Bob Pullo: Giving by example

In Episode 5 of our “Catalysts” series, we chat with Bob Pullo of York Federal Fellows.


In Episode 5 of our “Catalysts” series, we chat with Bob Pullo of York Federal Fellows. We’ll talk to Bob about growing up poor, the greatest lesson he ever learned, and his takeaways from Give Local York.


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Part 1: Raised by a single mother

Rebecca: So we’re here today with Bob Pullo. You may recognize him from Give Local York as well as a deep career spent in York which we’re going to learn a little about today. And just kind’ve wanted to dive into things, Bob. So you spent the first few decades of your life in Boston, which some people might not know. So about 1939 to 1975. Does that sound about right?

Bob: That’s about right.

Rebecca: Okay. Now obviously a lot took place during that time. You had a successful banking career. But there was something in particular when we were doing some of our pre-interviews and discussions for this. You talked about your childhood and the impact that that had on you. And not knowing that you were poor when you were growing up. Can you talk a little bit about your childhood and what that was like?

Bob: Sure. First, thank you for having me here to do this with you. I appreciate that a lot.

Grew up in greater Boston area and my mother raised four children by herself. So, by the time I was knee-high to my father, he was gone. She was a hard worker. She taught me a lot of what I know, and we were poor, I guess is what we would call it, but we were not poor of love, poor of respect or poor of discipline.

I learned those things from her over the time that she raised us together. She was amazing woman and I think about her all the time in what I have done and am doing in my life. I didn’t realize we were poor because of the love and the family. I thought everybody was poor. I think I told you that the Salvation [Army] would appear at the door every Thanksgiving.

They brought a turkey and I thought, “Oh Gosh, they bring a turkey to everyone on Thanksgiving.”

But that was not the case, as I learned pretty quickly.

But the point of keeping us all together, keeping us all walking a straight line, teaching us to be good people, enjoyed that part of my life very much.

Part 2: First time being charitable

Rebecca: Great fast forward to kind of modern day. You had those beginnings, but in your life you were able to build a very successful career and be very comfortable in life and now you have been able to share that with others. Do you remember the first time in which you were able to give back?

Bob: Very vividly. In those days, greater Boston area, I got a lot of snow in the form of blizzards, so we would get 12 or more inches of snow pretty frequently. And if it wasn’t a blizzard, it was a lot of snow. Just sure of that.

In those days, there was a good time for young folks, teenagers, to go out and shovel snow for money. Not a lot of money in it. It was only involved coins as opposed to bills in those days, but it was something to put in your pocket and get out and do some work and earn something.

I did it so I could earn it and deliver it back home to my mother, so I could help her.

One of the disciplines that she taught me was budgeting and she had little envelopes for everything that was important as bare necessity, rent, food, and a few other things of importance and she would put a couple of dollars in every one of them out of every paycheck she might’ve had. And she worked three jobs all her life, so she was that hard worker.

Anyway, in the snow shoveling, I gathered some coins together on a hard day’s work. It’s not easy to shovel snow, particularly the people who had driveways, and not many did, but that made it even harder and longer.

So, I recall going into a store. I think it was a dry cleaner, maybe picking up something for my mom, and as the service person left the counter and went behind a door, I saw this Cerebral Palsy counter collection box. It occurred to me that there are people far more needy than I and would deserve some money to do something different with, if it was money they wouldn’t otherwise have.

So, I snuck half a dollar, I think, maybe it was even a silver dollar. Probably not. I snuck a half a dollar in there, but I waited til she came back out ’cause I sort of wanted to let her know I was putting something in the box.

I was proud to be able to do that. That was the first time I recall being charitable other than the love that you give between each other and human beings.

Part 3: 'No one is irreplaceable'

Rebecca: If we look at the early 1970s, right before you moved to York. You said when we had talked earlier that something happened that was the biggest lesson of your life. That what transpired made you decide to move your family hundreds of miles from York. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Bob: Well, it was a long time ago in 1974 or five, just before a very deep recession. Maybe that was the deep recession. And simply put, I lost my job and that’s a very big thing and I was, at that point, a young career banker and proud to be a banker in that privileged business.

