For almost two decades, Minneapolis business owner Cindy Sheffield says, she heard little more than condescending comments from executives of her bank.

This shabby treatment brought her to the boiling point earlier this year when the bank refused to grant her a $300,000 business loan unless she mortgaged her house, her vacation cabin, and her father's house.

"It's because I'm a woman," said Ms. Sheffield, the owner of an employee benefits processing company. When meeting with the bank president, she said, "I felt like he was bouncing me on his knee and patting me on the head every time I went in there."

She decided to switch banks. To her surprise, there were many institutions out there willing to accept her business while treating her with respect.

Some regional banks, mindful of the increase during the last decade in the number of small businesses run by women, have focused on serving their borrowing needs .

One prominent example is Wells, Fargo & Co. of San Francisco. Last September, in partnership with the National Association of Women Business Owners, the bank created a $1 billion loan pool for this market. The three-year program offers variable-rate, unsecured revolving loans.

"All bank management in every area is looking to find market segments to target, and one of the most attractive ones is women-owned businesses," said Charles Wendel, president of New York-based Financial Institutions Consulting. "They're growing very fast."

Mr. Wendel said many of the money-center and regional banks have zeroed in on women entrepreneurs in the last 12 to 18 months.

Last month, Ms. Sheffield took her business to Richfield Bank and Trust, which is pitching itself as a bank for female business owners.

The management of the community bank decided two years ago to target that niche after reading surveys that showed the huge increase in women business owners. It rolled out a program in August targeted at women but available for all business owners.

Sharon Hadary, director of the National Federation of Women Business Owners, said female business owners still have a raft of complaints about their bankers.

Two of the chief gripes voiced in previous surveys: not being taken seriously, and not being able to get credit. But she said that's starting to change.

"What we have seen is that access to capital has been hard to get," Ms. Hadary said. "I think that's changing, and changing a great deal.

"Banks are beginning to realize that if they want to stay in business lending, they're going to need to focus on women."

Figures from the National Federation of Women Business Owners confirm the growing importance of women-owned businesses. According to the Washington-based trade group, there are 7.95 million women- owned small businesses in the United States this year, up 78% from 1987.

Nationally, women-owned firms make up 36% of all companies, employ 26% of all workers, and generate 16% of business sales.

And banks like Richfield want to capitalize on that growth.

Its program boasts a streamlined application for loans of up to $50,000 and a variety of other business products.

And the bank is offering reimbursement to customers who attend some business classes and seminars if they borrow at least $10,000.

Julie Puetz, a commercial banking officer for Richfield Bank, said the bank stressed education because, during discussions leading to the program's creation, women business owners said there was a need for it .

But not all banks are newcomers to this.

Abigail Adams National Bancorp in Washington has been serving women-owned businesses for 16 years. With $105 million in assets, it is the country's largest women-owned and managed bank.

"We feel that being woman-owned is very important to our mission and our marketing," said Barbara Blum, chief executive of $105 million-asset Adams National Bank in Washington.

Chicago's Harris BankcorpInc. has been targeting women-owned businesses for six years with programs for lending, outreach, and technical assistance.

The effort was profitable within the first year, and between the second and fifth years of the program, loan volume shot up 150%, said Margie Wallace, vice president and market manager of the small-business team.

Just this year, Harris added a fourth lender to cover the women-owned business market, Ms. Wallace said.

"You have to look at it for the long term," she said. "If you want to succeed you can't get in and out of the market."

Three years ago, BankAmerica Corp. of San Francisco developed a loan product targeted at women- and minority-owned businesses, which complained that they were underserved, said Janet Garufis, senior vice president.

The results were surprising. BankAmerica cranked out $25 million in loans to women-owned small businesses in the first year.

But demand for targeted product has slipped since BankAmerica recently started mass marketing a standardized, one-page application for small- business loans, Ms. Garufis said. More women have been applying for that.

Ms. Garufis said this phenomenon demonstrates that the chief sin of banks in the past was not effectively reaching out to women, rather than discrimination.

'These women were so out of the economic mainstream that they didn't know about financial opportunities or how to ask for them," Ms. Garufis said. "It was a market outreach problem as opposed to a capital access problem."

BankAmerica has not yet concentrated on women in marketing the one-page application, but there are plans to do so, Ms. Garufis said.

But Ms. Blum of Adams National Bank remains skeptical of mainstream banks.

"I see them talk the talk, but I don't see them walk the walk," she said. "There's a big public relations announcement that we're going to market to women, but there isn't a lot of follow-up."

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