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Hold the tea these women take profits over small talk; Investment clubs excel at returns


LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Bring on the stock reports.

No social chitchat. No coffee and doughnuts. Certainly no O. J. Simpson gossip.

When the Griffin Gate Investment Club calls its monthly meeting to order, the talk is all business.

This week's buzz: Technology stocks continue to drop. It's time to buy Motorola. Merck looks lucrative, based on a preliminary review.

And what news is really pumping up the adrenalin in this all-woman club? Since the club started in 1992, its investments have earned a compound annual rate of return of 20.36 percent.

"We have really gotten the bug on the stock market," said Becky Cheatham. "If we have come away with one thing, we have learned. We can read the Wall Street Journal. And we have all invested on our own."

Past president Fran Hensley added: "We have always made money, from day one."

Like many novice investors across the country, Griffin Gate club members started out slowly, learning as they went. Several members had never even used a computer until a few years ago. Today, they can plow through financial research and generate their own computer stock analyses.

Wall Street is taking more notice of women like them.

As potential investors, women now make up 42 percent of Americans with gross assets of $600,000 or more, according to a 1989 study by the Internal Revenue Service.

And the National Foundation for Women Business Owners now counts 7.7 million women-owned businesses generating nearly $1.4 trillion in sales.

(Those same businesses employ 35 percent more people in the United States than the Fortune 500 companies do worldwide.)

"When I started [as a broker], it was atypical to see a woman handling finances," said Terri Carson, vice president-investments at Prudential Securities in Lexington. "Companies have finally realized that women are out here and they make decisions. Look at how many women are single, head-of-household."

It's no surprise then that many brokerages and financial service companies are eager to cash in on this customer base, but some end up soft-pedaling their products.

"Maybe they are trying to get their attention with one topic, like a cooking seminar," said John Markese, president of the American Association of Individual Investors. "But do women find that insulting? I do."

The danger with "softening" stocks, bonds and the like without educating the consumer is that an unsophisticated investor might end up with unsuitable investments, Mr. Markese cautions.

For years, bank trust departments have offered "rich women seminars" with the goal of signing on new customers, he said.

Louise Parker, 58, remembers her dealings with bank trust departments. "I felt like I was out of line with asking questions," she said. "Their attitude was 'just don't worry about this.' "

Searching for a broker wasn't much easier. Eventually she settled on Nancy Barron, president of Nancy Barron & Associates Inc. in Lexington, known as the first woman-owned securities brokerage in Kentucky. Then at 52, Ms. Parker decided to obtain a master's in business administration. Today, she is one of five brokers -- all women -- at Ms. Barron's firm.

Women investing for the first time need to remember that, one, "no question is dumb," and, two, "You know more than you think you do. You've spent an enormous amount of time at the grocery store, hardware store, paying bills. You can build on that if you want to," Ms. Parker said.

One way for any new investor -- male or female -- to learn the ropes is to join an investment club, Mr. Markese said.

Ms. Cheatham, 48, said she's noticed a change in her own household finances after just three years in the Griffin Gate club. Financial decisions were once handled only by her husband, but now "I'm not just going along with what he wants to do. I'm confident enough to disagree. And now we're more business partners, not just a married couple," she said.

Studies of clubs from 1960 to today have shown women's investment clubs typically surpass their male counterparts two-thirds of the time, said Tom O'Hara, chairman of the board for the National Association of Investors Corp, a nonprofit organization of investment clubs and individual investors.

That performance might be due in part to the different investing styles of men and women, he added.

"Men tend to go with tips from references, and they may make expensive mistakes the first few years," Mr. O'Hara said.

lTC "Women who start out not knowing anything are serious about learning about investments."

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