The gay and lesbian community, a group often overlooked by traditional bank and financial services marketers, is getting attention from a new type of provider.
The assets there are substantial, according to Walter B. Schubert, the founder and chairman of Gay Financial Network, a New York-based Internet company that serves as a bridge between gays and lesbians and companies sensitive to their financial needs.
It is widely assumed that up to 10% of Americans are homosexual. "I estimate that every year the U.S. gay and lesbian population contributes $15 billion to $17 billion in IRA deposits alone," Mr. Schubert said.
Established in October, Gay Financial Network provides news and information on financial issues to nearly 120,000 people. The company also marks a milestone in a personal journey by Mr. Schubert, 42, who in 1994 became the first openly gay member of the New York Stock Exchange. He is the third generation of Schuberts to hold a Big Board seat.
This month Gay Financial Network struck a deal with a division of Boston-based Fleet Financial Group to provide access to on-line securities trading. U.S. Clearing, part of Fleet's Quick & Reilly securities subsidiary, charges $14.95 a trade and offers access to some 3,000 mutual funds, including 700 no-load portfolios. The deal involves revenue-sharing between Fleet and Gay Financial Network.
"Many gay Americans walking in off the street to the local branch office of a bank or broker are afraid to identify themselves directly or indirectly as gay," Mr. Schubert said.
Gay Financial Network was established to bring such people to companies that are friendly to their financial needs.
Along with its Fleet agreement, Gay Financial Network also has advertising deals with Conseco Inc. and General Motors Acceptance Corp., connecting members to information on annuities and mortgage services, respectively.
Gay Financial Network is in talks with two other large banks about providing services, including trust and estate planning, Mr. Schubert said. Estate planning can be particularly difficult for same-sex couples who cannot legally marry. In many cases, the surviving partner is left in a legal wrangle with blood relatives of the deceased, who may not have been in contact with the dead person for years, Mr. Schubert said.
"To maximize your investment potential, you have to be able to tell your story, you have to be able to feel comfortable and sit down with an investment professional who is also comfortable with you as a gay person," Mr. Schubert said.
To that end, it was important that Fleet be sensitive to issues affecting the gay community, he said. Gay Financial Network will provide sensitivity training for Fleet employees, because all inquiries will be handled by a Fleet call center.
For Fleet and U.S. Clearing, Gay Financial Network provides access to a new pool of customers, said Pascal J. Mercurio, the chairman of Fleet Securities and U.S. Clearing.
Fleet adds Gay Financial Network to a roster of roughly 390 clients in its securities clearing business.
But Gay Financial Network is not the only company looking to the gay community. American Express Co. has target-marketed credit cards and financial advice to gays since 1996.
Of Amex's 10,000 financial planners, who act as independent contractors, nearly 500 target the gay market, said Margaret Vergeyle, a vice president of marketing.
"Clearly, the gay and lesbian community was served by everybody, but whether they were fully served is another question," Ms. Vergeyle said.
Steven Dunlap, co-founder of G&L Bank, a gay-focused Internet bank based in Pensacola, Fla., has studied the market since 1993. G&L Bank received its federal thrift charter this month and is preparing for an October opening.
According to Mr. Dunlap, the average annual income of individuals filling out surveys on G&L's Web site is above $100,000, and as many as 11,000 people have said they plan to sign up for the banking operation when it goes live. The bank plans to add to its full banking menu such services as estate planning and trust.
G&L will be headed by G.K. Griffith, a former retail banker from the old NationsBank, and it will be the first national bank serving the gay and lesbian community, Mr. Dunlap said.
Mr. Dunlap said he believes G&L does not face much competition from the big U.S. banks, which, he said, tend to farm out gay-focused financial services to one or two individuals in their private banking divisions. And some banks would not want their mainstream clientele to get wind of a gay outreach program for fear of losing customers, he said.
At one South Florida community bank, Mr. Dunlap said, a banker who put effort into winning gay clients had his wings clipped.
"The attitude is: As long as you keep it in the closet you can bank these people," he said. He declined to name the bank.
But financial services companies are beginning to recognize the opportunities in the gay community, Mr. Schubert said.
"Five years ago at the Gay and Lesbian Business Expo in New York, there were no financial services companies displaying their products and services," Mr. Schubert said. "Today you'll see the gamut."