Chester County Leadership: Joseph Cafarchio, Executive Vice President, Meridian Bank

Joe Cafarchio
Image via Meridian Bank.
Joe Cafarchio

Joe Cafarchio, Executive Vice President at Meridian Bank, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up as the second oldest of eight children in East Syracuse, New York. He told how he learned responsibility at an early age by helping take care of his younger siblings, including cooking dinners from scratch.

As a teenager, Cafarchio fell in love with “funky jazz” and became a professional tenor sax player touring the East Coast. From there, he attended Wharton School of Business and made the unlikely transition to commercial banking. He recounted his career path and described what he loves about mentoring young people in the banking industry.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born the second child and the oldest boy in a family of eight children in East Syracuse, New York.

What did your parents do?

My mom was a teacher and my dad worked three jobs. His main job was selling furniture in a furniture store.

What memories stay with you from growing up in Syracuse?

I basically worked my whole life. We had a big family. My older sister was like the second mother, and I was her right-hand man. We did all the cooking, cleaning, and gardening. I remember, as a really young kid, shoveling snow for the neighbors. I think I got a dollar, maybe two dollars, per driveway. And then in the summer, I would mow their lawns. I also did some babysitting.

What were the first real part-time jobs that you had?

I was a paper boy when I was 10 or 11 years old. Despite the weather, we never ever missed a delivery. When I collected all the money – I got $13 at the end of the week – I’d go buy a can of soda, some candy, and a muffin.

When I was 16, I started working at the grocery store. We would go in and unload these huge trucks. Those were long hours, sometimes 8:00 to midnight.

What lessons did you learn from those jobs that stay with you today?

I learned that if you’re part of a group, you have to contribute whatever you can. I also learned how to train other people, because my younger brothers and sisters were almost like my own kids, so I had to set an example.

You were part of the original gig economy as a kid. Where did your work ethic come from?

From my parents – my mom was a teacher and my dad worked a lot. They both worked hard to support our family. My mom would come home from school and be really tired. When I wanted to eat, my two sisters and I would cook. When I made anything, it was homemade. If I made spaghetti, the sauce and the meatballs were totally from scratch. If I wanted dessert, it was a pie or a cake completely from scratch.

What do you think your parents instilled in you?

They set a great example for our whole family to become successful in any career. My mom was a musician, and we’re all musicians. Prior to being a banker, I was a professional musician. My mom instilled music as a secondary career in all of us. My grandfather – my mom’s father – gave me his alto sax. In fourth grade, I started playing alto sax in school where my siblings also played in band. I still play the saxophone today.

Dad was a very, very honest salesman. If somebody wanted to buy a fancy sofa, he’d suggest a different one that wasn’t as expensive. He really thought about what was right for the family who was buying the sofa instead of what was right for his commission.

It’s clear, that music played a key role in your upbringing. Who were your favorite artists?

I like funky blues – Stevie Wonder, Jaco Pastorius, and Herbie Hancock. These artists played funky jazz that was different and modern, almost electric. I always wanted to be a musician, and they played music that spoke to me.

Even though at school I was not as smart as my two sisters, who are pretty smart, near the end of school I was drum major and the tenor sax guy in the jazz band and concert band. I was in about five bands.

Did you play any sports at all?

No, I played in a rock band starting at age 16. We traveled all around New York state. I was kind of embarrassed in high school when the gym teacher would teach us any sport or how to get stronger. So I started lifting weights on my own, and by the time I was 22, I was 35 pounds heavier and really strong. Focusing on my music and school was more important to me, and my teachers told me “Joe, you’re good at biology and chemistry.”  

Where did you go to college?

I went to SUNY Oswego for Bio-Chemistry. Every Friday afternoon, at 3:00, I would get picked up to play that night and Saturday night. So I missed what most college students do on the weekend – get drunk and meet girls at a party – but all jokes aside, I didn’t connect as a college student other than taking the courses. Economics stuck out to me the most.

Then I joined a band in Syracuse and went on the road. All young people, whether they’re musicians, artists, or athletes, they think they’re going to be a pro – and technically I was. We got transportation, nice hotels to live in, and food, but not a lot of money.

Whenever I played in Philly, I thought, “This is a cool city.” I’m Italian, so “Rocky” was big during that time and the city appealed to me as our band slowed down. This is when I met a woman from the audience named Margie.

She was a teacher in western Pennsylvania who grew up in Williamsport. She had been teaching for three years in the western suburbs of Pennsylvania. She seemed really down-to-earth and honest and athletic, but very pretty. Her name was Margie, and she became my wife in 1979. She was thinking of quitting her job and moving to Philadelphia, and I said, “I’m going to move to Philadelphia too.”

So, we both quit our jobs. She moved in with a girlfriend in Lansdowne and I moved into Philly. I took a one-way ticket on a bus. My life savings was $500. Just north of City Hall, you could rent a room that had a bed and a dresser, period. I’m still proud that I moved to Philly, even though I didn’t have a job or anything.

How did you end up at Wharton?

