Investment Strategies: How Savvy Southern Women Score
Introduction: A History of the Piggy Bank Investments Club
The stock market gets trillions of dollars from people who work in places like Spartanburg, South Carolina. Although many may not realize it, Spartanburg's location in the Southeast places it within the largest percentage of equity owners in the U.S. Some 33 percent of the country's stockholders live in the South, compared to 26 percent in the Midwest, 25 percent in the West, and 16 percent in the Northeast, according to the Investment Company Institute.
One popular recipe for success around the region is to be wary of brokers. Use them wisely, but not without your own research. And don't just rely on a piggy bank to grow your money, when on average, stocks provide greater returns. A glimpse at the inner workings of stock investing Spartanburg-style reveals an emphasis on brains, research, hunches, and a bit of gossip about local dealings. Mix it all with a little debutante flair, and you have the Piggy Bank Investments Club.
Stretching back in time to trace the origins of the city's money trail, the burg first became a distinct commerce- generating entity during the Revolutionary War. The Greek name of Sparta, taken from an ancient city known for its austere and athletic residents, was attached to the region in a letter dated September 11, 1775, from resident Colonel John Thomas to William Drayton, a patriot and landowner. Drayton supplied some of the pro-independence localsthe so-called Spartan regimentwith supplies and ammunition, and was warmly received on a visit with a meal of barbecued beef, as noted by local historians. Even in early times, the good people of Spartanburg loved their barbecue.
It's never been determined if the Spartan regiment of the Revolutionary War was named for the town, or if the town was named for the regiment. Back then, no one really cared. The important thing was to fight the British and set up an independent nation that would eventually build the New York Stock Exchange. The town's ties to the Revolutionary War continue to this day with a statue of General Daniel Morgan, a hero of the Battle of Cowpens. He stares mightily over the citizens in a downtown square.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Spartanburg's position as a railroad center earned it the nickname Hub City. Some in town still talk about this period as the town's golden age, when artists and wealthy folks like the Vanderbilts were drawn there from all over the country. After World War II, the city's downtown lost out to automobile-inspired strip malls nearby, like many municipalities. It's managed to fight back somewhat, but it still trails the more gentrified core of nearby rival Greenville.
Nowadays, mom-and-pop stock market players from Spartanburg get their 401(k) money to invest from their jobs at the region's big employers: schools, universities, hospitals, and government offices. German auto maker BMW, which made national headlines in the '90s with its decision to build a major car plant in the region, is still thriving. Many auto-related businesses, including French tire maker Michelin, have a significant presence. The textile industry, a big employer since the late nineteenth century, has been in decline for years. The economic slowdown in the U.S. has generated thousands of layoffs in the region. But overall, employment remains relatively strong.
Noted wealthy residents of Spartanburg include the Milliken family, an industrial dynasty that traces its roots to the wool business in Maine after the Civil War. Milliken & Company is now one of the world's largest privately held companies. Roger Milliken still lives in town in a stately home surrounded by tall rows of neatly trimmed hedges.
Jerry Richardson, owner of the NFL football team the Carolina Panthers, was a football star at Wofford College in Spartanburg before he started Spartan Food Systems. The company later became a part of Advantica, the parent of Denny's restaurants, housed in the tallest building in Spartanburg, a 19-story concrete monolith that towers over the two-story shops in the center of town. Along the way, Richardson left the company to establish the Panthers at Ericsson Stadium, about an hour away in Charlotte, North Carolina.
George Dean Johnson was the country's largest franchiser of Blockbuster Video stores, which he sold in 1993 to Viacom. Now he's CEO of Extended Stay America, which is establishing a new headquarters building in the middle of town. He's also chairman of Advance America, a check-cashing specialist. His name often comes up in local conversations.
These are the local bigwigs who can afford to hire the best money managers to handle their stock picks on Wall Street. Not so with Susan Jackson, a writing professor at Spartanburg Technical College, who had no millions to play with. She was just trying to get the best return for whatever she could stash away in her 401(k) or savings. Relying in the past on brokers, she decided to take more control over her portfolio, like her grandmother on her mother's side taught her as a girl.
