Victoria’s Secrets: Queens native Joe Ficalora worked all the way up from humble beginnings

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All photos courtesy of Joe Ficalora

Life is a journey and no one has a better run than Joe Ficalora, a man who grew up in Corona, one of three brothers who had to work his way through college, go to Vietnam and experience war, and then climb the ladder of success from his first job as a bank teller to the corner office as CEO of a now-$65 billion bank!

By the fourth quarter of this year, he will have added another jewel to his NYCB crown by acquiring Astoria Bank, one of his rivals in the niche market of mortgages of multiple-family houses and rent-controlled buildings.

His existing banks bear their original names, familiar to all of us: Queens County Savings Bank, Richmond County Savings Bank, Roosevelt Savings Bank, Atlantic Bank, NY Commercial Bank, Garden State Community Bank, Roslyn  Savings Bank, AmTrust Bank and Ohio Savings Bank. On its website, it is called “the Family of Banks,” and how prophetic since, with the 227 branches, there is probably someone in your family who has done business with one of its brands.

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Claire Shulman and Joe Ficalora at Shulman’s 90th birthday party. They serve on many boards together as part of his giving back to the community.

When Joe Ficalora was growing up, he explained, many of his boyhood friends in the tough Corona/Elmhurst neighborhood didn’t survive past their teenage years. Drugs and guns got them. But he survived, and his strong family ties, and particularly his ambitious, strong mom, saw that he and his brothers went to school and were educated. In fact, he and his brothers were the first in their family to graduate college.

But his education was interrupted during the tumultuous time of the Vietnam War and he took pre-enlistment tests to enable him to be admitted to the Army in his capacity as a psychology major in college. Little did he realize how his years acting almost like a psychiatrist to the soldiers he saw would become a vital part of his success working with people in his next career.

Young Joe Ficalora in uniform. Joe served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
Young Joe Ficalora in uniform. Joe served in the Army during the Vietnam War.

He admitted, at an interview in his corner office overlooking Eisenhower Park, that he had come to a better understanding of human nature during his service years. For a while he thought about going to medical school to become a psychiatrist but when he was discharged he wanted to make a living and not spend years studying. So he went back to the job he held during his college years at Queens County Savings Bank not far from his home in Elmhurst where he had moved with his new wife Alice.

“I got a job in the auditing division of the bank and had the opportunity to learn the inner operations of the bank. In fact, I made presentations directly to the board, being the youngest auditor to do that,” he explained. “I always made sure to watch my boss’s back and report any issues to him before they hit the boardroom,” he said sincerely.

“I learned a lot by being exposed to the top executives at the bank,” he added.

Never forgetting his roots in Queens, Ficalora serves on and contributes generously to many Queens boards including the New York Hall of Science, NewYork-Presbyterian/Queens, the Museum of the Moving Image, Flushing Cemetery and the Queens Museum. His foundations have supported multiple causes, making a difference in the lives of many along the way.

When I asked him what advice he has, what secrets to success he can offer our readers, he immediately responded by saying, “Always be an asset to your boss, never a threat.”

It makes sense and he has made his climb to the top with that philosophy. He’s not done yet.  With his belief in restraint and keeping faith with his mission to be the largest lender to rent-controlled buildings, he believes he can navigate whatever economic cycles blow over our world.

Our native of Queens is about to move into a massive home on the North Shore waterfront where the sun shines longer and the days last longer so there’s more time to do more. Watch out, world. Joe Ficalora is on his game with more to come!

Victoria’s Secrets is a weekly column by the founder and the publisher of QNS.com