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Joseph Ficalora, the Queens Boy at the Top of the Bank: An Italian-American Dream

A conversation with the President, CEO and Director of the New York Community Bank on how his Italian family influenced his success.

Joseph R. Ficalora.

“American Dream, Italian Way” is our new series that tells the stories of the success of Italian-Americans who made their American dream come true within just a generation. What was the secret of their success? What kind of role did their Italian origins play in their career? Could we define it as an "American Dream, the Italian Way”? The first installment focuses on Joseph R. Ficalora, who leads one of the most important banks on Long Island.

Joseph Ficalora is President, Chief Executive Officer and a Director of New York Community Bancorp Inc. (the “Company”) and New York Community Bank (the “Bank”). The Company was incorporated as Queens County Bancorp, Inc., on July 20, 1993, to serve as the holding company for Queens County Savings Bank which was established on April 14, 1859 – the first savings bank chartered by the State of New York in the New York City Borough of Queens. That is the bank where the young “Joe” Ficalora took his first steps in the business and banking world.

The New York Stock Exchange welcomes New York Community Bancorp, Inc. (NYSE: NYCB) to celebrate its 25th anniversary of listing. President and CEO Joseph Ficalora, joined by NYSE Executive Vice Chairman Betty Liu, rings The Opening Bell®.

We meet him in Manhattan near Penn Station, one of the places where his bank, primarily based on Long Island, is located.

He tells us that his family is originally from Sicily and that, he was recently invited to visit Castellammare del Golfo by its mayor. Castellammare del Golfo is, in fact, the town from which his father’s family originates, while his mother, on the other hand, hails from the Catania area.

Joseph Ficalora with his grandmother (left) and his wife Alice (right).

“My mother’s family produced pistachios. I remember that as children—and even just recently–my brothers and I would look at pictures of my great grandfather and think of him as an evil man. [In one of the pictures] he looked very stern, you know, like the boss. His tiny wife was covered in silk and he was sitting there like a king,” Ficalora recalls, making lively gestures suggestive of his Italian blood.

Ficalora, recently honored as the Man of the Year by Tony Di Piazza’s Associazione Culturale Italiana Di New York, has no first-hand knowledge of Castellammare del Golfo, but he describes it as the fishing village that it used to be a long time ago, its inhabitants the result of a genetic and cultural melting pot created by the forces of history that the town had lived through. Thanks to that ethnic mix, and contrary to the stereotype familiar to many, his father’s family had extraordinarily fair skin, blue eyes, and freckles, and as he says, “they came from the sea.”

His people immigrated to the US in the 1920s. His father’s parents, married here in the States, settled in the Lower East Side, while his maternal grandparents married in Italy and settled in Washington Heights at a time when it was still an Italian enclave. “I grew up in Corona, Queens, where almost all of my friends were Italian. I had one Greek friend – feeling bad because he was the only Greek kid in the neighborhood. The first African American person that I knew was my sixth-grade teacher, the only African American teacher in the school.”

So young Joseph and his two brothers John and Jim grew up in a deeply Italian environment.

“When I lived there, there was only one Jewish family that I knew and one Greek family. Everyone else was Italian, first generation,” he continues. And yet, “my mother and my father made sure that I would not learn Italian. You need to speak English,” they would say. No doubt they feared that flaunting your foreign origins would lead to being discriminated against, as often happened, or even prove to be a handicap to success. “Both my mother and my father, when they started going to school in this country, could only speak Italian and both of them graduated from high school. The idea that a young Italian girl, speaking only Italian, graduated from high school was not so common.”

Mr. Ficalora with his brother, John.

Ficalora speaks with pride and admiration of his parents. “They were both furriers. They didn’t have much money, I don’t want to say that we weren’t eating, but we weren’t necessarily eating good. And one of the things that my mother would say to us was to finish everything in our dish because there were poor children starving in China.”

Joseph’s first job, at the age of 15, was in a grocery store not far from the neighborhood elementary school. A year and a half later his future sister-in-law – his brother’s fiancée at that time – got him a job at the Bank where she worked, earning herself a 25 dollar Series E-Bond in the process. Nevertheless, once she married Joseph’s brother, he had to wait for her to resign before he could start work there in order to avoid a conflict of interest. “When I got in the Bank, it was obvious to me that I would do what they want me to do and I happened to be the person that they literally found very convenient to train, so I was likable and capable of doing many different tasks in the banking operations.”