Jackson's grandmother, Mary Belle Crosland, raised two daughters mostly on her own in Winsboro, South Carolina, built rental houses, and launched a florist business by growing flowers in her back yard and selling them in her sun room. Trained as a teacher but not fond of the profession, she ended up buying a greenhouse to grow her stock. She also planted a seed of commerce in her granddaughter's head.
"She didn't have a cash register, you never saw where money changed hands," Jackson recalled as a girl watching her grandmother sell flowers. "I realized all her money went into a gold cigar box in a buffet in the dining room." Her grandmother would ask her to count the money, usually several hundred dollars. "She would say we'll take it and just spend the interest off the top. She was a hard-working woman, and she knew the value of money. Looking in the gold cigar box showed me the security that money brings ... not happiness, but security."
Taking her hard-earned flower earnings, Crosland invested in shares of Esso, the predecessor of Exxon, partly because a cousin owned an Esso gas station. When she died in 1980, she owned about a half-dozen stocks and an estate worth about $125,000, built up from nothing.
The lessons stayed with Susan Jackson after she got married, had kids, and started thinking about the stock market again in the 1990s. Jackson's father, Henry Beckham, had handed some of his retirement money over to a broker, but he lost a five-figure sum in junk bonds. "After that, he decided that from now on, all the mistakes will be his own fault, not some broker's fault," Jackson said. Along the way, he joined the Andrew Jackson Investment Club, to help him watch his money. He urged his daughter to do the same.
Remembering granny, and armed with the bylaws from her father's club, Jackson hooked up with her friend Mary Olejnik, who possesses a side-splitting comedic ability mixed with a distinct Southern drawl. Turning up her accent for emphasis, Olejnik said the group formed and quickly picked a name to set a tongue-in-cheek tone. "We were thinking of two names, Piggy Bank and Ladies of the Evening, but we decided that Piggy Bank was a little more becoming. The name doesn't necessarily give us much more respect, but it's pretty accurate." It was 1993.
They may be deft at their manners, charms, and self-effacing remarks, but these women are no cupcakes. Underneath a whopping sense of humor, they possess a steely toughness and some first-class brains. One is a family court judge, another a paralegal in a powerful local real estate law firm. Others are business people or teachers. All are survivors with families, jobs, social lives, and plenty of world experience. Although they criticized themselves for their decision to sell Pfizer right before the stock skyrocketed upon news of its potency drug Viagra, at least they were smart enough to buy the stock in the first place and make money on it.
In our talks, the group exudes passion for food, friends, family, gossip, money, and the South. Susan Jackson and fellow Piggy Bank member Bobbi Duncan (who in late 2001 started up a volunteer tutoring program for senior citizens to teach kids) proudly point out that their daughters recently completed their debuts. Although they consider themselves modern working women, Duncan and Jackson couldn't resist the seduction of the Magnolia Debutante Club, one of the city's exclusive social clubs complete with curtseys, formal waltzes, and white gloves. Mothers and daughters bond over lessons in manners, etiquette dinners, and a season of parties. Duncan, an Ohio native, said that at first, her Southern lawyer husband objected to her taking part in the Debutante Club, but after her daughter's friends got involved, there was no more fighting it. Jackson proudly carries a stunning picture of her daughter Kassie, resplendent with long blond hair, satin gown, and an appearance that more closely resembles Marcia Brady in a prom episode of The Brady Bunch than, say, Scarlett O'Hara.
Mixing their Southern savvy and collective ability to suss out stocks, the Piggy Bank Investments Club boasted an annual rate of return of 10 percent by early 2001. Each of the 14 members had invested $2,400 for a total kitty of almost $34,000. General Electric and Johnson & Johnson topped their list of favorites. Their main villain stock was Fonar, which just kept going down. "Piggy Bank investors means we use our spare change to invest with and not to take ourselves too seriously," Duncan explained, referring to the group's mantra of buying an imaginary oceanfront house and plenty of plastic surgery. "We are inspired by that beach in the sky and all those face-lifts!"
