Listening Intently

A unique combination of raw talent, hard work, community service, and the ability to hear what few others do has propelled Westchester County Association CEO William M. Mooney Jr. throughout his career.

William M. Mooney Jr. was getting ready to retire from a long career in banking when he was asked to run the Westchester County Association… just until a permanent president and chief executive could be found.

That was in 2003. Then in his 60s and a senior vice president of the Brooklyn-based Independence Community Bank, Mooney had made a name for himself. He’d once been in charge of all of Chase Bank’s New York branches, as well as CEO of Hudson Valley Bank. Indeed, he had been working pretty much ever since he got a job as a delivery boy at age 13, growing up in the Inwood section of northern Manhattan. So he was ready to take it easy.

Nonetheless, he agreed to “babysit” the WCA, with its mission of supporting business in the county. But something happened on the way to a quick exit: The board wasn’t finding a suitable replacement, and Mooney found he was enjoying himself. He took on the cause of an ailing healthcare industry in the region, looking at hospitals not merely as the place to go when you’re sick but as a major and vital sector of the region’s economy, employing 30,000 people.

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“I was here for several months, and I got to love it,” he says. “It’s probably been the best work experience of my life. To be able to work in a job where you can help people and make a difference in the community — it’s the real deal.”

At the time, the local healthcare industry was ailing. Westchester Medical Center was in debt. Two hospitals closed. Insurance companies were “gouging” hospitals, says Mooney. The WCA took on the issue “before it was fashionable,” he adds. With the organization’s help, a slew of laws were passed that, among other things, limited health plans’ ability to deny care it had preauthorized.

“He helped transform [the WCA] into an advocacy/think-tank organization that identifies, researches, and attacks issues that impact the economy and residents of the county,” explains WCA Chairman William Harrington, who is also a chairman  in the White Plains law firm Bleakley Platt & Schmidt.

Now 77, Mooney is still heading the WCA. As president and chief executive officer, he reports to the office on Westchester’s Platinum Mile every day after attending morning Mass with his wife, Joan, in White Plains, where they also reside. He oversees a core staff of five people, plus three who have been added as part of a $9.8 million federal grant to run the Jobs Waiting program, training the long-term unemployed for new jobs in a local healthcare industry that is burgeoning.

Under his guidance, the WCA is also spearheading a $750 million effort to bring superfast Internet (one gigabit per second) to Westchester. The gigabit project is a joint effort with Westchester’s four largest cities — Yonkers, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, and White Plains. Bringing Internet access to homes and businesses 200 times faster than standard Internet, the project is expected to open vast avenues of opportunity for businesses, entertainment, and education. 

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“You’re going to need [high-speed Internet] if you want to be competitive, not only to keep up but to move ahead and attract jobs and Millennials,” Harrington says.

As different as such work is from banking, it also harks back to an important aspect of the industry Mooney rose up through starting in the late 1950s: helping communities. Mooney recalls being surprised at how seriously bankers took service to the community then. When he worked at Chemical Bank in his 30s, it employed a cadre of 36 “street bankers,” who fanned out in the underserved areas, helping with services such as bookkeeping for small businesses that might need it.

“I was so impressed by that as a young guy,” Mooney recalls. “That’s the way it was in those days: They thought first about their community and second about their issues of making money. Logic would have it that if you helped the community, you would be better off.”

As Mooney tells it, he got into banking by chance, and only after trying for a very different career. An All-American baseball player in high school, he tried out for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in 1957, just before the team left Brooklyn. He was told by a scout that he could probably be a good Triple-A ballplayer but that he was unlikely to make the big leagues. He was also called by a scout for the Yankees, but his father put a halt to his tryout when he told Mooney he would have to get a steady job immediately.

“He says: ‘I just lost my job, and you’re going to have to help. You graduated from high school, and you’re going to have to work,’” Mooney remembers. “The next morning, I got on the subway and got off at 42nd Street, and there was a sign on a Citibank. It read: ‘Help wanted.’ I was very fortunate; they hired me right on the spot.”

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He began as a messenger; two promotions later, he was a clerk. Mooney attended Manhattan College at night, taking eight years to earn a business degree. From Citibank, he moved to a small institution in Rockland County, the Tappan Zee National Bank, which was taken over by Chemical in 1972.

Part of what drives Mooney is his diligence in compensating for a disability few people know about. Mooney is profoundly deaf, a condition that developed in his teen years and forced him to learn how to read lips. That causes him to put in extra work to prepare for meetings; he also arrives to meetings early to get a good vantage point, away from the glare of sunlight through windows, which can make it harder to watch people’s mouths as they speak. When dining with a group, he opts for restaurants with round tables, allowing him to face whoever he is speaking with.

“People used to say, ‘Bill looks right at you,’” Mooney shares. “I wasn’t looking at their eyes; I was looking at their lips. I learned how to say, ‘Huh?’ 50 different ways.”

In his office — a space decorated with framed honors and photos of him, his wife, their four children, and nine grandchildren — a window has been cut into the wall that separates him from the office of his special assistant, Amy Cassidy. It allows him to communicate with her more easily.

His hearing improved greatly several years ago, with new, more powerful hearing aids. Even with the devices in, he is still moderately deaf, but the improvement is dramatic. In fact, the aids work so well, they took some getting used to, as he learned on a family vacation.

“The first month or so I had them, I’m down at Hilton Head, sitting on the beach,” Mooney says. “I hear the waves — never heard the waves in my life; I hear the people. I said, ‘I can’t read my book; there’s too much noise,’” adding that it was as if a new world had opened up to him. “It was wonderful.”

But the years Mooney spent compensating for his hearing deficit wound up paying dividends to his business career. Indeed, Harrington says Mooney succeeds in part because of his readiness to pay attention to others.

“One of his strengths is that he listens,” Harrington points out. “Many people fail to listen because they think they know the answer…. He understands that it’s an ongoing process.”

Mooney’s contributions to his community do not end with the workday. He is a member of many boards and organizations. He has also passed on his wisdom about dealing with partial or total deafness, spending several years mentoring students at the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains. Over the years, others with hearing problems have reached out to him for advice.

In 2004, he was given the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, an accolade for a life dedicated to community service. Receiving the medal in a ceremony on Ellis Island, Mooney was honored, along with professionals in business, medicine, law enforcement, architecture, and other fields. Other recipients have included Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra, Coretta Scott King, Bob Hope, Elie Wiesel, General Norman Schwarzkopf, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

It was this same medal-worthy drive that made him stand out when he began dating Joan Hogarty, who was a member of his circle of friends. They began going out as teens, with a night at the movies, “and then we never stopped,” Mooney says. They married on January 26, 1963.

It was Joan who’d encouraged him to enroll in college. Later, he got her into golfing, while she convinced him to attend Mass regularly, a practice he credits with helping him keep perspective throughout the workday.

In the office, says WCA Vice President Amy Allen, Mooney is particularly effective at finding people’s strengths. 

“He sees the big picture and finds our passion [within] that picture,” she says. “He likes to empower people. He’s not a micromanager at all, but you know when he wants something to get done.”

By taking on advocacy and business-policy roles, Allen says, Mooney returned the WCA to what was intended when it was formed in 1950. He also found opportunities and challenges he had not anticipated when he took what was supposed to be a temporary job more than a decade ago.

“At the end of the day, either you raise the money or you don’t,” Mooney says. “If you don’t help others, you don’t make enough money to exist. It’s pretty simple and straightforward stuff. So, it’s been a great run.”  

New Rochelle-based writer Ken Valenti has covered many aspects of life and business in all corners of Westchester County.

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