Charlie Kochka, the Chief Lending Officer at Meridian Bank, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in a small New Jersey town 40 miles northwest of New York City, working at his father’s Ford dealership, playing baseball and football in high school, and what he like most about Bucknell University.
Kochka also discussed first meeting Chris Annas, the current CEO of Meridian Bank, in 1982, why he enjoys community service, and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the bank.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born the second of five children, my twin is eight minutes older than me, and raised in Bloomingdale, New Jersey, a small, blue-collar town forty miles northwest of New York City.
What did your parents do?
My father owned a Ford dealership – Kochka Ford, which was started by my grandfather and his brother, Charlie, whom I’m named after. My father and his brother took it over from my grandfather. I began working there was a young kid – unpaid of course – sweeping floors, washing cars, and other tasks. I thought about taking over the business at some point, but they sold the dealership in the 1970s when I was in junior high. At that point, I think I already figured out that I wanted to be a banker.
My mom was a stay-at-home mom. She and my father met at Rider College in Trenton. After graduation, she worked in New York City for Standard Oil as an administrative assistant for one of the executives. After my parents got married, she stayed home with my twin brother and me, who came nine months and two weeks after the wedding!
What memories do you have of growing up in Bloomingdale?
I grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s. My greatest memories are spending all day out on my bike with friends in the summertime. We would ride all over town and play ball at the local field. My mom just wanted me to show up for dinner at 5:30. There was no worry back then.
Did you play any sports?
I played baseball from little league through high school. I was an outfielder and had a very good arm. I wasn’t the best hitter against a curveball though.
My real sport was football. I played from 8th grade through high school on the Varsity team at Butler High School. I was a defensive end and offensive guard. I was much bigger back then, bench pressing almost three hundred pounds and running a 4.9 forty-yard dash. I made all-conference and all area teams my senior year, which got the attention of a few college programs.
Did you play football in college?
I was recruited by four schools – Lafayette, Lehigh, Colgate, and Bucknell. When I walked on Bucknell’s campus, I knew that’s where I belonged. I played in two games at Bucknell before deciding I had “other interests.” While I loved football, I just couldn’t ignore the social aspects of college. It was just time to move on.
Do you ever regret not playing?
Not really. In high school, my team won a couple championships. We had a fantastic team with really great players and coaches. That was enough glory for me. It’s nice to look back on my playing days, but I don’t regret leaving the team at Bucknell.
What was your first job?
My first unpaid job was at the dealership. My first paying job was at a neighborhood deli and grocery store where I sliced meats and made sandwiches at lunchtime. The sandwiches were not that good when I started so not a lot of people came into the store. Without telling the owner, I began putting in more slices of meat and throw in a pickle here and there. Customers began telling their friends, and more people were showing up to Larry’s Deli! At one point, the line was all the way to the back of the store. The owner was thrilled!
What takeaways do you have from that job?
If you give people an exceptional customer experience, they tell their friends, and you get new customers. It’s been a lesson I’ve taken with me everywhere I’ve gone.
What music were you listening to back then?
I was all over the place, listening to anything from the Grateful Dead to Stevie Wonder to Earth Wind and Fire. It wasn’t classic back then, but that’s what it would be generalized as today. Allman Brothers, Santana, Rolling Stones, I loved it all.
We had a concert series at Bucknell and both Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen came and performed. To this day, I’m still a huge fan of both. The rumor is Springsteen was paid $2,000 to play at Bucknell that night for 2,000 people. It was an incredible experience for me. I own every Bruce album ever made.
Let’s go back to Bucknell. You just knew you wanted to go to Bucknell?
Yes, it just felt comfortable. The four schools I narrowed it down to were all respectable schools. I was a good student and had the grades to get into any of them. Bucknell is a small school, so I got to know my fellow students, as well as my professors. I knew I wanted to be in a small school environment. The campus is beautiful. I joined a fraternity – Theta Chi – and I’m still very close with twenty or so of my fraternity brothers. We have a golf outing every year and some holiday parties.
When did you first start to take notice of your leadership ability?
I began gravitating toward leadership positions in high school. I was a leader on the football team, and I was on Student Council. Additionally, I ran for “Principal for the Day” and won. I had friends that crossed over every label group. I took people for who they were and was of the mind that if you’re a nice person, you’re a nice person.
Where do you think the approach of taking people for who they are came from?
That talent came from my parents. My dad particularly had a personality where everyone just wanted to be around him. He listened. He was funny. He was loyal to his friends. He set a great example to me growing up. My parents would have their friends over for parties, and I would always see how his friends were taken with him as he would tell stories. He was my best friend.
Was that a skill you took from your father?
I never set out to “be a leader.” I was just being myself, and people would tend to gravitate to me. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received, and I’ve gotten it a few times, is that when people talk to me, they feel that they’re the only person in the world. I listen, engage, and focus on each person I’m talking with.
So you get out of college, who are the people that help you get to where you are today?
My first job out of college was with a small community bank not too far from where I grew up in North Jersey. After a few years, I wanted to experience working for a larger bank in a metropolitan area. I had a lot of friends from Bucknell who settled in the Philadelphia area, and they encouraged me to leave New Jersey and come to the Philadelphia area.