I was a senior executive after having worked my way up and around and got myself into a good position. I think I was a respected banker. Yet, I was involved… in those days the chief financial officer was the go-to person for someone who wanted to sell their stock or someone who wanted to buy some stock. Yes, this gets done in a public company on the stock market, but for small stock issues, a lot of it is done person to person in those days.

So, I was that person and so I was able to put together people who wanted to sell a good amount of stock and people who wanted to buy a good amount of stock. So I did that for a particular buyer at one point and then became a loyal, reliable person to that business owner, so to speak. The largest stock holder.

Then years later, sort of did it again because that person needed the money and someone else was willing to buy 66% of the bank if I could accumulate that much stock and I did do that. ‘Course, this was over a long period of time. So I survived each of those cases remaining as the chief financial officer for that institution. It was a Boston bank. I’m very proud to say it was a Boston bank. They were deep in banking there was very good bankers.

Then a third occasion came to pass, and I was not the intermediary and he was a wonderful guy. A gentleman banker named Adam Levy. A Jewish person and Jewish persons in Boston, like Italian persons in Boston but even more so, discriminated against and unable to get into certain businesses or certain opportunities.

He was a really great guy and I knew of him before that. So, when he purchased the bank through my effort, I started to work for him and he told me that, “You’re a good banker, Bob. I know you’ll do well, but I promised your job to a gentleman who worked with me for the due diligence of the purchase of the bank”.

And I said, “I understand that, Alan.”

I heard a rumor that was going to happen to me anyway and expected it might have happened in the transactions before that in fact. So that really was no great surprise.

He was a wonderful person to me. He gave me the car I was driving, and the year severance pay and the great recommendation and all of that.

So I said to him, “Alan, how long do you want me to work with your fellow, your friend, before I leave?”

And he said, “Not at all.”

Well I was taken aback by that. The shock of not being needed, the shock of my knowledge was maybe of no value. That as hard as I worked and as much as I thought I knew, that all of that could be just wiped away in favor of someone who didn’t have that particular experience and closeness to the situation.

So that was a lesson in my life of being replaceable. That no one is irreplaceable.

So that goes on a little bit to going back home, telling my wife what had occurred, and we had four young children and I needed to look for a job promptly.

In those days, we not only didn’t have two phones, the phone we had might’ve been a two-party phone.

So I said, “Donna, we have to get another phone in the house because I know they’re going to call me because I’m at least the historian for the company, the archive, the steward. I know everything that’s going on at the moment. The issues that are halfway complete. So they’ll call and I don’t want the phone to be busy if an employer calls me for an interview so I think we should get a second phone.”

We got the second phone and the next lesson of my life was it never rang. So they got along just fine without me, as all will do, whether they stutter or stagger or stumble through those transitions, they occur. And they have to occur so you have to adapt your life to those kind of possible occurrences and try to do the best for bettering your place, your station in life.

Part 4: Leaving Boston

Rebecca: I think it’s just an incredible lesson, especially one that you were able, you know, maybe fortunately, to learn at that point in your career.

Bob: Oh yeah, how many of us think how important we are. You know, like, “Gee, gosh. Nobody can do without me. I’m the one guy someone needs for this or for that.”

And that just simply isn’t the case. There’s a lot of respect between people. There’s a lot of loyalty, there’s a lot of earning things. But there’s fallout as well, and things change.

Rebecca:  It was, however, perhaps the thing that needed to happen to bring you to York.

Bob: Wow. Yes. I never thought I would be coming to York, Pennsylvania. I never thought I’d be outside of greater Boston and, in the recession,  I mentioned earlier, there were not many jobs. And yes, I believed I was a good banker and would find a good job but I wasn’t getting the job offers that matched what I had. Thought I should not step backward. I should work hard to step forward and get a good replacement.

