Women at the helm

Panelists discuss best practices for business owners during Bank of America’s “Women at the Helm” event. 

LeAnn Richards put herself through college and had a dream of becoming a teacher. But when her in-laws (who owned two McDonald’s restaurants in Southern Arizona) decided to retire, she quit her new teaching job and decided to take the reins.

Today, Richards owns and operates 12 McDonald’s spread across Tucson, Nogales, Sierra Vista, Benson, Willcox and Douglas. She manages 750 employees and loves every moment of it. The job provides an opportunity to develop her employees and make a difference in the communities she does business with.

“These people that work for me, they put their lives in our hands, I can make an impact on their life just like I was if I was teaching,” Richards said. “So it’s teaching for me, but in a business world.”

She manages her business with the help of Bank of America, who primarily provide her with digital banking services, since her restaurants are far apart and she’s always on the move. But they also help her with long-term planning and identifying ways for her to keep climbing the economic ladder.

“I am a woman in a men’s field,” Richards said. “I think women need to know what their strengths are.”

Across the country, women own or share ownership of 46 percent of all businesses, according to a 2016 study commissioned by American Express. The number of women-owned businesses is also growing five times faster than the national average.

Bank of America conducts its own studies on these trends as well. The organization’s 2018 Women Business Owner Spotlight found that women entrepreneurs are increasingly confident about the business environment, with economic optimism at a two-year high.

Compared to last year’s 44 percent, 58 percent of female business owners expect their revenues to increase in the next year.

“But there’s still some challenges that remain in terms of access to capital,” said Adriana Kong Romero, Bank of America’s Tucson Market President. “We find that an overwhelming majority of women entrepreneurs agree that access to capital has improved over the last decade, but many believe that there is still room for progress when it comes to leveling the playing field for financing a business.”

Approximately 84 percent of women surveyed by Bank of America believed that their ability to receive loans for their businesses have improved over the last decade. However, that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing.

When comparing themselves to male business owners, 61 percent of women surveyed said it was more difficult to start their business compared to a man, and 68 percent said it was more difficult for them to secure financing than it would have been for a man.

For this reason, Bank of America created a partnership with the Tory Burch Foundation. They committed $100 million, a doubling of the initial investment, to support women entrepreneurs with affordable and accessible loans.

The loans are dispersed through a network of Community Development Financial Institutions. In Arizona, they partner with Accion, a global nonprofit focused on financial inclusivity. Kong Romero said the program intends to help female business owners get the financing they need to either start their business, or for those who are already established, to possibly get to the next level.

In addition to equitable funding, Bank of America has invested in female business owners through counseling services, programs and events.

“(Kong Romero) brings a team with her every year and she sits down with me and we analyze my business and we look at opportunities,” Richards said. “I know the banking world makes money off fees from businesses, but they’re very transparent about making sure my business is successful because if it’s not, they won’t have me as a client.”

Bank of America recently hosted an event for “Women at the Helm” to provide local female business owners with key strategies to help them succeed. Those who attended received advice on the day-to-day challenges of running a business, long-term planning strategies and how to increase the value of what they do every single day.

Kong Romero said the bank developed the event because of a strong demand for programming focused solely on female business owners and their unique place in the economy.

“A lot of the feedback was that women wanted to have more discussions around women-owned businesses,” she said. “So we had this follow-up event and it was a great event which really brought together some tools and resources to help our female business owners in whatever stage they are in their business.”

Participants were asked to fill out a survey helping them find personalized solutions for how to increase the value of their business, whether it be the goods they produce or the services they provide, or both.

A panel of “key influencers” that Kong Romero said are necessary for business owners was also on hand. Entrepreneurs were encouraged to identify a Certified Public Accountant, attorney, banker and wealth strategist they can consult as their businesses grow and change, and eventually when they want to retire and possibly sell their company or pass it on to a close friend or family member. 

“Go find a team that’s on your side,” Richards said. “You need an accountant, you need a banker, you need an attorney, you need a tax planner, you need a team that you run decisions by. Because each one of them will come from their own perspectives.”

The Bank of America study also finds that many businesses (within the $5 to $50 million bracket) will be transitioning ownership in the next decade. Kong Romero said those businesses that plan to pass ownership will need advice and planning for the best way to do so while keeping operations running smoothly.

Richards plans to sell one of her restaurants to her daughter, so she can continue the family tradition. She also hopes to grow her number of McDonald’s stores in Southern Arizona wherever the opportunity arises.

Richards said being a teacher did not prepare her to be a business owner, so she spent weeks shadowing other successful McDonald’s owners and learning from their day-to-day work habits.

“Whatever it is, go seek out the people who are doing it right and ask to spend some time with them and find out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,” she said. “And never stop learning.”

Through Bank of America’s partnership with nonprofit organizations like Vital Voices and the Cherie Blair Foundation, employees have mentored 2,000 women entrepreneurs from over 80 different countries. Kong Romero said programs help develop the business acumen and leadership skills that women need to realize their economic potential.

“We found that if women participated in their economy to the same degree as men, global GDP could grow by 26 percent, which is equal to that of the total current economies of U.S. and China combined,” she said. “There’s definitely some female power there.”   

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