When you think of a bank CEO the image that comes to mind is a stuffy Wall Street type in a suit and tie with no sense of humor.
Well, that’s not Richard Gavegnano, Chairman and CEO of East Boston Savings Bank.
Last Thursday night at the Hilton Garden Inn on Boardman Street Gavegnano had the crowd in stitches telling of his sometimes mischievous exploits growing up in a single parent home on Neptune Road before eventually becoming the head of a $4 billion publicly traded bank.
Gavegnano’s life story, memories and anecdotes were more like something out of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs than the story of a banker. But like Gavegnano said last Thursday night all the events in his life shaped him and moulded him into the man he is today.
Many in the crowd, some who lived along side Gavegnano and his family, like Jim Satori, on the now defunct Neptune Road were taken back to a place and time in Eastie were the daily struggle to keep a roof over ones head was mixed with a strong sense of community pride and family.
Gavegnano’s story is not unlike many of the stories that continue in the blue-collar neighborhood today where waves of immigration still weave a narrative that is rooted in a story that was born at the turn of the 19th century.
It was around this time that Gavegnano’s family arrived in Eastie from a small village in Italy and where Gavegnano grew up with Wood Island Park as his playground and the streets as his educator.
“It was in a triple-decker on Neptune Road is where it all started,” he said. “We would spend our entire summers playing on these streets, it was a real close community here. I wouldn’t trade the way I grew up for anything.”
Whether it was playing innocent kid pranks on friends or neighbors, competing in a game of punch ball, or tossing a pimple ball from the porch of his home across the courtyards to a neighborhood friend, it seems the competitiveness of growing up an Eastie kid prepared Gavegnano for his future as head of one of the regions most successful banks.
“You cannot succeed if you have never failed,” Gavegnano told the crowd. “I’ve had many many failures in life but if you have never failed it means you have never tried.”
Gavagnano wears his ‘street kid’ pedigree as a badge of honor. He told the crowd stories like how he and his friends would hatch schemes like returning bottles to the recycling place only to go back later and steal back the same bottles from where they were stacked out back only to return them a second time.
“Hey, back then we did anything for a buck,” he said as crowd was in hysterics.
Or the time he tried his hand as a mechanic and damaged a customer’s brake fluid line.
“So I noticed the break fluid was shooting out of the wheel,” said Gavegnano. “So when the guy came back I showed him and told him ‘thank god you came in when you did or you could have been killed!”
However, it was the tales of life on Neptune Road that resonated with the crowd.
“We would spend hours playing football or stickball in the summer or hockey on the frozen marsh around Wood Island Park,” he said.
Nothing in his upbringing would suggest that this kid hanging on the corner playing stickball in the neighborhood during the 1950s would rise to prominence in the finance world. His story in many ways is pure Horatio Alger.
“I was hungry,” he said. “I had the will and drive to see what else was out there in the world and I wanted a piece of it.”
Born and raised in Eastie, Gavegnano was raised on Neptune Road by a single mother that worked hard to provide for Gavegnano and his brother.
“I often think of that time in my life,” said Gavegnano. “It was a great neighborhood of working class Italian and Irish immigrants…it was a tight knit neighborhood and we all looked out for one another.”
During the summer months, Gavegnano and his friends would play at Wood Island or games of stickball on Neptune Road. It was during this time Gavegnano met a man that would ultimately change his life.
“When my friends and I were outside playing we’d notice a shiny sports car that would drive down Neptune Road and park,” explained Gavegnano. “The driver was a well-dressed man in always wearing a suite, a fedora and carrying a brief case. He stood out in a working class neighborhood like East Boston.”
The man was Corning Peaver, a Marblehead resident that worked for a brokerage company on Federal Street. Peaver would park on Neptune Road and take the train from Wood Island station each morning. Over the years he got to know Gavegnano and the other neighborhood kids.
“Years later, after I graduated high school, I was facing the draft so I answered an ad for a job at a brokerage company downtown,” said Gavegnano.
With no experience the cards were stacked against Gavegnano–that’s until he noticed Peaver walking by the interviewer’s office.
“It didn’t look good and then I saw Peaver so I told the guy conducting the interview, “I know Corning Peaver’,” said Gavegnano.
Not believing a kid from Eastie would know a stockbroker well known in certain financial circles, the interviewer went off to investigate.
“A few minutes later he came back and told me that Corning Peaver did in fact know who I was and said I was a good guy,” said Gavegnano. “I got the job on the spot.”
That day in 1966 began an illustrious career in finance that has lasted to this day.
In 1974 he joined the East Boston Savings Bank team and helped the bank grow by helping it invest in bonds, equities and loans.
In 2008, Gavegnano’s career came full circle as he was asked by NASDAQ to ring the closing bell. As chairman and CEO of Meridian Interstate Bancorp, Inc., the holding company for East Boston Savings Bank, it was an honor for Gavegnano.
Of the bank he represents, Gavegnano said he’s p
roud of what together the East Boston Savings Bank team has accomplished.
“There are few banks left like East Boston Savings Bank,” said Gavegnano. “After 165 years we still have strong roots and a foundation in the neighborhood we named the bank after. I still have a strong bond with East Boston. I love coming back here and walking around the old neighborhood.”