CPA/PFS Profile: Susan Bruno

Susan Bruno

When you first meet Susan Bruno, you can tell right away there’s something that differentiates her from many other CPAs who also have the Personal Financial Specialist (CPA/PFS) credential. Perhaps, it’s her perspective on the profession, the energy she brings to her clients or the name of one of her businesses, DivaCFO. Recently, during the Advanced PFP Conference in Las Vegas, Planner sat down with Susan to find out more about her practice and her endeavors to bring financial literacy and empowerment to women of all ages, in particular Millennials, ages 18-24. 

Planner: First, tell us about Beacon Wealth Consulting and what makes your firm different from other firms that provide financial planning and wealth management services.
Susan Bruno: Our focus at Beacon Wealth Consulting is comprehensive personal financial planning (PFP) for high net worth families and corporate executives. We do not offer investment advisory services, but do offer both life insurance consulting and brokerage services. I have found this business model to be quite different from other CPA financial planners who offer planning services as a part of their asset management services. We charge a project or hourly fee for the planning services, and do not have a minimum net worth requirement; instead, we have a minimum project fee. 
Planner: What did you do prior to Beacon?
Susan Bruno: I am going to date myself by telling you that I began my career in 1984 in the Tax Department at Deloitte Haskins & Sells. I immediately took an interest in working with families, not just on all of their PFP needs and not just tax compliance. I was fortunate to have a tax partner who had a clear vision of the future of PFP, and I welcomed the opportunity to work with his individual clients. The formal “discipline” of PFP was yet to be created as a separate department within any of the Big 8, but we could all see it coming.
In 1987, I left Deloitte to work at Price Waterhouse (PW), just when the firm formalized its commitment to PFP by creating an investment advisory subsidiary. I became a tax manager in 1988 and ran the PFP practice in Stamford, Connecticut, with another manager until I left as a senior tax manager to start my own firm in 1992. During my time at PW, I was also responsible for educating the PFP managers and partners on all life insurance matters. That’s why my practice continues to have a life insurance component.
Planner: What kinds of lessons did you learn with your previous employers that helped you to open up your own firm?
Susan Bruno: If you choose to work for the best, you need to reflect the values of the firm. Excellence is on the top of the list. I learned the demands of the business, the needs of the client and the practice model that would suit me best, and most importantly, that every detail counts. I knew that I needed to continue to provide the same level of quality, in order to be successful in my own firm, and thankfully have been able to do just that. 
Planner: Let’s shift the focus to DivaCFO and CollegeCFO. First, how did you come up with the idea to educate women about financial literacy?
Susan Bruno:  It was evident to me early on that PFP, in almost every family I was working with, meant that I would be working with the husband and not the wife. Rarely did I have a single woman as a client and still really do not have many. Unfortunately, most women get involved with their finances when they are forced to, which is when the “5Ds” occur: Death, Divorce, Disability, Disaster and Debt. We all know that’s the worst time to take on finances, as it is an emotionally difficult time. When I started my own firm, I had a bit more freedom to strong-arm women to be a part of the discussion and found that if we focused on the family instead of the numbers, they became interested. I ask what questions they have and I do it in a nonthreatening environment to allow them to ask any question without it being thought of as a “dumb” question. 
Since I can provide this service only to a limited number of female clients, I decided to start to reach as many women as possible, everywhere and for free. We cover topics ranging from hard money issues such as tax matters, to soft money issues such as how to speak to your elderly parents about money.
CollegeCFO is an extension of DivaCFO and is focused on financial literacy for ages 18-24. It started with a women’s focus as well, but as we evolved, male students asked to be included, so we dropped the word “Diva.” The idea stemmed from our college interns who also wanted to be smarter about their personal finances, but didn’t really care about topics such as estate planning.
We now provide a blog on all topics relevant to this age group, ranging from student loans to building credit to basic tax matters. We are part of a graduate school program at Stanford University this semester and our first peer-to-peer module on personal finance will be delivered on campus at Johns Hopkins. We make our blog content, weekly tips and teaching modules, which we refer to as eMPower hours, free to anyone who provides their email address. I feel the better we educate this generation to be smarter about their money, the better off the country will be—I love working with the college interns. The more the merrier, so send them to us! It keeps me young!
