Business

The Conversion of Bob Rivers

Straight, white, and male, banking giant Bob Rivers had every advantage on his way to the top. Now he’s on a mission to make sure the next generation of Boston’s leaders don’t look anything like him.


Photo by David Yellen

On a hot July morning, the two-story lobby of Eastern Bank’s downtown Boston headquarters was teeming with high-level executives from around the city. Everyone, and I mean everyone—brass from Blue Cross Blue Shield, Bank of America, Partners HealthCare, Biogen, MassMutual, the Bruins, the Sox—was present and accounted for.

Making his way through the crowd, Bob Rivers, president and CEO of the country’s oldest and largest fully mutual bank—with $11 billion in assets, more than double its nearest competitor in Massachusetts—looked every bit the host in a light-gray suit, a neatly knotted peach striped tie, and polished brown shoes. He did not wear a pocket square, but you could easily imagine one there. He smiled, shook hands, remembered spouses’ and children’s names. He worked the room like a pro.

From the start, the morning smacked of every other do-good, get-a-fast-photo-op event that’s drawn corporate leaders ever since optics became a necessary part of doing business. Reporters from the Globe, WBUR, and Boston magazine mingled in search of quotes. It looked like business as usual, Boston-style. Rivers said a few words and then let his guests take the floor one by one.

In a city where upper management skews heavily male and corporate boards stubbornly remain 93 percent white, the speakers stood out: women, people of color, plus a few trans men and women—not business as usual after all. The executives took turns explaining why their companies were in the room to support Rivers’s latest cause: the defeat of a ballot referendum this November that would revoke existing state protections for the transgender population.

If anatomy is destiny, Rivers, 54, was born to be a corporate alpha male, not a progressive activist. Immaculate in attire, carriage, and calculations, he studied finance and accounting, earned an MBA, and has never strayed from his banking-career trajectory. His boxy build was tailor-made for corporate garb, typically a pressed-white oxford, open at the neck, and a pair of dark-blue pleated slacks. That Rivers looks, acts, and speaks like an insider is his superpower, the one he’s using to help those who don’t look like him climb the economic ladder. Rivers’s motto, which he repeats over and over until it sticks, is: “The right thing to do is also the smart thing to do.”

For Rivers, the right thing in 2018 means going left—far left—and boldly advocating for progressive causes. Smart means supporting social-justice positions that can be backed by strong economic arguments. So why throw his weight behind the transgender issue? “Trans rights are human rights,” Rivers says matter-of-factly when we’re back in his office. “And protecting human rights is always good for business.”

To prove his point, the good banker shows his math. He calculates that the transgender community makes up 1 or 2 percent of the population, but notes that LGBTQ people, at least 10 percent of the population, care deeply about the issue. And millennials—poised to usurp the baby boomers as the most populous generation—also overwhelmingly support trans rights. “So,” he concludes, “that’s more than half of the population.” Plus, Rivers says, supporting trans rights is good for Massachusetts. North Carolina failed to legislate protections and lost an estimated $630 million in business revenue, not to mention suffering a decline in tourism. Rivers argues that a repeal of transgender protections in Massachusetts this fall would be disastrous for the region’s economy and “undermine the very credibility of the commonwealth’s progressive brand.”

Thirty years ago, Rivers would have laughed if you told him he’d be leading the charge in support of LGBTQ rights and corporate inclusivity. Raised by a conservative Irish-Catholic family in Stoughton, he came about his liberal bona fides the hard way—through careful deliberation and a singular life-changing event that most business titans never experience. Over time, he’s gained fluency in the languages of corporate-speak and social justice—and uses them interchangeably: The right thing to do is also the smart thing to do. “I work with a lot of top-level executives who understand the connection between social responsibility and economic growth,” says Jesse Mermell, president of the progressive Alliance for Business Leadership, but “Bob stands out. He feels this in his bones…this guy is the real deal.”

