Larke Riemer recalls when she came across a new credit card in the market with a mirror on it so women could put their lipstick on.
For the 65-year old, it’s one of those classic examples where companies fail to understand how to service and think about the “female economy”, which she says is a key determinant of leading companies.
“I thought, you’ve got to be kidding! Women don’t want to be segmented. They want to be treated equally and with respect. If you can do that, you'll find you get so much business back from them – they’re very loyal,” she says.
Awarded an AO in last week’s Australia Day honours list for leadership in the banking and finance industry and as an advocate for gender equality and diversity in the sector, Riemer’s self-described “fixation” on women’s financial empowerment is a personal one, sparked by tough experiences such as a marriage breakdown and “monumental mistakes”.
She says that despite huge strides made by companies to better understand female consumers, there’s still a long way to go. “Pockets of bias remain and companies still struggle to grasp the notion that women should be treated equally to men, even though they might think differently.”
Riemer, the former head of Westpac’s Women’s Markets team and “female economy” champion, recalls one of her greatest career challenges was convincing bankers that responding to female customers was not a “gender” issue but about “profitability”. Indeed, it's been estimated that women control more than $20 trillion in annual consumer spending globally, according to partners at Boston Consulting Group, and represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined.
“The ‘female economy’ remains one of the fastest growing economies, and successful businesses will be the ones who look after their female customers,” Riemer says.
After leaving school early to care for her family on the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland, Riemer married her hospitality industry boss when she was 17, began helping him run hotels and, within a year, had the first of two daughters. At age 32, she decided to leave her husband when, she says, a pair of shoes “became the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
“I realised I wasn’t interested in a partnership in which I wasn’t an equal,” she says, explaining that she’d had to ask her husband for the cheque book attached to the pair’s joint bank account to buy a new pair of shoes and he told her he couldn’t see the need.
Leaving behind their marriage and business, with no entitlement to the money they’d jointly earned and no tertiary qualifications, the newly single mother of two took a role within Westpac – where she would spend the next 31 years – beginning as a debt collector with finance company AGC, a move that gave her “a really good grounding in banking”.
Her biggest mistake, she says, came eight years later when, wearing rose coloured glasses, she agreed to go back into business with her ex-husband, selling her house and cashing in her long service leave and superannuation, and sinking all her savings into an unsuccessful venture to buy and manage a boutique hotel in her home city, Melbourne.
“After less than three months, I walked away with very little left to my name,” Riemer says.
She started over yet again, rebuilding her savings from scratch with the advice of financial experts, and getting promoted into “bigger roles” within Westpac – including becoming the bank’s first female sales representative and a business development manager in the private banking division.
“It was at that time I realised there's too many women who do what I did, who don't understand the importance of their superannuation and what you need to do in order to retire with some measure of comfort.”
From then on, she used every opportunity to encourage women – both customers and fellow bankers – to “take control of their finances and start planning for retirement”, with her common mantra ringing in the corridors: “A man is not a financial plan”.
In 2005, she was asked to run Westpac’s Women’s Markets – a division set up to help female business owners and expanded under Riemer’s watch to encompass female customers more broadly – and held the role for the next 10 years. She says by the time she left, the overall balance of the bank’s female customers was approximately $107 billion, generating over $1.6bn in revenue.
She took the role at a time when the number of women business operators in Australia was taking off, growing around 46 per cent in the two decades to 2014 to make up more than a third of all business operators, according to a 2015 report by the . This growth was almost twice that of men, which increased 27 per cent in the same period.
She brought to the role a firm belief that a key difference between the genders is that females tend to see information sharing as powerful, rather than men’s inclination to view information itself as power, and this drove a number of initiatives including the formation of Ruby – an interactive online community for Australian women – as well as training seminars.
“We offered sessions that covered cash flow, superannuation, marketing, HR issues. It wasn't about selling a product; it was about helping them run their business.”
Although Riemer retired in 2015 and is fast approaching her 66th birthday next week, the fire is still burning. She remains an ambassador and “sounding board” for the Global Banking Alliance for Women – a consortium of financial institutions she helped set up in 2000 and chaired for four years from 2008 – with a mission to accelerate the growth of women in business and women's wealth creation globally.
She’s also a director with CARE Australia, the international humanitarian aid organisation fighting global poverty with a special focus on women and girls, and she mentors other women in banking.
Her greatest hope is that more women will proactively seek the right advice to control their finances, an area she says still has an “awful long way to go”.
“I see far too many women in this country who think they'll just keep working – well into their seventies – because they don't have the money they need to retire, and their health fails them. I’m particularly concerned about women who are self-employed, many of whom don't actually put money into super.
“As women, we're really good at finding good hair dressers, doctors, dentists, plumbers, electricians, where we like to shop and socialise – we’re very passionate about these things. We need women to start thinking that a financial advisor is just as important in that network.”
By Peter King
Acting Chief Executive Officer, Westpac