Voice of Experience: Gina Biondo, Tax Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Gina Lori Berkowitz FIMG_1765By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“Don’t be afraid to make the hard call,” said Gina Biondo, Tax Partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Stand behind the decisions you make, and get the right people behind you. You get to be a leader because you’re successful – and we need more highly visible women in leadership roles.”

She continued, “At some point, you have a responsibility as a woman to continue to help open doors for the women who will follow us.

Building a Career in Alternative Investments Tax

Biondo, a partner for 14 years, serves as the firm’s tax division lead. She is specialized in distressed debt and special opportunity hybrid classes, and works with business ranging in size from startups to established global firms.

“I’ve grown up in New York City. I started off in the New York City office of Coopers and Lybrand and I’ve been with PricewaterhouseCoopers since career start – just over 22 years.”

Biondo, who studied accounting and economics at Queens College and received her CPA and Master of Finance in taxation from Fordham, said, “I spent the first several years on the tax side on the general corporate team, working in corporate consulting. Then I moved to the financial services practice” for about the next ten years.

During that time, Biondo worked with large sophisticated investment banks and broker-dealers as well as smaller midsize capital markets firms. As the hedge fund industry started to grow she began to focus on alternative investments, hedge funds and private equity funds, as they began to break out of established institutions in the early- and mid-90s. She continued, “I have had the opportunity to continue to serve them, and I am now highly concentrated in the alternative investment space, as the leader of alternative investments tax.”

Currently, as leader of the firm’s New York Asset Management Tax Practice, Biondo runs the department, managing about 250 people, including 16 other tax partners.

In the future, she said, “I’d like to get more involved in teaching. I taught an MBA course at Fordham, and I see myself spending more time creating courses for universities in the city.”

Industry Trends

Right now, she said, the industry is changing rapidly. Besides the age-old challenge for companies to improve their bottom line and minimize costs, while managing liquidity, she explained, “Following the hardships of the financial services industry, now it’s all about the transformation of business. Financial reform is impacting the investment management side and it’s going to have a significant impact on the entire industry.”

Three industry trends are influencing the need for business transformation with regard to hedge funds and private equity funds, she continued. “The increasing investor demands for greater transparency, an exponential volume of complex information reporting, and aggressive tax legislation and enforcement agenda.”

First of all, she explained, post-Madoff, there are increased investor demands for due diligence – they’re simply asking more questions than ever before. “Investor activism has jumped. They are recognizing the complexity – and they have concerns, not only initially, but on an ongoing basis.”

Second, this means greater due diligence work, as well as ways for firms to push information out to customers throughout the year – “they want to understand their tax position.” She continued, “It’s a significant value-add about keeping investors happy.” Also, she said, “There was a lot of focus on knowing customers’ positions after 9/11 – not knowing or paying their fair share, making sure everyone is in the scope of regulations and government.”

She said, stemming from the tax side, “There are a number of changes, impacting the way tax preparation needs to report all kinds of things, like foreign bank accounts and disclosure, e-filing, etc. We are providing the government with much more information.”

“All this puts significant pressure on the financial services infrastructure, and we need to put robust processes in place, regarding information capture and streamlining, reporting data to investors, the IRS, and federal tax filing,” she explained.

And third, she said, “The government is facing significant deficits and tax is playing an even more critical role to balance that deficit – and it is looking to alternative investments to make that happen.” She explained, “The industry is no longer in its infancy – it’s seen as hugely successful and lucrative. So there is just much more auditing, looking to raise revenue.”

Accelerating the Firm’s Growth

Biondo’s proudest professional achievement came with the publishing of her first book, Hedge Funds: A Comprehensive Planning Guide in 1997, which she described as a “comprehensive, deep-dive on tax issues.” Co-authored with William Taggart, Jr., she said the book helped launch PwC into a market-place leading expert on alternative investment tax law. “It helped open doors and opportunities for the firm, and to validate the experience we had. At the time it was published, from a PwC perspective, we were a small group, and not as established in the field as other firms. It helped accelerate our growth.”

The success of the book, which took three years to write, caught Biondo off guard. She said she got requests from many funds, law firms, administrators, as well as other accounting firms, for copies of the book. “The timing was great – it was a great technical and industry piece. It documented our positions on many of the gray areas – because back then, we didn’t have tax technical rules relating to hedge funds.”

She continued, “We continue to get out-in-front on the industry issues – business is growing and issues are changing. There are always new tax rules in the marketplace. At PwC, we always pride ourselves on our thought leadership and our brand.”

“I still get requests to update the book!” she added.

Advice for Leading and Managing Women

“I wish I had known, when I was younger, the value of going slow to go fast. One of the characteristics of successful people is that they have the gift to be able to tackle multiple tasks, to delegate. Successful people are really moving at high speeds, especially our women given the family and household balancing that is done” said Biondo.

She continued, “But looking back, I wish I had thought of slowing down a bit – to build a more robust internal network focusing on relationships, to communicate what goes into some of the decisions made before moving onto the next opportunity, and to effectively communicate that to a broad group of people party to the decisions rather than just the inner circle.”

“It’s important to be seen as maintaining an open leadership style – you will be seen as performing much more thoughtfully,” she explained.

