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Women only: Sacombank's 'March 8'

If all of her assignments turn out as well as her first, Phan Bich Van can expect a long, prosperous career in banking.

If all of her assignments turn out as well as her first, Phan Bich Van can expect a long, prosperous career in banking. Last month the deputy general director of Ho Chi Minh City's Sacombank orchestrated the roaring start of Vietnam's first-ever bank branch run by women for women.

More than 1,000 customers turned up to open accounts at the branch, known as "March 8" for the date it opened, International Women's Day. That was three times the traffic seen at any of Sacombank's 90 other branches in Vietnam that day, and triple the deposits, says Van, who had to draft 20 staffers from other Sacombank outposts to help the two dozen female employees at March 8. Says Van of the branch's phenomenal start, "Women love to have special treatment."

With assets of $668 million and pretax profits of $13.6 million, Sacombank is one of four state-owned Vietnamese banks that have private investors. Shareholders in Sacombank include the International Finance Corp. and Vietnam Enterprise Investments, a closed-end fund listed on the Irish Stock Exchange; together they hold a 20 percent stake. Australia and New Zealand Banking Group bought a 10 percent stake last month for $27 million -- the first investment by a foreign bank in a state-owned Vietnamese bank. Sacombank plans to list on Vietnam's bourse this year.

Being handpicked by chairman Dang Van Thanh to create a branch that would better serve female clients "was a big and nice surprise," says Van, 36, who completed an MBA at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, last summer on a Fulbright scholarship after a stint working for the IFC. Her primary target for March 8: middle-aged women running family businesses, either alone or with their husbands. Sacombank offers customers discount coupons for local jewelry shops, supermarkets and boutiques. Future marketing partners will include Japan's Shiseido cosmetics and Swiss underwear maker Triumph, says Van. A deposit account called Au Co, after a legendary Vietnamese mountain princess, offers higher interest rates if the balance exceeds 10 million dong ($632) continuously for 30 days.

Sacombank didn't design March 8 solely with women in mind. Van notes that the bank hopes to boost its brand recognition and "increase our business in other branches and with men."