Women-owned businesses seeing growth in Ala.

Kathy Wingard, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- The number of businesses owned by women in Alabama has increased about 67 percent since 1997, making the state No. 12 nationally in terms of growth of female-owned companies during that period.

A report commissioned by American Express OPEN on female-owned businesses said such Alabama-based companies will have sales estimated at $16 billion this year.

In all, Alabama has about 115,900 firms owned by women, the report estimated. Among those is Eastbrook Antique Mall, located in Montgomery and owned by Dot McDaniel.

McDaniel converted a closed Gayfer's department store to individual rental booths for collectibles in 1994. The business stays near capacity, with female-owned enterprises compiling the majority.

"More than half of the businesses in our antique mall are owned by women, and many more are operated by husband-and-wife teams. We have women's businesses that have been here for years and are very successful," said Jennifer McDaniel, McDaniel's daughter-in-law, who works in management at the mall.

Women are expanding their businesses and delighting in the competition.

Women bakers are on the front lines in the growth of shops that specialize in cupcakes. Some women own multiple cupcake shops, and chains like Gigi's Cupcakes have sprung up.

Jennifer Cooper and her husband, Patrick, now own four Gigi's stores that have opened in just over two years in Alabama and Columbus, Ga., and another location is planned.

"In the business world, the unsung heroes are women," said Jennifer Cooper, a former teacher. "We bring compassion and go the extra mile to make sure our customers have a great experience."

Cooper, a graduate of Auburn University, said her greatest challenge "is to find the balance between business decisions and heart decisions."

"Sometimes I lay awake worrying about those," she said.

Linda Echols started her own hair salon more than 30 years ago with a friend and now has 24 employees, 20 of whom are women. For her next expansion in Montgomery, she has a vision of a nonprofit cosmetology school that will provide an avenue to a career for victims of domestic violence.

"One key to success is offering flexible hours and days for young mothers," Echols said. "You cater to your customers and to your employees, and they stay with you over the years."

Over the past 15 years, Alabama has surpassed the national growth rate of women-owned firms, which stands at 59 percent. Employment numbers followed the national downturn, with only a 3.4 percent rise in employment numbers.

The report said revenue growth is stronger among firms owned by minority women, indicating that business ownership is an attractive pursuit for them. Nationally, the number of companies owned by black women is up 258 percent from 1997 to 2013, according to Womenable, the firm that prepared the report.

"While firms owned by women of color are smaller than non-minority women-owned businesses both in terms of average employment and revenues, their growth in number and economic clout is generally far outpacing that of all women-owned firms," said the report.

Health care and social assistance have the largest share of women-owned businesses, followed by educational services like private schools, cosmetology or training schools, other services such as beauty salons and pet sitting, and administrative and waste management services.

The industries with the lowest concentration of women-owned firms are construction and transportation and warehousing.