., launched a major recruiting drive targeting women 18 months ago. About 25 percent of new recruits into Securian's training program are women, up from 15 percent on an annual basis prior to 2005.
At events across the country, Securian, an insurance, retirement and investment services firm, is seeking to educate women about this career option so that they can spread the word among their constituents. The firm speaks to leaders of women's groups on college campuses, local business associations, attorneys and CPAs.
"There's a misconception that you need a degree in finance, economics or an MBA to become an adviser. That's not the case,'' says Sherri DuMond, Securian's national recruiting vice president.
An undergraduate degree is required by Securian, and an aptitude for numbers is important. But Securian, like many others, is placing increasing emphasis on good communication and interpersonal skills.
While the first few years spent building up a client base are grueling, women can find flexibility and high earnings as advisers.
"The beauty of this business is that you can set your own schedule,'' says Jane LaLonde, a mother of five, who is an adviser at North Star Resource Group, an affiliate of Securian. "If I want to go to my son's basketball game, I can.''
This fall, Smith Barney, the New York-headquartered brokerage, plans to ramp up efforts to recruit women at the National Association of Women MBAs' 2007 National Conference and Career Fair.
While Smith Barney doesn't generally hire direct from college into its adviser training program, it's targeting female college graduates in a campus recruitment drive for entry-level jobs, such as sales desk and liaison positions. These jobs are springboards to other careers, including adviser, at the firm after two or three years.
"We're looking for bright women who want to learn about finance,'' says Mark W. Willis, head of diversity at Smith Barney.
Smith Barney also seeks to reach a broader pool of women, such as teachers and former military personnel, through online ads on recruitment sites like Monster.com. About 40 people, about half of whom were women, attended a recent recruitment event in New York.
Generating the best results, however, is the brokerage's internal referral program. About half of all women accepted into Smith Barney's adviser training program are referred by the firm's existing advisers. (Advisers receive a $4,000 bonus if the person they recommend passes the Series 7 exam - about 97 percent of the candidates pass.) Between 500 and 1,000 people are accepted into the training program on an annual basis.
Meanwhile, Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia, the fourth-largest bank in America, which is acquiring A.G. Edwards Inc., is casting its net wider for branch managers in a move that's likely to open the door to more women candidates.
Diane Gabriel, managing director of Sales Supervision at FiNET, Wachovia's independent advisory channel, says historically, the industry has put the highest-producing advisers into branch manager positions, which meant the job often went to white males. But Wachovia's now encouraging applications from registered sales assistants and operations and compliance staff, positions often held by women.
Retaining female advisers is another challenge. Some firms, like Raymond James, have created voluntary membership groups for female advisers. These groups offer activities and resources designed to expand their knowledge, expertise and businesses, says Karen Schultz, vice president of Raymond James & Associates Private Client Group and director of the Women's Network.
This year, the network launched a new coaching program for small groups of women whose businesses have plateaued to help them break through to the next level, and is expanding a separate program to coach women on becoming efficient and goal-oriented with the help of a psychologist, Schultz says.