As a bank executive and a dyed-in-the-wool insider, Rivers packs multiple weapons in his social-justice arsenal, including a warm smile for the shake-hands-and-freeze-on-demand events that follow around a man of his stature—the Pride Parade, the Compassionate Care ALS gala at the Fairmont Copley, or receiving an honorary degree from Cambridge College. This smile is especially effective in intimate settings, such as around the small conference table in his corner office on the second floor of Eastern Bank’s headquarters, where he often finds himself explaining why gender and racial equity isn’t just good optics but is also critical to the state’s economy.

When the businessmen listening to Rivers shift uncomfortably in their chairs, that’s when his reassuring white-guy grin packs the most punch. After all, he’s challenging his fellow corporate juggernauts to make room at the top for women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color, which means he’s brazenly disrupting an entrenched Boston establishment that has controlled the levers of power in this town for eternity. In that way, says Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, “Bob is remaking what it means to be a business and civic leader in the city.”

If Rivers is successful, though, coveted spots on the region’s powerful business boards are about to get a lot more competitive for white males. Which makes you wonder: How will he compel Boston’s old guard to follow his lead?

Photo by David Yellen

The story of Rivers’s journey from conservative businessman to woke bank president can be told in a series of historical photos that adorn his office. Each, including shots of Robert Francis Kennedy, is framed in somber black, hung deliberately and with great care.

The first of three children born to Irish-Catholic parents in Stoughton, Robert Francis Rivers was named for the pre-1963 version of RFK—a devout Catholic who seriously considered joining the priesthood; who served as staff member to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare; and who ultimately emerged as a civil rights warrior. Like Kennedy, Rivers was raised in a religious, socially conservative family. Like Kennedy, Rivers has deep respect for his mother, a Boston College graduate, grade school teacher, and the first person in the family to earn more than a high school diploma (Rivers is the second). And like Kennedy, Rivers was a dutiful son who idolized his father and always went to church, climbing the ranks to lector. “I was painfully shy in grade school,” he explains, “and my mother, to her credit, broke me of this by making me an altar boy, which forced me to get up in front of crowds without having to say anything.”

He was so devoted to his mother that when she returned to teaching full time in the Dorchester Catholic school system once her own kids were all in school, Rivers, 13 at the time, took it upon himself to wake up early each morning to clean the house. “I’m a neat freak,” he says, “so I felt this tremendous sense of responsibility to clean the entire house for her, including washing the kitchen floor.”

At school, Rivers worked hard to please his father, an auditor at Raytheon who had high expectations for his son, by studying long hours and earning straight As. “We always knew he’d be successful,” says Richard Kilday, who grew up across the street from Rivers. “He was disciplined and had a really good work ethic, which I think came from his parents. He put in the time. I did well because he did well. I wanted to emulate his success.”

Midway through high school, however, Rivers began questioning his motivations. He calls it his epiphany. “In my junior year,” he says, “I asked myself, Why are grades important and who am I doing this for? And I decided I wasn’t doing it for me. I was doing it because my parents expected it.” He let his grades slip and graduated 21st in his class of 400. (Rivers can still recall his various GPAs to a hundredth of a point.)

Banking was Rivers’s father’s idea. In the spring of his senior year of high school, Rivers had been bagging groceries at Shaw’s (“I really liked it—it was a good social scene,” he says) when his dad advised him to get a teller job at a local bank. “So,” Rivers says, “I walked into the Randolph Savings Bank wearing a T-shirt and jeans. I didn’t want the job. This was just something my father wanted me to do.”

He got the position anyway. “Because I was male,” he says unequivocally, 35 years later. The bank was seeking young tellers to groom for the executive track, he explains, and at the time only white men were seen fit for that role. Rivers easily cleared that hurdle.

Rivers attended Stonehill College, a private Roman Catholic school in Easton, which offered him a three-quarter scholarship. He followed his father’s advice, pursuing accounting and finance, and graduated near the top of his business class, fifth overall.