Cool air descended on a quiet, tree-lined Converse Heights neighborhood of large homes on the old-moneyed Eastern side of town. But during a monthly meeting on September 10, 2001, no less, inside the home of Georgia Anderson, the Piggy Bank Investments Club was starting to heat up.
In the large living room, a handsome collection of 10 Southern women, aged 40 and up, sipped blush wine and nibbled on little triangle-shaped sandwiches with the crusts cut away. Smiling piggy banks of various colors decorated the dining room and coffee tables. The finger food provided a light but delicious base for honed stock picking.
Most of the members of the club were present at the meeting. They wrote out $90 checks for their dues to the club. Conversation touched on Mary Olejnik, president and co-founder of the club, who was absent because she was throwing a party for her son's Eagle Scout promotion that night. Someone mentioned the bleak stock market and whether it would turn around in 2002. Most didn't think so. Folks settled into their seats and broke the ice with a joke. "You know the difference between a Northern and Southern fairy tale?" one woman asked. "The Northerner says, 'Once upon a time ...' and the Southerner says, 'Y'all aren't gonna believe this!' That's a clean North/South joke."
The pun set a light tone for the night as women debated stocks and gossiped at the same time. Sometimes the gossip actually helped them pick stocks, at least when they considered local companies that employ people they know.
But this night, a more somber topic faced them. They have seen some of the worst losses since founding the club some eight years ago. Even on the eve of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when these women were meeting, the group had seen rough results. The 14 members collectively owned 14 stocks. All but one were down sharply. In one month, their combined worth had dropped from $33,492.73 to $28,955.46. As the lead character in the animated film Shrek would say, "This is the part where you run away."
AmSouth Bank fell from $19.77 per share to $18.25; AT&T went from $20.34 to $17.70; Cisco fell from $19.63 to $14.36; and even mighty Citigroup dropped mightily from $50.26 to $43.42. Disney fell from $26.88 to $24.11, and the Gap fell from $27.16 to $14.99. Harley-Davidson went from $52.09 to $43.93, and Intel dropped from $30.22 to $25.89. Oracle was nearly halved from $17.57 to $11.07, and solid little Regions Financial was down to $28.30 from $32.31. Safeway deflated from $45.32 to $43.67, and Skechers waned from $21.85 to $19.50. Life continued to sputter out for the dog of the group, Fonar, down from $1.87 to a measly $1.71. Johnson & Johnson hung in there, actually edging up from $55.33 to $55.73.
"This was one of our worst months ever," said Susan Jackson, who conducted the meeting in the absence of Olejnik. The name of the Beardstown Ladies then came up in the context of investment clubs and their stock gains. "I wonder how they're doing now?" asked one member. "It turns out that they weren't doing nearly as well as they thought," Jackson said. "They were cookin' the books," joked Dottie Weaver, a retired retailer, widow, and member of the Calvary Baptist Church. "One thing's for sure, we aren't cookin' the books here," Jackson added. "We're just gonna go down as the group that has a fine time together."
The round-table style continued through the night, as women peppered the evening with jokes, finished each other's sentences, and free-associated about their stocks and how their portfolio was doing. "We have done fine (in the past)," said Jackson. "Not great, but not badly up until recently. Now, we're in the worst financial shape that we've ever been in. Our bottom line is very bad. I hate to say it, but it's bad. The only stock that we made any money on was Johnson & Johnson. The Gap lost 50 percent in one month. Oracle lost 50 percent this month." The room grew quiet. "Oh, shhhhh ... Chicago," one woman said, instead of saying "SH*T!" Jackson continued, "Skechers didn't do much better ... I just think retail is not the thing to do right now. I'm sorry and that's that."
There was some good news, however. The group made a healthy chunk of cash by selling its shares of General Electric, a long-time component of their portfolio. They unloaded it at $41 per share and made about $9,500. "We made good money on GE," Jackson said. "We made a lot of money on GE, so we decided to go ahead and sell it, before it bottomed out."
Despite the apparently dire state of their portfolio, the women seemed surprisingly calm. Most had already been tracking the club's stocks on their own, so they already knew the news was bad. But still, Jackson's dire description of their portfolio failed to produce a ripple of panic or fever to sell. The group was also buoyed by its sale of General Electric, which left them with $12,000 including cash on hand. Although it was a buying month for the women, they seemed reluctant to jump in given the bear market conditions.