I interviewed at a few banks, but with two years of experience, I had little commercial lending experience or training. I applied for a junior commercial lender job with Industrial Valley Bank (IVB). The Regional VP at the time was a gentleman named Bob Campbell. Bob knew I had limited experience, but he saw something in my personality, and he took a chance on me. I’ll be forever grateful to Bob for taking that chance.
The other person who has been critical to my career is Chris Annas, President & CEO of Meridian Bank.
How did you meet Chris?
Chris and I, as well as Joe Cafarchio, worked at IVB together in 1982. Joe was in the Philadelphia division, Chris in Chester County, and I was in Montgomery County. We all got to know one another very well and became friends. I ended up working with Chris three times after that. In 2010 he hired me at Meridian for our fourth opportunity to work together. I really admire Chris. He’s given me so many opportunities over the last thirty years. He’s a visionary and always three steps ahead of everyone else in terms of ideas for growth.
What do you think Chris brings to the table that makes him so unique?
He is always thinking about what’s next. He’s in the moment, but he hires others to execute his ideas while he’s on to the next move. His focus is always on the next product, service, and approach. Chris is also very technologically savvy, and is always looking for ways to streamline processes using technology.
What do you bring to the relationship that compliments what Chris brings?
I’m sort of the go-to person here day-to-day, particularly on the lending side, when someone needs something done or has an idea. Many times, they will come to me first, and then we will take the idea to Chris for his blessing. It’s a unique organization where egos are checked at the door. We have a fantastic relationship in terms of friendship and trust.
What was it like to take the bank public and be there to ring Nasdaq’s bell in 2017?
Taking Meridian Bank public was the proudest achievement in my banking career. There were four of us on the Road Trip: Chris, Joe, our CFO Denise Lindsay and me. We did over 45 face to face meetings with investor groups in 6 business days, in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. It all paid off as we watched the first trade on the morning of November 7th. Ringing the closing bell was the icing on the cake!
We are halfway through 2019, what challenges and opportunities are you and the Meridian Bank facing as you head into the rest of the year and 2020?
Banking is very competitive right now and getting more competitive. We have banks coming in from other geographic regions that are putting pressure on all of us to continue to grow. We have really taken advantage of market disruption with mergers and acquisitions and attracted a very solid team. When banks merge, there’s fallout on the customer and employee level.
Because we are growing at 20% a year, the customers are coming, and the top lending talent is coming as well. We are always looking for new people and have been able to gather a great team from top to bottom. We’ve become known as a lender-friendly bank, particularly because of Chris and my background. The top lenders are looking for support, quick decisions, and a culture where most of the customers know the CEO and Chief Lending Officer personally.
We have customer events throughout the year that bring our customers together to get to know one another and do business together. It’s almost like a club. Our motto is, “we are building this bank one beer at a time!”
You haven’t built many branches?
We have not. When Chris started the bank in 2004, online banking technology was emerging. We were starting the bank just as mobile banking was coming on board so we embraced it. It allowed us to grow quickly in all regions, despite only having two branches in Chester County. Three years ago, we embarked on a one-branch-per-county strategy. As we tried to do business in Delaware, Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, the markets and the business community kept telling us we needed a physical presence in that county. We opened branches in Media, Doylestown, Blue Bell, and last year, Center City Philadelphia. We’ve been accepted by all of those markets, with experienced lenders stationed in each office that know those markets.
What do people see in Meridian that has allowed you to grow your bank at such a rapid pace?
Businesses get called on by so many banks. We have a team that is known in the market, have a solid reputation and following, and they know the people who are reviewing and approving their loans. Our customers know who their decision makers are because they’re in Malvern or in Media, and not several states away. You might even see the Chief Lending Officer standing in line at Wawa!
In addition, we encourage our employees to be on nonprofit boards and volunteer in their community. We sponsor days of service at various nonprofits and send a group of employees to work for the day. Community service is embedded in our culture. Personally, I’m currently on the Board of the United Way of Chester County, and spent many years on the Boards of the West Chester YMCA and Seedcopa.
What do you personally get out of the community service?
I get the satisfaction of knowing I’m helping people. It’s not a resume builder or a discussion point. Serving on a board is the right thing to do. When you’re with people who are likeminded and want to help, you build relationships and become friends. People like to do business with people they like. I’m paid to do what I love – be out in the community representing an organization I love. I’m in my office at 6:00 AM every morning because I just want to be there!
What else do you do with your free time?
I like to play golf – not very well, but I enjoy the game a lot.
I also spend time with my ten-month-old granddaughter and seventeen-month-old grandson. That’s a lot of fun.
What’s the best golf course you’ve ever played?
I’ve been lucky enough to play Merion twice. To me, that’s the nicest piece of ground God ever created. To me, it’s more of the aura. Walking on the same grass that Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus, all the greats in the game of golf. The first time I played Merion, I barely remembered the actual game itself. I was in awe of the entire experience.
Finally, Charlie, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
When I went off to college, my father said two things. He said, “I don’t care what you do in your life and what you become, you just have to do the best you can and be the best you can be in whatever you do.” He also said, “don’t ever let anyone outwork you.” He had a solid work ethic that I try to emulate. I’m in my office from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM then off to an event at night. A twelve- or fourteen-hour day is pretty typical for me, and I love every minute of it.
Publisher’s Note: Laura Wagnor contributed to this Chester County Leadership profile.