Barry Pelagatti, a Partner at RKL LLP, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in South Philadelphia, how he began working when he was 12 as a paperboy for the Daily News, and why he can attribute the success he’s had in his professional career to that and the other job he held as a teenager.
Pelagatti, who, interestingly, was the Bowling MVP of the Philadelphia Catholic League during his senior year of high school, also discussed his education at St. Joseph’s University, the people who helped him get to where he is today, and the challenges associated with growing RKL in the Delaware Valley.
Where were you born and where did you grow up, Barry?
I was born the oldest of two children and the oldest grandchild in Philadelphia and raised around 18th and Mifflin in South Philadelphia, not far from the stadiums. When I was a freshman in high school, my family moved from South Philadelphia over the Passyunk Avenue bridge to Southwest Philadelphia. My sister and I felt like we were moving across the country, but in reality, it was only three miles.
What did your parents do for a living?
My dad worked his entire career at INA, an insurance company in Center City Philadelphia, which became Cigna and then eventually ACE. He was there for more than forty years until he retired.
My mom primarily was a stay-at-home mom, and she also managed a Catholic school uniform store in South Philadelphia.
What memories do you have of growing up in South and Southwest Philadelphia?
The sheer volume of kids! There was always something to do. All you had to do was walk outside, and you had kids to play with. I grew up in the same area as my grandparents, aunts and uncles. There were no play dates or drop-offs and pick-ups. You just went outside to play with whoever was around. You would go home when the street lights came on for dinner, and that was pretty much it!
What was your first job?
My first real job was a paperboy for the Philadelphia Daily News. My route covered a few square miles! I would get the papers after school, collect the cash, and keep track of the payments. I did that from twelve years old to fifteen.
When I was sixteen, I became a busboy at a family-run Italian restaurant near Penn’s Landing. I worked there for six years as a busboy, waiter, and caterer. I had that job through college.
You started working at twelve years old. Where did that work ethic come from?
My parents always told me that if I wanted ‘stuff,’ I would need money to pay for the ‘stuff.’ Well, back then I liked ‘stuff’! Still do! Growing up in that neighborhood, it was always about who had the nicest sneakers. I always wanted the nicest sneakers and the newest clothes. My parents told me the best way they could give me what I wanted was for me to go out and work for it. So that’s what I did.
What life lessons did you take from those experiences that took with you today?
Whatever success I have achieved in my professional career, I can attribute to my first two jobs as a paperboy and working in the restaurant. In any customer service capacity, you learn the importance of communication and learning to read and understand people. The customer is always right! It’s not just about the deliverable, it’s about the people as well. I learned that at a very early age.
Did you play any sports?
I played baseball most of my childhood, and I bowled. Bowling was big in South Philadelphia. We had a league that started in grade school. My parents ran the CYO league at St. Monica’s School, which had a bowling alley underneath the school at 16th and Shunk. My highest game was a 278, and I was the MVP of the Catholic League my senior year of high school.
In college, between working and commuting my first couple of years, all my energies were focused on academics.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
I still listen to it today on Sirius radio! I loved rap and hip hop. I was a fan of LL Cool J and Stevie B. South Philadelphia has a great history of music. My friends and I would go to the local teen clubs to listen to dance and just hang out. Every time I hear it on the radio now, I just remember going to those teen clubs with my friends back then.
Where did you go to college and how did you get there?
I went to St. Joseph’s University on City Line Avenue in Philadelphia. In high school, I thought of pursuing a degree at The Art Institute because I was interested in animation. My parents, being pragmatic, wondered how I would make a living in animation and encouraged me to think about that decision before committing to it.
I thought maybe I would be interested in engineering and was accepted early to Drexel.
I was offered a partial scholarship to St. Joe’s and planned to be an engineering major, but the program was canceled before I started there. I figured I’m good at math, so I decided on Accounting.
Was St. Joe’s a good decision?
Absolutely! St. Joe’s was an excellent decision for me! It was the right size institution for me. It reminded me a lot of growing up in South Philadelphia. I knew most of the people in my classes, and my professors looked out for me. It felt like home.
Since graduating, I’ve taught as an adjunct professor, and I’ve recruited many team members from St. Joe’s.
Who helped you get to where you are today?
There was a level of confidence I had when I graduated from college that I knew I wanted to be successful, but that I wanted to do it on my own terms. I saw my dad a lot when I was little. While he worked hard at his company, he never missed any games and was always home for dinner.