To save money, Rivers commuted the 9 miles back and forth from home to college without a car; he depended on public transit, which picked him up a 20-minute walk from his house. He continued working as a bank teller to cover his costs—a couple of days a week during the school year, full time during the summer—and supplemented his income working nights as a bank janitor. Although Rivers wasn’t formally in the bank’s training program, he says, the company rotated him through a variety of departments and he “got to do things a lot of other people didn’t get to do.” Rivers was in many ways also a product of the 1980s, embracing the Reagan-era banking culture: young Republicans, exclusive business clubs, and pinstriped suits. “I was Alex P. Keaton and walked around with the Wall Street Journal under my arm,” he says, barely aware at the time that the term “social justice” existed. “I didn’t even have it on my radar.”

While Rivers was setting a course for his professional life, he was also forging a personal one. In college, he’d begun dating Nancy Jo Pokrywka, a developmental biologist who tells me that she was instantly “drawn to Bob’s ambition. We both wanted good grades and successful careers. I think he made me work harder. There were times when our date was to go to the library and work.”

Rivers embraced the clear-cut path his father had laid out for him. He married Pokrywka, earned an MBA from the University of Rochester, and settled down in Poughkeepsie, New York, working for M & T Bank. Then he made a brazen pledge: He promised himself that he’d be president of a bank by the time he was 40.

Among the photos in Rivers’s office is one of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. taken in 1963. It speaks to him. RFK “found his inner self,” Rivers explains, in the wake of a traumatic event —his brother’s assassination. That’s when Kennedy joined the civil rights movement and became a crusader for change. Like RFK, Rivers says, he will never wholly understand powerlessness. Instead, he says, he has to work hard to understand others’ stories. It’s always easier to turn away.

Rivers’s liberal awakening came slowly. Sunday church service, for instance, where he mechanically recited the psalms, repeated the prayers, and went through the motions, was something he’d done without thinking. In his late twenties, Rivers began questioning Catholicism. There were no women in the clergy, he noticed, and nuns had little power or influence. The whole setup seemed oppressively patriarchal. Rivers also became increasingly aware of how the corporate system benefited people who looked exactly like him. At his bank, a handful of male executives oversaw a large number of female tellers, and unlike his female colleagues, Rivers repeatedly received opportunities to advance. While he was rising up the ranks, the women around him remained behind one-inch glass, passing rolls of quarters and depositing checks. Rivers was bothered by their plight, but not enough to speak out.

Back at home, Rivers and Pokrywka were having trouble. They fed each other’s workaholic tendencies and disappeared into their jobs—she chased tenure at Vassar while he rose up the corporate ladder at M & T Bank. “It was never about the money for Bob—that was just a way to keep score,” Pokrywka says. “What really drove his ambition was seeing what he could achieve, how far he could get.” They began to drift apart but were reluctant to acknowledge that their marriage wasn’t working. “We are both high achievers and good Catholics,” Pokrywka says, “so we saw it as a personal failure. We weren’t comfortable with failure.” Eventually, although they cared for each other, they separated on good terms.

Then Pokrywka made a stunning announcement, one that would have far-reaching effects: She’d fallen in love with a woman. Not everyone embraced the news, including her immediate family. For Rivers, watching a loved one endure discrimination firsthand brought all the social-justice issues that had been simmering in the back of his mind to the fore. “It went from my head,” he says, “straight to my heart.”

Next to the Kennedy photos in Rivers’s office is a shot of civil rights activist and attorney Mary Bonauto, who helped pave the way for gay marriage in 2004. Rivers, it turned out, needed a little more time to join the battle.

After the divorce, Rivers got back on track. He remarried, to former human resources executive Patricia Pergola, and they had two children. Then he developed an unexpected taste for risk.

On a snowy day in 2005, Rivers reluctantly flew to Omaha, where his friend Fred Kulikowski, president and COO of Commercial Federal Bank, was waiting for him. The bank was most likely going to be sold and Kulikowski wanted Rivers to help him manage the transition: “Bob is very earnest and grounded,” Kulikowski says, “and could talk about the change in a non-threatening way.” Rivers was the man he needed to weather the storm, but Kulikowski knew he’d need some convincing to move to the Midwest.

