Changing Times
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Regions Financial's board member Ruth Ann Marshall reflects on her executive career and explains trends affecting women and finances.

Ruth Ann Marshall is no stranger to the corporate world. She has a long, distinguished executive career spanning from IBM to MasterCard, where she oversaw all of the payment company's business in the Americas. She recently joined Regions Financial's board of directors and also serves on the boards of several well-known corporations, including ConAgra and Pella. We spoke with Marshall about trends in personal finance and career challenges facing women.

Q: What's been your favorite job over the years, and why?

Marshall: I actually have two. The first was at IBM in the early 1990s. I was branch manager in Mobile, Alabama, and had responsibility for managing all aspects of IBM's business in my region, from servicing very large computers to the consulting business — from Pascagoula, Mississippi, to Tallahassee, Florida. I loved working with customers and getting involved in the community. The second was at Electronic Payment Services. I was wooed away from IBM after 18 years to become president of one part of a holding company, a transaction-processing business. The part of the job I liked best was when we decided to go public, and I ran the due diligence process where we evaluated either an IPO or selling ourselves to another company — which is what we ended up doing. In both of these positions, the buck stopped with me, which is the environment I work best in.

Q: As a former top executive in the credit industry, you must have spent quite a bit of time analyzing how people manage money. Are people managing money differently?

Marshall: Yes. First, I don't think consumers are willing to take on more debt right now. An example is that in 2008 and 2009, debit card transactions outnumbered credit transactions because people wanted to know that when they were paying for something, it was coming out of their checking account and not creating another loan. But I find that people are looking at the scarcity of resources right now — especially the scarcity of wealth — and looking for a richer life versus a life of riches. People are more willing to spend on unique experiences than on material goods. And I don't think this will change anytime soon. My parents never forgot the stories of the 1929 stock market crash and couponing and standing in line for soup. It's just not something you forget. It takes decades — a new generation.

"I find that people are looking at the scarcity of resources right now — especially the scarcity of wealth — and looking for a richer life versus a life of riches." — Ruth Ann Marshall

Q: Are high-net-worth families looking differently at their wealth than they did before?

Marshall: Everyone has been impacted by this crisis. As I sit on boards, I have a chance to chat with CEOs and chairmen of family-owned businesses. I find that they are acutely focused on expense management, and it's interesting to me, because it's akin to what corporations are focused on right now. With so much uncertainty around what the government might do and who might be coming into office, I find that most time on corporate boards today is spent on cutting expenses rather than top-line growth. Likewise, I think high-net-worth families are questioning the value of luxury items, like their second and third home, car and country club membership.

Q: Do you find that women and men look at their finances differently?

Marshall: Men tend to think more quantitatively and women tend to react to more qualitative factors. As a side note, I was thinking about how I play golf. I prefer a woman coach because, for me, when I work with male pros on my golf game, they talk about swing speed and the geometric plane of the golf club. Female coaches that I have worked with talk about twisting and turning your belt buckle to the cart path. It's more of a picture that I can relate to.

In terms of finances, I find that more men talk about what their return on investment was versus a benchmark or index, whereas women are more concerned with funding their lifestyle and leaving money for their heirs.

Q: Research shows that the educational and financial gaps between men and women are closing. Yet women still hold fewer than 20 percent of all senior executive positions in the U.S. What can be done about that?

Marshall: It's shocking to me that about 30 Fortune 500 companies are without a single female board member. But we've made a lot of progress. In 1970, only 38 percent of the workforce was female. That grew to 48 percent in 2011. Forty percent of wives outearn their husbands today. It takes time, because it's a cultural change. I think we'll be seeing more women enhance their analytical skills by taking more math and science classes to get the kinds of jobs needed in the future that tend to pay more. And we need more mentoring. As more women enter leadership roles, they need to reach out and make themselves available as role models for young women to demonstrate that it can be done.

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