Samuel McCullough: Pa.’s banking and civic leader

Justin Runquist

When you turn 57, you’ll probably start searching for retirement homes in sunny south Florida.

Samuel McCullough had other plans however.

When Meridian Bancorp Inc. was sold in 1996, McCullough completed nearly 20 years of service as a chief executive officer in banking. He was also a decorated community leader in Pennsylvania, a father of five girls and an avid golfer.

Yet at 57, McCullough decided instead to work for the government. He still found time for golf, but he entered a position where he could make a significant difference in the lives of many people.

When then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge appointed him to head the new Department of Community and Economic Development in May 1997, McCullough embraced a new set of challenges.

As department secretary, the former banking CEO, chairman and president saw these challenges as chances to give back to the Commonwealth that had helped him realize success in business.

His office worked to stimulate business in Pennsylvania. Create jobs. Strengthen tourism, technology, training programs and initiatives that would ultimately enable Pennsylvanians to achieve a superior quality of life. Five years later, McCullough, now 63, said he believes the office has not only met, but also exceeded all these expectations.

“I’m very happy with what we’ve done here,” he said. “We’ve accomplished a lot, it’s been a fun ride and it came at a good time in my life.”

In October, McCullough resigned from the department. In his five years of service, McCullough’s leadership has conceivably made the Commonwealth a better place. His life of leadership and commitment to communities is inspiring to business leaders, volunteers and anyone hoping to make a difference.

About taking risks

“You have to take risks to get ahead,” McCullough said. “You won’t get anywhere unless you take some. And as a banker, your business is obviously about taking risks.”

His decision to forego MBA classes and work for Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh instead was a considerable risk for McCullough. But he said that work experience positioned him well for his larger goals.

McCullough recalled the risks he took as president and CEO at American Bank and Trust Co., the predecessor to Meridian. When McCullough was 27, American’s retiring chairman asked him to lead the business. Managing a $1 billion company was a significant risk for him at the time, but a much larger opportunity for his career. McCullough’s risks obviously paid off: American eventually grew to $17 billion, with $200 million after-tax income.

“In Philadelphia, the banking environment was wildly competitive,” he said. “We needed to take big risks to get ahead, but they were always educated risks.”

New ideas, new risks

“I didn’t want to work for the government at first,” McCullough said. “But I thought I would give it a chance and see how I’d like it.”

What started for him as a two-year promise to then-Gov. Ridge, turned into a five-year campaign that was more exciting than he ever imagined.

“I was amazed at the caliber of people working for the state government,” McCullough said. “I never expected working with such young, talented people. So many of the people I worked with had Ph.D.s and MBAs. They were far from being clock-punchers.”

By managing this talent, along with marshalling the abundance of physical and financial resources in Pennsylvania, McCullough saw significant positive changes during his tenure.

The Life Sciences Greenhouse initiative was one of them. McCullough said the greenhouse — intended to develop the biotech industry and “bio-economy” in Pennsylvania — provides the chance to grow a lot of new businesses and keep Pennsylvania companies on the cutting edge.

McCullough regularly collaborated with young minds at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University for input on projects such as computer chip design centers. By using monies from state tobacco settlement funds and venture capital, the department launched projects to accelerate technology, career opportunities and, ultimately, the lifestyle of Pennsylvanians.

Expanding Pennsylvania’s presence in the international marketplace was another key goal of McCullough’s department. “For every billion dollars the state has in export sales, about 100,000 new jobs are created,” he said.

McCullough said traveling across the world was thrilling for him personally. But international travel was an essential aspect of his job. His goal was to make Pennsylvania businesses compete with other states, such as Kentucky and California, and in global markets. After working with economists in Ireland, Scotland and Israel, McCullough said he usually returned with 25 new business plans.

After traveling to Bangalore, India, he would return with the latest software insights. Japan, South America, Canada, Chile and the Czech Republic were other countries McCullough would travel to regularly.

Another way for McCullough’s department to boost the state economy was to retain the talent already present. This was the purpose for launching the “Stay Invent the Future” initiative. McCullough would meet often with top college students to devise strategies for keeping the best and brightest in Pennsylvania. The result was a campaign filled with fun advertising and student education about benefits of working in Pennsylvania.

Now that McCullough resigned, he’s not sure what he’ll do next. He sits on 28 different community boards. He’s led other organizations in the past, from the International Financial Conference to various boards of the Federal Reserve System. McCullough expressed interest in becoming more active with Millennium Bank, a holding company that he and five others started several years ago.

McCullough admitted he would finally take time to travel to Florida and play golf. In the mean time, the legacy he left on the Pennsylvania economy will make a difference.