Well, turns out that the only opportunities seemingly then were going to be farther away. Not New England, not my hometown. So, I did answer one ad in the Wall Street Journal and that ad was York Federal Savings and Loan. It’s the only application I made outside of New England. In fact, outside of greater Boston.

Turns out, I ended up getting that job and it was interesting. I was their second choice, but their first choice was from a big city and they maybe luxurious backgrounds in their organization. My chosen organization to apply for here and hopefully to get wasn’t so luxurious. I didn’t even have an office. They were a small bank at the time. Got very large afterwards, but we were small. And he ultimately turned it down because he didn’t have a private office and he was accustomed to, excuse the term, electric drapes in his office accommodation, so he was by the wayside and I became the choice.

And I thank God and I thank those people for having chosen me and giving me such a good feeling about coming back or being there to receive the call to come back for a further negotiation to get that job.

But anyway, that was ripping up my family from Boston and the roots and the connections. My life was there so what a challenge it was to come to York, Pennsylvania. Much smaller, which was a great advantage. People would ask me how do you compare the two? And I say I don’t, I don’t. I think about the good things I had in Boston and I think about the good things I have in York. I think the only thing that strikes me as really missing is the water because there’s no ocean.

Rebecca: You just have to take a longer drive.

Bob: Well, so we ultimately became a little successful. Got a place near the water.

Rebecca: There you go. You filled that gap.

Part 5: "Oh, I thought you said New York.”

Rebecca: So before, you had no real concept of York.

Bob: None whatsoever.

Rebecca: So you’re coming to this place you’ve likely not heard of before. I don’t want to ruin the story, but you talk about how on the drive down, can you explain where your wife thought you were going?

Bob: Oh yeah. I’ll tell you something quick too about where I thought I was going.

Had I done the interviews during the day, I would’ve been maybe a different thought process because I did it at night and all the stores downtown were closed. Well I thought that’s because the business hours were over. Turns out, during the day they were closed also. So there were a lot of empty stores so it wasn’t economically vibrant at all like Boston seemed to have been.

But as we’re driving with our four children in our Pontiac Safari station wagon driving down the highway, Donna says to me, “Bob, you just passed the road the thruway to New York.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “Well, aren’t we going to New York?”

I said, “No, no, no, we’re going to York, Pennsylvania.”

She said, “Oh, I thought you said New York.”

So the joke is, in her mind and our mind is that it was a small town versus a big town and she didn’t regret that for a moment but this never happened. It’s just a joke between us.

Part 6: Being accepted in York

Rebecca: You know, coming to a small town, especially compared to Boston, and a new place in general, it can be hard to sometimes get involved or make your own mark or feel like you’re part of it. There’s some things that say it can take 20 years to feel like you’re there. Did you find that for yourself when you came to York?

Bob: Actually, I think they say 25 years. That’s a universal comment no matter where you go.

They say about themselves that it takes 25 years to be accepted. Well, that’s not true, and this is a two-way street. The people employing you or the people attracting you to the community have a responsibility to go shoulder to shoulder with you, get you introduced and work your way through this strange place that you don’t know a soul and you’ve got to reset your whole life relationships with new people. It’s very, very difficult to do alone.

And then the energy you put out personally to become engaged and you are who you associate with, you know? I always, when I mentor people, talk about that. Hang out with good, aggressive doers, the people who get things done, the positive attitudes, the friendliness, as opposed to all the negativity that you bump into and try to become some semblance of who you’re associating with.

In York, it was fairly easier for me than maybe others because I was a banker. I say this with a smile on my face, but everybody needs money, so they were constantly going to the bank to get a loan. Surely didn’t want to treat me poorly because I was from someplace else other than York. Then that’s never really on their mind.

Banking, as I said, is a privileged business. It’s an honor to be in that business, and you get to know so much in all the positions I’ve held, all the involvement and closeness I’ve had to everything in the bank, all of the people who were doing it, I may have done it all before that.