They calmly proceeded with the meeting by updating each other on stocks in their portfolio and whether to buy, sell, or hold. Most said they wanted to hang on to stocks, despite drops in stock prices that would send many other investors out the door. "AmSouth is down from 18 to 13, but it's still a hold," said Margaret Allen, an interior de- signer. "But we're still makin' money on that (from when we bought it)."
Karen Harpe, a teacher, was up next with Ma Bell. "AOL Time Warner is said to be pursuing AT&T's cable unit. That would make AOL the largest cable Internet provider if they buy out AT&T. So that's a possible ... merger. So that would be good for us."
Cathy Ayers, a pharmacist, was up next. "Citigroup is down this month, but I feel it is still a hold," she said. "It's holding its own in a bad market. I think it's still a good stock. And my mother is acquiring shares of Citigroup."
"Is she really?" asked one member. "That gives us hope ..."
"Usually her ideas are better than the brokers'," Ayers pointed out. "I generally think she has done better. She did well with Wachovia. She has dumped every bit of Wachovia. She thinks it's time to get out of Wachovia."
"Listen to your mom," another member whispered.
Disney was next. Martha McDaniel, nutrition program co-ordinator and clothing retailer, launched into her update. "What I've read and what they're saying is that they were doing all that downsizing," she said. "Their earnings are not, in the next few quarters, going to reflect what people want them to, but the company is really pleased with what they're seeing going on. ... They expect in 2002 to see their earnings increase, which is good news in the long run."
Georgia Anderson jumped in with her update on the Gap. "It's been a bad month for retailers ... they lost ... oooh ... 50 percent (of their stock value)," she said. "I think they're predicting they're gonna lose some more next quarter, but ..."
"They have some bad designs in there," someone said. "My kids didn't even buy. I've been in there and nothing appealed to me."
"They've done a lot of restructuring," Georgia said. "And I think they're down so much, we ought to hold it and see if it goes back up. But as soon as it gets back to where we're close to getting our money back ...."
"For the Gap to be down when it's back-to-school time, I think that's just a bad sign," said one.
"All the retailers are down."
"The unemployment rate is way up now ...."
"When the economy's down ... people are holding on to their money."
"We mommas aren't gonna give our teenagers any money."
Despite the poor performance of the Gap, no one suggested selling it at that moment.
Dottie Weaver proceeded with Harley-Davidson, a stock that she follows in part through her son, who owns a coveted dealership for the red-hot company. "They announced today that the board of directors approved a quarterly cash dividend," Weaver read with a hint of triumph in her voice.
"How many shares do we have?"
"So we'll be able to buy a bush for our [imaginary] beach house," one woman said. No one even mentioned the idea of selling Harley-Davidson, a steady performer with legendary brand strength and a devoted customer base.
Next up: presenting possible purchases. Robin, Bobbi, Margaret, and Susan had stocks to pitch for the club to buy.
Susan Jackson mentioned Extended Stay, a lodging firm founded by local Spartanburg business magnate George Dean Johnson and Wayne Huizenga, chairman of Auto Nation. The Piggy Bank Investments Club owned the stock after it kicked up a lot of local attention when the company was formed in the mid 1990s. They sold the shares in 1997.
A small article that ran in the local paper, but was not widely reported nationally, caught Jackson's eye. She clipped it out and brought it to the meeting. "This article was in the paper last Friday. 'Bill Gates has purchased a 5.34 percent stake in Extended Stay,' which I thought was a good sign. I think it was last trading at 16. 'S&P announced it added Extended Stay to its Midcap 400 index.' If Extended Stay is getting added, then won't the mutual funds start buying it up? So wouldn't we want to buy it before all the mutual funds buy it and the price goes up?" She read a quote from George Dean Johnson in the press release lauding the move by S&P to include the stock in the Midcap 400, plus a Merrill Lynch note on the demand from mutual fund buyers. "George Dean referred to it as the Wal-Mart of hotels."