I started realizing that if I wanted to make more money, I needed a better job. I worked six nights a week as a manager at a 7-Eleven. I was established in the Philly area, I had a job, and everything was great. However, my wife’s parents in Williamsport thought, “He doesn’t have a degree, he doesn’t make much money, he’s not ugly, but maybe not the best husband.”

So I applied for a job at Westinghouse Electric Supply. They said, “Joe, you don’t really have any experience, sorry.” In the newspaper, there was an ad for an accounting support guy for a chain of nursing homes, and I got hired for that. So now I had a real accounting job, and three months later, I went back to Westinghouse and said, “Now I’m experienced in accounting,” so they hired me.

I was doing accounting at Westinghouse, and the guys who had degrees made a lot more money than us clerks did. One of my coworkers said, “I’m going to go to night school, and Westinghouse will pay for the tuition.” He was going to the University of Pennsylvania for business. Don’t laugh, but I had never heard of Wharton. I didn’t know it was the best business school in the world.

Some of it was way over my head, so I had to backtrack and repeat intermediate accounting just to get a good grade. I was taking macroeconomics and learning about the Federal Reserve Bank, which was right down the street. They hired me right on the spot because I was interested. I was at the Fed for four years, and I went to night school four nights a week. I wanted to hurry and catch up with my friends who had been working for four years. Somehow, I kind of grew up and graduated with honors in Accounting and Management.

You also found your calling in banking at that point, right?

Well, that was by accident. I always loved macroeconomics. Fidelity Bank was going to hire me – they did a lot of Pennsylvania bonds. I got along well with the manager, but he could only hire from the training program. He told me to call a friend of his at Industrial Valley Bank, and they hired me. Ever since then I’ve been in commercial banking.

When I interviewed at IVB, they knew I was motivated, because I was married and we had our first baby on the way. They could hear the motivation. I think they liked that I loved macroeconomics, and I was an accounting major.

Who were the people who trusted you and gave you a break?

When I was in the clerical department at IVB as a credit analyst, they had a loan office out in West Chester, and there was a lender there named Christopher Annas. They said, “We’ve got this Joe guy here, he’s an analyst, he wants to become a lender.” He said, “Okay, send him out to West Chester and I’ll bring him on some customer calls and a prospect call.” It was so cool. He was negotiating with the prospect and he was nice to the customer and he was very flexible. We stayed in touch until Chris hired me at Meridian Bank in 2004.

What are you focused on and what are your priorities now, Joe?

My personal favorite thing that I’ve brought to the bank – I’ll meet a kid that’s 22, 23, and they were going to be a lawyer or a CPA or something. They didn’t like what they were doing, but they have skills that work in banking. Every summer we would bring them in for two months. I just loved training them and meeting young, ambitious students from different schools.

We want them to know banking’s fun, too. It’s not just accounting. The difficult thing is, you get kids who are good at economics and accounting, then train them for two years and then they’re going to go into sales to become a negotiator and a manager. It’s not an easy task. A great salesperson might not be great at credit, and a great credit person might not be a good negotiator.

When we were young, we had maybe one-quarter of the volume they do today, and a loan officer might have one-quarter of the number of customers. The return on assets for the bank depends on existing employees being more and more productive, so that’s the challenge now. The software is phenomenal, but you still need employees who are down-to-earth and have street smarts. If everything’s computer-generated, there’s possible fraud. You really need to stay involved with the customers.

What do you bring to the world of banking that’s different and unique?

Ironically, it was my music and travel experience that gave me a sense of intuition. When you travel to all those cities, you show up on time, you learn about the local market, you’re respectful to the owners, and you enjoy the food and walking around the neighborhood. There’s something deep inside that you can kind of adapt to. You have to be very, very flexible. That’s what a banker needs. It’s not something on a computer. It’s a gut feeling, and probably except for four or five times in my life, I was right. Most of the time, experienced people are right.

Joe Cafarchio playing Sax
Joe playing Sax.

I also became sort of a specialist and learned some industry knowledge that helped me connect with customers. A lot of bankers think they’re smarter than the business owners, but they’re not. If you’re humble and listen and know there’s a specialty, you learn a lot, and they like that.

What do you like to do with your free time?

I still do music – not as much, but I play maybe twice a month between the Jersey Shore and the Philadelphia suburbs. I play tenor sax in what you would call a rock and roll band. I quit for a long time, but I got back into it in the mid-90s. Now I just do it for fun. It’s a blast. People can’t believe an old fart banker is playing.

In this crazy world we live in, what gives you hope, Joe?

I always pray that whatever horrible diseases and wars we go through will go away eventually. And they have, historically. I probably lean on the positive side. If you watch TV now, everything’s downhill. I think with modern technology, especially television, a lot of stuff gets exaggerated. Even if it’s true stuff, it gets repeated, and how can you not be negative? I just keep praying that things will improve, and in the long run, things have improved.

Finally, Joe, what’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

My father never said what we had to be when we grew up, but he just said, “You’ve got to keep moving forward, staying positive, trusting your friends and relatives.”

Whenever I did something really different – a new job or travel – he didn’t criticize me. He just said, “Good luck, Joe.”

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