But I get to see people’s financial lives. I get to see their issues, their successes. Get to see their needs and the solutions that they put forth to confront life’s situations. With that, you get to know an awful lot about people and that business is based in integrity and confidentiality and I uphold that to its fullest.

Part 7: Working with nonprofits

Rebecca: You also were involved in a lot of nonprofits in that kind of heartbeat of the community. Can you talk a little bit about some of those early relationships?

Bob: Sure. In the bank itself, of course we’re a public business. Very public. And you need to vie against the other competitors for the business and so try to become top of mind first name institution, coming from a very small situation like this was, to get to earn a reputation of that style is hard work by a lot of people.

We accomplished that and in the process recognized that first of all, you have a responsibility to the community and the consumers by having put you in this position by becoming your customer. So you deliver your service and you do that profitably and our opinion was that should be shared. A shared profitability with the community and the clientele and the employees to make that a whole team reward.

In that process, you do a lot of things. Marketing, as you know, and PR, as you know, travel and entertainment, as you know. All these things give you a reputation in a community, a persona and we dedicated that to the persona of the institution.

In a bank, when you house America’s wealth and you finance America’s needs, again, that’s a privileged business to be into. So we find out and accommodate a lot for people. So in that whole process, we began as we grew up, so to speak, to have passions for different things.

And the passions that is served by the nonprofits, the needs that are served by the nonprofits, those needs create passions in contributors, philanthropists.

I do some conversational work with high school students about philanthropy and they ask me, they think you have to have a lot of money to be a philanthropist. Well, you start by your talent, you start by your involvement, your personal interest and ultimately you may be able to write a check.

Put forth your time and your treasure to be shared with people.

So we did that and we did that bank-wide. So all the people were excused from work when they were volunteering, they got on boards. People love to have bankers on their boards and lawyers on their boards. They love to have PR people on their boards.

These are very important opportunities so if you make the right case for yourself or you make a good reputation, you get chosen to be in that governance scenario of nonprofit directorship and we did that, as all of the bankers do it, but we did it very well and we continue that.

And as a CEO, my staff pushed me out to be more of a public face, the face of the company, and they did all the work, which I appreciate it ’cause they did it so well and so much better than I would do it. So together we made a great reputation and helped a lot of nonprofits.

Part 8: Giving back to community

Rebecca: You talked about being successful in the way that you can give back. And I don’t know if a lot of people realize when you built your downtown building, which now is the municipal building and mayor’s office on George Street. But at the time, it was really a sense of giving something to York. You’re building a structure, but you had that in mind. Why was that so important in terms of the structure being a gift to York?

Bob: Well, we were growing and growing profitably and becoming a leader in our industry and as a savings and loan association, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” at every Christmas. Those are the kind of bank and financing arm of housing that is not a public institution.

So essentially, the depositors own the company, but they don’t practice ownership, they don’t practice leadership or governance. They actually sign proxies when they open the account so that the management can vote the shares. It was not legal to be a public company.

So ultimately, we rose that through its influence to become a public company and issued the opportunity to depositors to become owners. They just switched their savings to stock ownership and a lot of people just wouldn’t do that. That was betting your purse on something. It was a little bit of gambling, they would assume, if they weren’t otherwise stock market players with their savings money.

So it was a hard sell to get that done. Maybe I’m moving away from your question there a little bit.

Rebecca: That’s okay. The building itself, you know, you talked about it being that gift.

Bob: Oh, the building itself. So, during all of that process, my predecessor and I went to Williamsburg to look at buildings because we were growing and needed more space from the small shop we had on 50 East King Street. We looked at the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary and thought a replica of that would be really good.

But when we went down, the story or joke is he and I went there. We bought a door knocker and we needed something to put it on.

So we did this large multi-block redevelopment in downtown York and built this Williamsburg College Wren building replica and it just looked so municipal. It looked so strong and stately. It looked like a government facility. So I always thought, and talked to people about, boy, if this wasn’t a bank, it was no longer a York Federal Savings and Loan, it really ought to be City Hall.