Planner: The two websites have quite a number of resources. Where does the information come from?
Susan Bruno: The content comes from many sources, including several excellent reposts from Feed the Pig®, 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy and Forefield Advisor. We are very fortunate to have these resources from the AICPA, including the content from Forefield Advisor as part of our membership in the PFP Section.
My business partner, Galia Gichon, and I also write original posts, along with a panel of experts who sit on our board, as well as our interns. Students want to hear from each other about how they handle things, such as moving off campus. We just found out that our slide deck on this topic has been shared around the brunch table by a group of students who had no idea what was involved in renting an apartment and sharing expenses such as trash removal and cable TV. They still can’t believe they are expected to make major decisions like signing a lease without any education from school or even home. How about those student loans they accumulate with no guidance on how they will ever pay them back? Stay tuned!
Planner: And you now have a smartphone app, right? Tell us about that.
Susan Bruno: Our app, DivaDocs, was created as an organizational tool that is a game-like scavenger hunt to “Find, Learn and File” all important papers. The goal is to help women get started as the family CFO through financial and personal document organization. This not only educates them, but also reduces stress by having access to all important documents in the cloud through Dropbox. And, yes, it is available to men too! The college kids just love it. It is available in iTunes, also for free. 
Planner: You work in the business with your daughter, right? What’s it like to work so closely with one of your immediate family members?
Susan Bruno: My daughter, Stephanie, who graduated from the University of San Francisco in 2011 with a major in communications, helped me make DivaCFO fun, visually appealing and most importantly, current. I could not have done it without her! After launching the blog site and app, she landed a fabulous job in Austin, Texas, at CompassLearning. She credits her work with us and exposure to our partners and board members as the best “graduate school” she could have attended. We truly enjoyed our experience together. Best of all, we learned to respect each other for our unique strengths in a way that could not have happened without this experience.
Planner: What is your advice to other CPAs in financial planning to help educate women about financial literacy? Is the AICPA helping you with this, too?
Susan Bruno: Don’t be afraid to try something new with your female clients, even if it feels awkward to start. Welcome them into the meetings and encourage their attendance. Start with a casual lunch and remind them that the family goals should be defined and tracked by them, too. Provide resources to get “caught up,” since many women do not have a financial education. Point them to 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy and suggest they share this with their friends as well.
To gain new clients, you may want to consider a women’s discussion group on relevant financial issues and use topics from Feed the Pig as content. Women love book groups and love to share ideas, so why not cover money matters such as what they are doing about being prepared for their long-term care needs. The content on Feed the Pig and 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy is meant for the public, so it is very readable. Stay away from jargon if you are moderating and make the session fun and memorable.
Planner: What is your favorite vacation spot?
Susan Bruno:  This is a tough one because anyone who knows me also knows I love to travel and do so as often as I can. Frankly, it also gives me balance and energy to be a better wife, mother and adviser. My husband and I travel often with family and friends and yes, no surprise, I am the planner. Our two favorite locations are quite different: Tuscany and the Caribbean. Tuscany is usually with about a half dozen friends in a large farmhouse to sip wine, eat amazing food and explore the hilltop medieval towns. The Caribbean is where I wind down. I love the sunshine, white sand and clear water to explore the coral reefs, but I do have to say that Cuba is the most fascinating placed I have ever visited and would love to return. I am truly blessed to have my own business, giving the flexibility to fit all of this into my life.
PFP/PFS Member Benefit: Forefield Advisor
In this profile, Susan Bruno references the content from Forefield Advisor. Available FREE as part of your PFP/PFS membership, many members and planners use Forefield Advisor ($499 annual value) to educate clients on a number of financial planning topics. Forefield Advisor is a Web-based business development, education and client communication tool that enables planners to deliver current and concise advice to clients. Resources are continuously updated to reflect current legislation and industry trends.
Consumer Webcasts: Take Charge: Your Money. Your Life.
The PFP division also offers periodic, free consumer webcasts focused on topics ranging from planning for college education, future health costs, tax planning tips, and more. Visit the PFP webcast library and share archived consumer webcasts and upcoming events with your clients!