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Now Worth Surveying: Wealthy Female Bosses

When Jeffrey Maurer began working for U.S. Trust Corp. in New York 25 years ago, the firm managed money for many wealthy women. Most had inherited their riches from husbands or fathers.

Today, says Mr. Maurer, a sizable portion of the company's female clients earned their wealth themselves in business, either as corporate executives or, more likely, as entrepreneurs.

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''We are in a period of transition,'' says Maurer, chief operating officer of the nation's oldest money-managing firm, founded in 1853. It now invests $44 billion belonging to the well-to-do.

In the United States, the number of wealthy individuals - with at least $200,000 in annual income and/or $500,000 in financial assets - has been expanding for the past decade at a rate of 15 to 20 percent a year. That's great news for U.S. Trust, which has for many years aimed at attracting the money of the wealthy.

Within this group, the number of successful businesswomen has been expanding even faster. So U.S. Trust decided to conduct a survey among the approximately 18,000 for-profit businesses privately held by women in the US with yearly sales of at least $2.5 million. A sample of 125 was selected for what Maurer believes is the first survey of its kind. Here are some findings.

* These women, among the top 1 percent wealthiest Americans, did not inherit their wealth or their business. Some 77 percent described their family background during childhood as poor, lower class, or middle class.

* The typical affluent woman business owner first began a childhood job such as baby-sitting or a paper route at age 12, had her first full-time job at 20, and became a business owner at 33.

* These women are better educated than their male counterparts. Some 58 percent graduated from college or graduate school, compared with 45 percent for men business owners surveyed a year ago. While 75 percent of the men worked full or part-time to help finance their education, only 57 of the women did.

* The typical work week of the female business owners is 57 hours. Almost all of the women polled considered ''willingness to work hard'' as the most important factor leading to their success.

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* Almost half of the respondents had been corporate employees for an average of 10 years before starting their own business. But only 1 of 10 said working for a corporation is the ''best career path for young women today.'' Nearly one-third said that ''starting her own business'' was the best career choice.

The reasons for antipathy toward corporations were varied. Some 83 percent said you have less control over your time in a corporation than when you own your own business, and almost as many noted they could better balance the needs of job and family. About three-quarters held that women can't rise to the top of corporations because of the ''glass ceiling,'' complained of corporate discrimination in pay and promotion, and said that women's ideas, suggestions, and contributions are not taken seriously in corporations. Even more said the ''old-boy network'' makes it difficult for women to succeed in corporations.

* Money may not be as much of a motivation for these women to go into business for themselves as for the men surveyed in 1994. Some 55 percent of the women agreed with the statement ''I wanted to earn more money''; 76 percent of the men agreed.

The women quizzed own a wide variety of businesses. The biggest group are owners of construction, trucking, and industrial machinery companies. The second-largest group is consultants. Others are in real estate, wholesale businesses, technology, new and used auto sales and repairs, groceries, health care, insurance, garbage collection, and so on.

''This is an important new component of the work force,'' Maurer says. His firm commissioned the survey to learn more about these potential clients. Also, as is the case with so many business-sponsored surveys, a hoped for by-product is publicity.

A few more findings: A larger proportion of women business owners (60 percent) than men owners (53 percent) considered support and encouragement from a spouse to be very important to their success. Only 8 percent of the affluent women said the term ''feminist'' described them ''very well,'' 22 percent said ''somewhat,'' 23 percent ''slightly,'' and 48 percent ''not at all.'' Only 29 percent favored affirmative action for women.

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