The Story of Joanna Bruno (JR Bruno & Associates)

Jul 28, 2022

American Dream Achieved

IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability.  In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories.  It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The Story of Joanna Bruno (JR Bruno & Associates)

By Nesha Ruther

Joanna Bruno grew up in an entrepreneurial family. She was born in Chicago to Italian immigrants and was raised in San Marino, California. Joanna’s father was a tailor and owned a retail store selling clothing. Joanna and her brothers grew up working in their father’s store, and she grew a love for sales. After high school, she attended Pasadena College, where she studied merchandising.

When she graduated, her father presented her with an ultimatum. She could either pursue further education and become an attorney or a doctor, or she could get married. Forever the rebel, Joanna refused both. “I love working in the stores, I love sales,” she told her father. Her father refused to allow it. “He told me, ’No, I’m sorry, but you can’t work in the store, the business belongs to your brothers, because as they get married, they need to take care of their families.’”

Joanna was devastated. “I loved my family, I loved where we lived, I loved everything. But my father was very strict, whatever he wants, he does. I decided to move out.” This was in the 1960s and Joanna was 25. The decision was not without cost however, Joanna suffered a mental breakdown from her father’s refusal, and she spent several weeks in a sanitorium where she underwent electroshock treatments. When she was released, she decided to make it on her own, “I said to myself, I am not going back there.”

One day, Joanna received a call from her family’s main competitor, the owner of a men’s clothing store. “He says, ‘Joanna, I recently heard you’re not working for your family anymore. I would love to have you come and work for me.’” Suddenly, Joanna had not only an employment opportunity but a chance to show her father what he missed by not hiring her.

She refused the offer.

“I am too honorable of a person. I said to him, ‘I’m flattered, I really appreciate the offer, but my family loyalty is not going to allow me to do that.’” This sense of honor, and an adherence to her personal values, would shape Joanna’s career for years to come.

Instead, she went to a friend at the bank her family had used. This friend connected her with James Chance, the Manager of the Pasadena office for Prudential Insurance Company. Joanna impressed James, and he agreed to give her a $1,000 a month stipend while she pursued her health and life insurance licenses. “Back then, that was a lot of money. In retail, I could never make $1,000,” she says. Simultaneously, she worked a part-time job at Bullock’s Department Store until she received her licenses.

After receiving her licenses, Joanna began working for Prudential’s sales department. She made cold calls but was getting near constant rejections. “I decided to learn how I can make a phone call and have a person remember me.” She started working for the local Dialing for Dollars TV show on the side and improved her skills, at one point being the fourth highest seller in the office.

One day, a friend came into her office. “He says, ‘I’m opening another office for Capital Funding Corporation, and I want you to join me.’” He offered her $2,500 a month, in exchange for getting her securities license and coming to work for him.

Joanna brought her sales skills to Capital Funding. “By then I was a real charmer over the phone. You have to say to yourself, I’m making a lot of cold calls, how is this person going to remember me,” she says. Joanna’s secret weapon was using humor and authenticity to connect with the customer. At the age of 79, those skills have stayed with her.

Joanna did extremely well at Capital Funding. Around the same time, she was invited to go skiing with some friends. It was on that trip that she met a Japanese businessman named Tsutomu Uchida, who was working for American Funding, a competitor to Joanna’s employer. Despite working for competing corporations, she and Tsutomu (who she nicknamed Toot) would go on to marry and have two daughters.

After working for Capital Funding for about two years, Joanna decided to set up her own brokerage firm. Toot left American Funding and came to work with her. As a young woman, Joanna had helped a local Pasadena councilman with his campaign and went on to manage the pensions of the policeman and firefighters. These connections allowed her to get her first big client after striking out on her own: the police and firefighter payroll deposit program for 650 employees in Pasadena.

Their next big gig was a government contract to create economic development in minority communities, through the Nixon administration’s Office of Minority Enterprise. “Nixon set up 250 business development agencies throughout the US,” Joanna explains. Thanks to her husband’s Japanese heritage, “We were the Asian agency and represented economic development in Asian communities. We were very successful and outdid many of the other organizations. Most of the time we were offering management and technical assistance to small businesses. We found funding for them, so I knew all the banks in Los Angeles and Orange County.”