Kulikowski was living in temporary housing at the time and took Rivers to a Walmart, where Kulikowski—an avid gambler, a ranked poker player, and a die-hard Mets fan—bought two packs of baseball cards. “Bob was very loyal to M & T and didn’t want to move,” Kulikowski says, so he cooked up a bet. Kulikowski ripped into the pack of cards and told Rivers, If there are more Mets than Red Sox players in here, you’re moving to Omaha. Then he started counting. Rivers’s fate was sealed. “The fact that there were three Mets and two Red Sox in two packs was amazing,” Rivers says with a laugh. As if to assure me that the bet wasn’t totally crazy, he adds, “I’m a measured, thoughtful risk-taker, and I had a good feeling about the move.”

Rivers took his wife and two young children to Omaha, where he bought a house, but within a few months, Commercial Federal was sold and Rivers was out of a job. Still, the sale lined Rivers’s pockets with more money than he’d ever imagined, and he was suddenly free to move home and follow his conscience. “I had enough money that I could come back to Boston, buy a home in cash, and do what I wanted to do,” he says, “which was community and public service.”

That was the plan, anyway. But like the jaws of a pit bull, banking wouldn’t let him go. With Rivers now on the open market, Eastern Bank, in need of a new president, reached out. Rivers was wary. He’d followed this career as far as he wanted. What could yet another bank job really provide?

The corporate recruiter was clever, though, encouraging Rivers to learn more about Eastern Bank. If he wanted to do good, why not do so with a powerful institution behind him? Eastern had been founded in 1818 as Salem Savings Bank, one of the first mutual banks in the United States. Mutual banks were once considered philanthropic institutions; owned by members rather than investors, they offered a safe place for the poor or disenfranchised to keep their money and take out loans. The first depositor at Salem Savings was a widow named Rebecca Sutton, who, as a woman, could not do her own banking, so her male attorney did it for her. Rivers is quick to point out that the wealthy founders of Salem Savings developed this kind of banking during the 19th century because it was in their self-interest to do so. As the country’s one-percenters of the time, they knew that the free flow of capital would only help grow the region’s economy. In turn, their investments would grow, too. The bank was both right and smart from day one.

Rivers also learned that in 1999, Eastern Bank had formed a charitable foundation, committing an astounding 10 percent of its annual net income to various causes. (It has donated more than $115 million since then.) It was here that Rivers found his opening: He believed that the bank hadn’t fully leveraged its “giving toward any sort of position on social-justice or sustainability issues,” he says. He could use Eastern’s power to advance the issues he cared about.

Rivers joined the bank as president in 2006, finally gaining a platform for his newly adopted progressive agenda. But change was slow to come. The catalytic moment came four years later when Eastern bought Wainwright Bank & Trust for $163 million. Founded in Boston during the mid-1980s, Wainwright openly appealed to Boston’s LGBTQ community and earned national recognition for its socially progressive, community-oriented philosophy and practices. Its philanthropy was particularly geared to support gay causes, including HIV/AIDS research. “It was affectionately known as the gay bank,” Rivers says.

The purchase of Wainwright positioned Eastern Bank at the center of Boston’s liberal movement and provided a road map for the kind of bank Rivers wanted to build. “Acquiring Wainwright,” Rivers says, “gave me the opportunity to say to my Eastern Bank colleagues who were more right-leaning, or generally agnostic about the issues, Listen, I know you’re not really down with the gay community, but we now have 163 million reasons to be so.” Rivers was more determined than ever to shake up his hometown.

On the wall opposite the RFK gallery in River’s office hangs a triptych of nine postcards, each featuring a historical photo of racism in America—a segregated classroom; a “colored only” public restroom; three black civil rights demonstrators being sprayed by a firehose in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. These are not easy images to look at, and they demand attention.