“Also,” she said, you have to be ready to take advantage of great opportunities. “It’s very important to plan ahead, but difficult to project out a particular path or opportunity. You don’t know where a particular path is going to lead – successful people know how to capitalize on opportunities. They welcome change, run at it and are happy to take on the most difficult and challenging assignments.”

For women in the industry, she said, “The main challenges relate to flexibility and role models.”

She continued, “Companies that are successful work to further women in the industry. Flexibility is always more critical and there are more challenges for mothers with children. Flexibility cannot be understated when it comes to supporting women.”

“I started as one of the first few women partners at PricewaterhouseCoopers – and I was the first woman tax partner in the NY office of Coopers and Lybrand. I manage 250 people within the investment management team here, and we have been very, very successful at the retention and development of our women. Part of the reason is that there are four women partners on my team. We have highly visible, successful female role models who can share best practices relating to work and balance and provide a comfort zone. Yes, it can be done!”

In terms of flexibility, she continued, “We recognize the need to continue retaining our most talented professionals. Each person is different as to their need for flexibility – and meeting that need is critical. Ask the person, ‘what do you think would make it work?’ and try to accommodate these requirements. Try to make them successful. When you have a team, there are more people to help support them. And it’s also a matter of being flexible on both sides.”

Biondo also commended PwC’s firm-wide efforts to attract, retain, and develop women. “But there’s always room for improvement,” she said. “More women at the top would help open doors and pave the way for even greater success.”

Advice for Women

“Work/life balance is a term that frustrates many – I know when I was coming through the ranks it was personally frustrating for me,” she said. “Instead of work/life balance, I call it work-hard/play-hard. There are times when you are extremely focused around work and other times when you have a lot of flexibility, which allows you to play hard and focus on your family or other personal commitments.”

She continued, “What works for me is setting boundaries, knowing when to say no. You can’t do everything, so you have to prioritize. It’s about working smarter and strategically – and recognizing that the rosy Cinderella world of work/life balance is not reality, but you can manage where you feel you are winning on both sides.”

“For young women, the financial services industry is particularly great. The industry continues to evolve and transform – and it really enables someone to make a mark. It’s high impact. It’s cutting edge. There are always new challenges and products. You have the opportunity to pave the way.”

She continued, “But success comes to people who really follow their passion and commit to building their expertise. It doesn’t happen overnight and much self-discipline is required. What I tell a lot of people here is to think about your career in a very strategic way and to execute and organize around key priorities. After all, it’s a career, not a job.”

As women advance in their careers, Biondo said it’s important to build a strong strategic network. “When you see very successful people, try to attach yourself to them to understand what works for them. Make sure the person who you report to understands the value you’re providing.”

She continued, “The impression you leave with others really sets the bar – it’s not just your appearance, but your attitude. Are you a team player? Are you willing to work hard? Take pride in work. Your best effort really shows. Whatever it may be, work hard, do it very well, and be happy – optimism, ambition, and your work ethic show.”

Mentoring and Networking

Biondo said she has had many mentors and role models along the way, but recalled a retired partner at PwC, Herman Schneider, who had shaped her career significantly. She said, “At a very early stage of my career he took me under his wing and showed me how it all worked.”

She explained, “He took me to high level client meetings and introduced me to his network. As a four year person I would have never been able to sit at their table. And when an opportunity came up, he’d take it, and later say he couldn’t make it and send me in his place. He pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

“His passion and energy was unmatched – he is a tremendous inspiration to me,” she added. “He was a great advocate for women at PricewaterhouseCoopers as well.” Biondo recalled how he had worked with her regarding work/life issues at a time when many men would have been uncomfortable discussing those issues. “He didn’t have much of a filter – we had some candid conversations,” she said with a laugh.

She continued, “At PwC, we focus on diversity because we know it’s good for business – it’s as simple as that. It’s also the right thing to do.”

“We really try to bake diversity into what we do, day-in and day-out, and make sure everyone understands and sees our commitment to diversity from the top down and on the ground level, as well.” Biondo explained that at PwC’s leadership level, there is always someone at the table who “wears the diversity hat.” Biondo, who is the diversity leader on the tax side said, “It shows our commitment to diversity that cannot be understated.”

Additionally, she said, PwC has many special programs designed to improve the attraction and retention of women. Mentor Moms, in particular, is an initiative “designed to connect new mothers with other PwC moms. They connect to someone who is high performing, and serves as a sounding board and provides advice.”

“Last year we launched an initiative called Women Up Front, and also we have an ongoing ‘Candid Conversations’ series, focusing on issues like life changes and women and ambition.”

In Her Spare Time

In her spare time, Biondo, who is married and has three children, says she enjoys staying active and playing sports – running, skiing, softball, and basketball.

She said, “I have my hands full with three very active children and a demanding career. When you look at activities, sports are a great way to connect us and the local community. Playing sports was always important to me – softball and basketball – and now I’m very happy to be able to do the same with my family. Sports taught me team work and how to compete, which carries over to the business world.”

She continued, “At one point I was playing a lot of golf – I had my score down to the mid 90s level. I’m rebuilding my golf game, but I’m doing it with my kids now. We have a lot of fun, and it’s important for business.”

“It comes back to that balance issue – whatever you like to do, make sure you find time to do it.”

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