Joanna’s hard work and expertise led her to a position on the National Advisory Board for US Small Business Administration. She also became a founding member of the National Association of Government Leaders.

Joanna not only built expertise, but notoriety as a woman running a financial services business in the 1970s. One day she received a call from a friend, asking if she was looking for a job. The timing was perfect. Nixon was no longer in office, which meant the Asian American Business Loan granted to Joanna by the Office of Minority Enterprise had been defunded, halting her work on that front.

The friend connected her with The Money Store Founder, Alan Turtletaub. Alan was looking to start a nonbank, a financial institution that handles credit card and lending operations but does not take deposits. Alan saw that Joanna, with her experience selling SBA loans, would be a perfect fit.

Joanna began working for Alan’s company, Money Store Investment Corporation. “Money Store eventually was sold for close to six billion dollars to First Union,” Joanna shares. “That’s how much we grew that [company].” Joanna was responsible for their entire model of SBA lending.

Despite the many wonderful and supportive male colleagues Joanna had over the years, she admits there were unfortunately some who were unnerved by her powerful personality and felt a need to assert their authority. For example, Joanna worked closely with Alan’s son Marc, and they became close friends. One day, Marc brought in a new hire who instantly took a disliking to Joanna. “He was intimidated by me,” Joanna says, “and I don’t like people who display their authority.”

This particular colleague refused to pay Joanna the commissions she had earned. When she objected, he wrote on one of her reviews that she was not a team player. “I said to myself, Yeah, not on your team. I would never be on your team.” He asked Joanna to sign her review. “I took the pen from him, looked at it, signed it, tore it up, and gave it back to him.”

Word got back to Marc, and he called a meeting. After hearing both sides, he sided with Joanna. “He turned to [the colleague] and said, “Write her a check. Immediately.”

Thanks to Marc, Joanna eventually left Money Store on good terms. However, that was not always the case. “There is a glass ceiling in banking,” she says. “There was a lot of chauvinistic, ego-driven people.”

“I grew up in a man’s world,” she continues, “and I gravitate toward working with men. Dealing with my brothers, my dad, it was just easy for me. I really have many of the mannerisms of a guy. I can walk into a room of guys and just pick up a conversation with them.”

Joanna proudly states that throughout her career, she was fired from six banks. These firings never had anything to do with a lack of ability on Joanna’s part, but rather her strict adherence to her own values.

At one particular bank, a senior employee invited her to lunch and arrived carrying a big stack of files. “He says to me, ‘You are so good with the SBA, you can get anything you want out of those people.’”

Joanna had a hunch what was happening. “Gossip was that the director of the bank couldn’t pay his director loans, which is a violation of FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) rules. They could fine him and close him down.”

At lunch, the senior employee hands Joanna the stack of SBA papers. “He says, ’If you can just get this through the SBA and get this guy money.’ I tell him I’ll be happy to work on it, with my team.” The senior employee told her not to show her team, that she should be the only one to work on it. In layman’s terms, this employee wanted Joanna to use the Small Business Loan to pay off the director loans.

“Meanwhile the waitress comes in with the food and puts it down,” Joanna continues. “I’m saying to myself, how am I going to get out of this? We each got our food, and he pushes those files towards me. I pushed the files back to him, put the check on top of the files, and I left.”

This refusal did not sit well with the bank. Soon after that lunch, Joanna was called into a meeting with HR. They wanted to let her go with only two weeks’ severance pay. “I said, ‘I don’t think that’s going to be adequate. You tried to compromise my integrity. I’m not going to settle for anything less than two months’ severance and a letter of recommendation from you.’” The bank agreed.

“After being fired out of six banks, my husband says to me ‘You make it look so easy what you do, why don’t you start your own gig? Why don’t you set up your own consulting firm?’ She took his advice and in 1994 founded JR Bruno and Associates, which she sold in 2007 with the help of Gregory Kovsky and IBA.