Since Rivers took the helm at Eastern, the bank’s board has transformed from 8 percent non-white and non-male to 50 percent people of color, LGBTQ, and female. Eastern was one of the first companies to join GLAD in an amicus brief in opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, and in 2011, it began offering financial assistance to all married same-sex employees to counteract the federal taxes on their healthcare benefits. To address economic-development challenges, Rivers in 2013 cofounded the Lawrence Partnership, a private-public coalition that offers strategic advice, financing, and operational support to small and minority-owned businesses. He now leads similar initiatives in Brockton and Lowell. In 2017, Eastern established the Foundation for Business Equity and the Business Equity Initiative to help tackle Greater Boston’s income disparity, providing businesses owned by people of color with operational support, growth capital, and market access, as well as partnerships with the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Foundation. And all along, under Rivers’s canny leadership, Eastern Bank has thrived, surpassing $11 billion in assets under management for the first time this year.

Rivers’s success in Boston is so extraordinary that executives in other industries regularly ask him to connect them with blacks, Latinos, and women whom they can hire or contract with to improve corporate diversity at their companies. Rivers sees this as a necessary first step. After all, true gender and racial parity means transforming businesses at every level, from the bottom to the top—a major blow to the status quo. People in power, Rivers knows, often loathe change (which almost always involves some form of loss), especially if it forces them to think harder about their own views on gender and race. Leading by example, Rivers is challenging others like him to follow through.

Having gone through his own ideological conversion, Rivers also knows that it takes work to get others to actively embrace change, but he doesn’t want his peers to simply throw dollars at an issue and walk away. He’s determined to fully integrate the language of social justice into the language of Massachusetts business.

Even now, Rivers yearns for that sense of immediacy he first felt when his ex-wife announced that she was queer. “I network in communities because I want to develop close relationships, so that I can understand that experience, so I can really wear it,” he says. “Meeting people gives me a much greater depth of understanding and appreciation for the things that I advocate for.” That’s what propels him forward. “He is everywhere in the community and often in a lot of rooms that you don’t see other leaders of large companies,” Michelle Wu says. “He’s coming from a place of personal connection.”

To make the biggest splash, Rivers thinks strategically about how to wield his power. He seeks out causes that others might not. Fighting for transgender rights is the perfect example.

In 2016, Rivers and Eastern Bank threw their considerable weight behind bipartisan legislation that would extend the same anti-discrimination protections all other people in Massachusetts enjoy to those identifying as transgender; it was signed into law that year by Governor Charlie Baker. This November, voters will be able overturn these rights via ballot referendum. The wording of the referendum is tricky and potentially confusing, which is why the advocacy group Freedom for All Massachusetts built its campaign around the tag line “YES on 3.”

Rivers heard about the organization’s efforts in early June and personally reached out to the group. Freedom for All Massachusetts’ leaders then planned an event around Rivers’s and Boston Chamber of Commerce President Jim Rooney’s schedules, but didn’t have a venue or fundraising strategy. Rivers immediately offered to hold the event in the lobby of his bank. “They had the concept,” Rivers tells me, “but they hadn’t pulled it all together. I could step in and make it happen.”

Leading up to the event, Rivers emailed every top-level business leader he could think of who might support the cause. If he didn’t hear back, he emailed again. As always, his appeal was straightforward and on-message: This is good for Massachusetts and good for business. By the end of July, the list of corporate supporters was remarkable, even by Rivers’s standards. They’d raised a lot of money, too.

When it was finally time for the event, Rivers said a few warm words to the room of executives before yielding the mike to his guests. All those who gave $25,000 or more took turns explaining why they were advocating for transgender rights. It was Rivers’s way of getting them to testify, to express their support out loud, in front of one another, in public. One after another, the corporate executives pledged their support for the transgender community. They were firm in their resolve and committed to the cause. Yet each speech sounded oddly familiar, as if they all were reciting the lyrics of a great song they’d somehow just remembered: This is the right thing to do. And it is the smart thing to do.

Standing off to the side, Rivers smiled.