And lo and behold, it’s now City Hall.

Rebecca: Vision’s come to be.

Bob: Yes.

Rebecca: In light of the theme of giving…

Bob:  Oh, by the way, I have to add. The fact that we bought the building was because we were just stockpiling our profits and not really doing a lot more with it. We gave a lot to charity, we became big givers to charity, but what else could we do? So we thought if we did this renovation, redevelopment, we’d be investing that capital into this new facility, which is new tax space for the city.

Rebecca: Investing it back into the community.

Bob: New glamor, so to speak. New buzz, new bling. Looks good.

Rebecca: And you did that.

Bob: We did that.

Part 9: On naming the Pullo Center

Rebecca: Keeping in line with the giving because that’s been a big thing in your life is, with your own success, reinvesting that back into the community. People may know that the Pullo Center on Penn State York’s campus. That’s named after you. But you had talked about when we met previously that you weren’t crazy about the idea of your name necessarily being on that, but you looked at it as a way of leading by example. Why is that so important that you lead by example?

Bob: Well, because the landscape of charitable giving or capital campaigns or fundraising nonprofit campaigns is so crowded with asks and there are so many people who benefit by the causes that the nonprofits involve themselves in.

Charity and donations and donors become very important to the success and future of all the nonprofits in our organization. Unfortunately, difficult life things continue to come at our population and they need help in getting solutions for those things.

At Penn State, of course education is very important and other basic needs in life are important, and they convinced me that the large contribution that we were going to make would be good if we put the Pullo Family Performing Arts Center as the name place. And I didn’t really want to do that.

I just wanted to get the money into the education opportunity here in York. But they convinced me that by so doing, other people would look at it.

Looking at it, saying for instance, “Oh, Bob Pullo can do that. I certainly can do that” or “I can do better than him.”

They can be competitive, you know. Because there were no benefactors giving at that level or there were very few, and I thought there ought to be more because there are a lot more people earning a lot of money.

Growing a lot of wealth, as wealth is all around us. But inspiring them, or motivating them to do something that they’re capable of doing but they’re not doing it or not doing it in their own backyard is the leading by example. It’s giving by example.

So, I agreed to put the name on it. Really was not all that wanting to have my name on things and you won’t see that very many places, but I felt that was important.

And it is important. The art of giving. We do it for so many, many reasons. and there are a lot of artful dodgers, and you wish other people might do the same thing.

I recall sitting at the Stand Capitol, and the wait before the curtain goes up, and my wife and I are sitting there, looking at the playbill. What’s up, what’s going on. And they list their donors, their patrons, and they generally list them by dollar amounts in certain captain, or gold, or silver, bronze levels.

And my wife would see somebody’s name there and she’d whack me with her elbow and say, “Well, how come we’re not in that category?”

So, I had to hardly wait to get home. Write out a check or something. Make some commitment because she didn’t think it was right that we weren’t there with the other people.

So those were people showing me an example of their giving and that encouraged us, motivated us to do the same thing or a similar thing. So that’s like leading by example. Giving by example.

Rebecca: A little competitive.

Bob: Exactly, exactly.

Part 10: Making history — and a future

Rebecca: The most recent thing you’ve been involved in is Give Local York and we were just talking about that before we started recording how we’re really gearing up for what will be next year, first Friday in May, for what will be next year, First Friday in May, But the event was really publicized as this way to democratize philanthropy and give people an opportunity to give back. Why is it important that you give people an opportunity at all levels to contribute to York?

Bob: Well, first of all, let me say awareness. I think that the events themselves for all nonprofits and, in particular, this one I’m associated with now, creates an awareness to the mission of the nonprofit or the cause and what they’re doing. How they plan to do it, what their strategies are.

So, it’s really important to get behind that for the nonprofits. The artful dodgers I told you about. They maybe don’t bump into the occasion because they’re not on a board or they’re new in town or something and they haven’t been engaged at that level and didn’t see the opportunities. We need to introduce giving opportunities to them as well.