Joseph Ficalora wearing the military uniform.

At that time, the great majority of the customers were Italian. Ficalora still remembers the long lines of people waiting to see a teller, and his line, he frankly admits, was always the longest because they trusted and had confidence in him. However, his employment at the bank was cut short by the Vietnam War. “I was in college and I wanted to be in the military and I chose to become a psychiatric specialist. So, I took some tests and I qualified to actually go for training in the southwest where I had to join for 3 years.” After having completed the 3 years of training, he left. It was 1968 and the Tet Offensive meant a massive deployment of men, means, and supplies. The following period, in the Psychiatric Division at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he provided support to traumatized military personnel and their families, is still vivid in his memory. “There was no other time in the history of the US when people dedicating their lives to serving other Americans in the military were treated so badly. We were characterized as baby killers and in many negative ways. The reality is that it had a psychological impact on many soldiers – even after they returned to the U.S.”

When the war ended, the Bank was there waiting for him. “Out of the military, I returned to the Bank, that thankfully recognized my military service, and the day I returned the personnel officer had just that day become the president. He invited me to his office and shared with me the glowing things that were said about me by the manager of our Corona branch, and he said, ‘I am establishing a management training program and I want you to be the first person in the program.’ I was given the opportunity to be trained to actually be an officer in the company and that resulted in me becoming the Deputy Auditor very early in that program. I was fortunate enough to get promoted and I had a lot of responsibilities and I ended up being the President.”

The New York Stock Exchange welcomes New York Community Bancorp, Inc. (NYSE: NYCB) to celebrate its 25th anniversary of listing. President and CEO Joseph Ficalora, joined by NYSE Executive Vice Chairman Betty Liu, rings The Opening Bell®.

Among all the kids with whom he grew up in Corona, only a few made it. “By the time I was 22 and I came back from the service, got married with Alice and left Corona, only 4 out of 13 guys whom I grew up with were not dead or in prison,” he recalls. “To the credit of my parents, they had 3 boys, all of whom earned their way through college. The distinction between me and the guys next door was the values created by my parents. When I was young working in the bank my father said, ‘Joe, take a job with your uncle Henry, this Bank, I don’t think this is the future for you. Your uncle Henry works for the NYC Sanitation Department, they have a union.’ I didn’t take his advice on that. Unfortunately, he died young and never saw how successful we are,” he adds.

Joseph R. Ficalora and his wife Alice.

Joseph doesn’t think that being Italian-American, in itself, has helped him establish his brilliant career. In his opinion, it is rather the values that his parents inculcated in him.

“Values matter more than nationality, especially if you have values created by family and you respect family and the Italian values of your families.” As for the banking business, he believes that “Since banking is a serving business, the Italians are obviously suited to the serving businesses, but there are many other serving businesses that are not banking. I don’t know if banking is more prone to be an Italian business.” What he can say with confidence is that “Italian-Americans are comfortable helping other people dealing with the financial issues and other things. Italian-Americans and Italians are people who actually like people, and are comfortable doing things for others who don’t have to be Italians.”

Prejudice though, he has experienced first-hand. “The first time I saw prejudice was when I went to school. There were other kids that didn’t come from Corona in High School. When I got to the military, I saw even more prejudice. It surprised me. No question that the first time I was exposed to prejudice because I was Italian really surprised me. It was a disappointed reaction to something that I had heard of, but I had never experienced.”

As for all the controversy surrounding Christopher Columbus, Ficalora doesn’t take it very seriously. “Had Columbus not come to the New World, it might have been found by somebody else, some years later. I think recognizing what Columbus did is a good thing.” However, he also mentions a rather unfamiliar version of Columbus’ origin, having heard that in fact, he was not from Genoa, but “comes from a Greek island” offering as proof the final “S” in the English version of Columbus’ name.

In answer to our question as to why he thinks that the US has not yet elected an Italian-American President despite the great abundance of actors, directors, writers, politicians and business people in the Italian-American community, Ficalora once again mentions prejudice, suggesting that, “I am going to guess that the general prejudice of the American populace would not necessarily find an Italian American as acceptable to the majority of the people. There is a great difference between being a serving businessman and a politician. Politicians don’t serve other than themselves, but Italians have a long history of serving people.” That prejudice that Ficalora frequently refers to must have made a great impression in his life. The important thing though, is that we don’t let prejudice become an obstacle in our way. Certainly, Ficalora has not allowed that to happen.

Edited by Grace Bullaro

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