JR Bruno and Associates trained banks on how to establish and operate small business programs to support entrepreneurship. Not only was Joanna an entrepreneur herself, but she directly enabled others to become so as well. Over time, the consultancy grew into a national organization.

“There was a golden rule [in running a business] I learned from a friend who was a CPA. One third [of your income] should go towards cost of employees, one third’s fixed costs, and one third has to be your profit. I ran my business that way,” Joanna says.

One strategic decision Joanna made early on in her business was that rather than having a full-time staff, she hired independent contractors. This gave Joanna flexibility and decreased the amount of time she would have to spend training employees, while still having access to a team of experts. In exchange, her contractors were well-paid and got to work from home.

Working with contractors also allowed Joanna to start SBA consulting services in other states, without going through the logistical challenges of setting up a separate location with a manager and a brick-and-mortar building. Through this model, Joanna was able to care for banks without charging them overhead.

Over the course of 24 years, JR Bruno and Associates served 310 clients with a fixed staff of only 3 people, and 12 independent contractors. “I had so many friends in SBA departments that if I needed people, if I had a contractor that was sick or something, I could just bring my friends into a meeting and they would be on the JR Bruno staff,” Joanna says.

Between her contractors and her abundant relationships in the industry, Joanna was able to create a nimble, minimalistic business with the resources of one much larger. When asked what made JR Bruno and Associates such a success, Joanna cites her genuine attitude, and a commitment to doing right by her clients even if it meant telling them something they may not have wanted to hear.

“We would tell bank presidents that they had a noncompliant SBA department, we would find the fault within their portfolio,” she explains. “We went into one bank, and they said, ’We don’t know what’s going on.’ We took over the department and figured out that because they didn’t know the laws, they didn’t know how to make it work successfully and close the loans properly.”

The hostility which Joanna faced at her previous jobs did not end when she created her own business. Sometimes she would be called in to fix a department only to encounter internal resistance. This never hindered her, however. “They can be macho,” she says, referring to the male employees of some of her bank clientele, “but I can be more macho.”

One day in 2007, when Joanna was considering selling her business, the SBA asked her to speak at a banker’s conference. She agreed, and the speaker after her was Gregory Kovsky. Joanna had an acquaintance who had advised her to change the name of her business, because having her name be the businesses’ name, might make it more difficult to sell. After hearing Gregory speak, Joanna pulled him aside to ask for his opinion on the matter. Gregory assured her it wouldn’t be a problem.

Impressed, Joanna hired Gregory and IBA to facilitate selling her business. “He was very conscientious,” Joanna says of Gregory. “One thing about Gregory is that you trust him, and I test really quickly whether I can trust a person or not. I don’t beat around the bush, especially when I have to pay for services, but he was sincere.”

After decades of working with the very banks that make small businesses possible, Joanna has valuable advice for entrepreneurs. “You have to be a risk-taker, that is the only way you’re going to get ahead. You have to be able to think outside the box and define yourself with a model business plan. You should have some financial background, but even the simple formula I give is key,” Joanna says, referring to the aforementioned golden rule of 1/3 of income spent on employees, 1/3 on fixed expenses, and 1/3 profit.

“What really made me successful is having the tenacity to take risks. If I failed or wasn’t successful at what I had to do or wanted to execute, I could call on that [tenacity] in a minute. It builds a resiliency in you, and there’s no way you can build resiliency and have it be genuine unless you have lived it.”

Joanna cites growing up in an immigrant family in wealthy San Marino, California, her father’s refusal to let her work in his business simply because she was a girl, and the resistance she encountered from male colleagues intimidated by her, as all having contributed to her resilience and grit.

When asked about the American Dream and what it means to her, Joanna says, “It’s really the freedom of doing whatever you can dream of, and if you can’t dream it, you can’t do it. You can’t steal somebody else’s idea and make it successful. Your goals have to be very clear in your own mind if you want to accomplish them.”

Joanna embodies the American Dream because despite coming from an immigrant family and receiving limited higher education, Joanna went on to create a highly successful business and become a valued voice in her field. Over the course of her career, she has served on the boards of 23 different organizations.

If you are a small business owner in Southern California, you likely have Joanna Bruno to thank.


Nesha Ruther

Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.