When you look around across the Susquehanna, Lancaster’s been doing a day of giving for years, raising over eight million dollars. Other communities not too far away and also across our country are having giving days and they’re getting millions of dollars in 24 hours for the nonprofits of their community.

The Senate or the House of Representatives, the government, has declared May, a couple of weeks in May, as a celebration of generosity. The United States is a very generous population.

And so focusing in on that week, there’s dedicated to be thankful for generosity and reminding people of the opportunities in generosity. I thought, why isn’t someone in York doing the giving day.

So, I rallied the York Federal Fellows, which there are 66 that get grants from the York Federal Savings and Loan legacy, to try to organize whatever they wanted to do. And they had the same questions. Why isn’t York doing this day of giving? So, put together the big group on the council of alumni. They put this together and they decided they were going to go forward if certain large institutions, anchor institutions in our community, were not going to take it forward.

So, we offered it to those institutions, along with some money and some talent to get it done, and they still did not choose to do it at this time. So we said well, we’re just going to go ahead and do it, respectfully. You’re not going to do it, but we think it should be done so we’re going to take that risk.

So, we got that going and the risk allows you then to work up with all the nonprofits using their own energies, actually. We train them, tutor them, give them internet training on how to fundraise types of events, things to do for that day.

And that day, opening it up with technology to be done with computer online with a good solid backbone of technical support. And I got that done for as little as 10 dollars. So we can bring giving into the hearts and minds of the children who want to sit down and give 10 dollars to something or share it with their brothers and sisters. Five or 10 dollars to a favorite cause that they might have, like if their mother had breast cancer, they might be interested in making a small contribution, which is big to them, online and fairly feel good about it.

Satisfying the cause, hopefully, and giving something that’s otherwise just yours. So that to all the big givers, so the sponsors and the stretch pool contributors. On that day and leading up to it, we created through all these non profit workers an awareness.

Like I would be surprised if on May 4th of last year, anybody over five didn’t know that there was a Give Local York day. And it was that day, on May 4th. And I’ll tell you, it was an overwhelming success. Essentially because of people like you and Meagan Feeser, our consultant who organized and motivated and get it all done and you using your more modern media technologies to reach other people to create this awareness was the big success.

So we’re going to do it again and that was our inaugural. Obviously telling you we’re going to do this every year and it’ll be May 3rd of 2019 and we’ve already hit the street to gather up patrons and sponsors and so forth.

In fact, Megan was working the day after May 4th In fact, Meagan was working the day after May 4th So I’m really proud of all of that.

To me, for me, it’s got two particular takeaways. And one is that we have not only made history, but we’ve made a future. A future for this generosity celebration and we’ve stuck the shovel in the ground for the legacy of York Federal and its founder, my mentor, Bill Wolf, the chairman of the board.

And he always told me never to say you have two things to say, because when you get to the second, you’ll forget what you wanted to say for the second influence…

The second influence for me is that it’s the biggest achievement that has helped people so readily, so quickly, so easily.

It’s better to me than having brought the company public. To me, it does solidify the goodness of York Federal Savings and Loan Association and the people there. The founders, the governance, the employees in particular. None of this happens without the employees doing the work, the real work. And so this is their legacy and that makes me as proud as anything I’ve ever been proud of.

Rebecca: I’m very excited for the next one to come. I know you know. What was the final amount, Bob, that was raised?

Bob: This should be embedded in my mind, but it’s very close. 1,467,000 dollars?

Rebecca: I think you’re pretty close.

Well, you start by your talent, you start by your involvement, your personal interest and ultimately you may be able to write a check.

Bob Pullo On philanthropy

“Catalysts” is a production of Our York Media. The project was funded in part by the YorIt Social Venture Challenge Grant from the York County Community Foundation. Our title sponsor is York College of Pennsylvania Center for Community Engagement with support from Stock and Leader Attorneys at Law. This show is hosted by Rebecca Hanlon and produced by Will Hanlon and Caleb Robertson.

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