When I graduated in 1994, the “Big Six” firms were hiring at all the schools, and the reputation was that you’d be traveling a lot in the first few years and you’d have little say in your career path. I had a few offers from the Big Six, but I knew that wasn’t for me. Instead, I took a job with Grant Thornton, a national middle-market focused accounting firm with local clients and less travel.
One of my managers at Grant Thornton, Sam Marcozzi, was nontraditional and helped me understand that importance of staying true to myself and not compromising my principles. Sam encouraging me to stick to my values is what really kickstarted my success in the field.
What did Sam Marcozzi see in you?
I wish I were more retrospective in the moment to ask Sam why he invested his time in me. Filling in the blanks, I think he saw someone he knew he could trust and if I wasn’t comfortable with something, I’d go to him for guidance.
After Grant Thornton, how did you get to RKL?
I feel like I have always had the same job, but my route is circuitous. I left Grand Thornton in 2003 when they were growing and focusing on large companies.
I was spending a lot of time in New York and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I told my boss I respected the company’s desire to upstream, but I wanted to focus on regional and community-based companies who needed accountants to work to work with them.
There was a company in Central PA, Beard Miller Company (BMC), looking to grow their community banking practice into southeastern Pennsylvania.
I reached out to someone in their office about making a career move, and it was a right place, right time match. As soon as I moved to Beard Miller, we won some big accounts in the Philadelphia and suburban Philadelphia area.
They made me a partner in 2006 helping run the Malvern office. I worked there from 2003 to 2009 when we merged with Parente Randolph. It was a tough merger because there wasn’t a lot of overlap between geography and coverage.
We figured we would double our team size and have more critical mass. But then the financial crisis hit in 2008! Over the next five years we soldiered through it, maintained our team and grew our practice but it was tough.
In 2013, our banking practice was acquired in 2013 by BDO USA. Eleven other partners, 100 employees and I transitioned our practice over to BDO. That was an excellent opportunity for all of us.
Very quickly, I found myself back at a large company, having been a partner for 7 years, and becoming a co-leader of BDO’s national financial service practice in 2017 and asking myself if this was what I really wanted to do. At that time, I am married with three young daughters at home. I was back to traveling a lot, so I began to rethink where I wanted to be professionally.
Many of the individuals I worked with at BMC went to a company called RKL, which has a well-developed financial services practice and was looking to expand east toward Philadelphia. Similar to Beard Miller, I found myself back in those conversations, and now I’m managing the Exton office for RKL!
I’ve been here for two years. RKL is doing very well, and I’m delighted with where I landed.
Going back through my 25-year career, I think treating people right, always staying in touch and making sure people had help if they needed it, that’s what made me successful. Individuals that I hired out of schools are now CFOs at financial institutions or partners at CPA firms, and I’ve kept in touch with most of them.
In 2019, what are the challenges and opportunities for RKL?
Our top challenge at RKL is providing great client service. Every day, the world is getting more complex. All our clients have their own plans and want to grow. We want to be our client’s first phone call. If there’s something that’s keeping them up at night, call us. If we cannot answer their questions, we will find someone to answer their questions.
We are trying to grow our brand in the suburban Philadelphia market. Our clients in central and western PA know us. When I’m filling up gas in my RKL jacket, someone recognizes the RKL logo and talks to me. We’re not as well known in the Philadelphia market yet.
Our goal here in southeastern PA is to grow our client base, create relationships, and get that type of brand recognition we have in other parts of the tri-state area. We want to support the local charities and be a part of the local communities.
Finally, we want to help our younger generation of team members have the same experience that I’ve been fortunate enough to have in my career.
Whether they are with us for two years or work their way to partner, I want them to look back on their career, and say, I’ve been able to get where I am today because of what I’ve learned at RKL and the things that Barry taught me when I was just getting started.
How challenging is it to find the talent you need to grow RKL’s Delaware Valley presence?
There’s a constant challenge with hiring and retaining younger team members. We are in a very competitive hiring market, and students are very prepared coming out of college, so we try and be as visible as possible. We are on campuses, at the career fairs, recruiting new hires.
RKL is progressive and very much a 21st-century professional service firm. We embrace technology, new office spaces with open work environments, remote technology, a work-life integration, and flexible work arrangements.
I always go back to the experience we are providing our team members. We take great pride in treating our team as family members and want them to understand they are incredibly valued.
Finally, Barry, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?
It’s simple – be yourself! Don’t try to be anything other than that. I wish I could make it sound more complicated, but it’s not! Whenever I was ever stressed, I always went back to who I was to get back to stable ground.