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BizTalk: A Q&A with M&T veteran Janet Coletti

Janet M. Coletti sits at an exclusive table at M&T Bank.

She was promoted to executive vice president of human resources in March and joined the Buffalo-based bank’s management committee. That committee consists of M&T’s top 13 executives, led by chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers.

Each Tuesday, the members meet to set the direction and oversee the performance of the Buffalo-based bank, an institution with more than $96 billion in assets, more than 650 branch offices, and 16,000 employees. They weigh in on all facets of the bank’s operations, not just their own areas of responsibility.

M&T spotted Coletti’s potential early on. After the East Aurora native graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, the bank hired her in 1985 for its management development program. The selective program trains young talent for management positions, and has an alumni network that Coletti proudly belongs to.

Coletti previously worked in both retail and business banking at M&T, and helped bring newly acquired banks into the fold. In her latest role, she succeeded Stephen J. Braunscheidel, who switched to part-time status at the bank.

Coletti, 51, now lives in Williamsville. She reflected on what the bank means to businesses, and what M&T looks for in new hires.

Q: When you were hired, did you imagine you would make your career at M&T?

A: Not at all. Probably like many college graduates, at least at that time, I knew that I wanted a job. I knew that I wanted to become affiliated with a company about which I felt strongly. I wanted to contribute in big ways, I had big ideas. And I had a lot of debt. I had assumed loan debt, I had a car that didn’t quite run as well as I would have liked.

So I really wanted someplace where I could sort of jump in, continue learning, and contribute and make money, to be honest.

Then I found myself very much at the right time, right place. I joined M&T in 1985, and in 1990, we began doing acquisitions in a really meaningful way. I had been with the retail bank by that time for five years. I wasn’t so settled that I couldn’t move around and I couldn’t be flexible, but I also kind of knew enough that I could be helpful.

I then became affiliated with many, many of the acquisitions that we did from that point forward. So that kept me very engaged and very interested and very challenged. … I think because there was a new challenge ever year or two or three, that kept me very engaged and committed.

Q: You were head of business banking for about five years. What did you learn about the business community in that role?

A: I was able to get a little closer to the customers in that role, I would say. There are just millions of consumers and hundreds of thousands of small businesses and a fewer number of middle-market companies, so it’s just a smaller universe.

We take care of about 180,000 small business clients. I would I say I found them to be very appreciative of their banker. They rely on a team, including their banker, and their accountant and their attorney to help sort of set up their almost mini-board of directors, if you will, to help them run their companies. So you’re able to get pretty close to the companies and the employees of those companies.

I would say that because I joined the business banking group shortly after the financial crisis, you see so clearly how invested small business owners are.

They will give everything to that business. They are so personally and deeply committed, it kind of makes you that much more personally and deeply committed to them.

I have a lot of affection and I have a deep appreciation for the relationship managers that we have on the business banking team, too, because they are that close to the customers and helping them and advising them, but similarly they have a lot of responsibilities to manage within the bank, and they do it very well.

Q: You are one of 13 people on M&T’s management committee. What is that like?

A: I was really honored, really privileged, a little overwhelmed about the whole notion. It is very active. It is enormously consistent: that is, we meet every Tuesday in person, period.

What I have witnessed is, every single management group member is very interested, very involved, and very engaged in whatever the subject matter is we’re discussing. There’s no issue too small, there’s no issue too large.

People are really enormously engaged in making sure we’re doing the right things for the employees and ultimately the right things for the shareholders and the bank. So it’s not so narrow as I guess I might have imagined.

Q: Are the meetings free-flowing or highly structured?

A: We work off an agenda every Tuesday, so there’s definitely some order to it. But it’s very free-flowing. There is a lot of dialogue. Mark Czarnecki, the president of the bank, he’s really committed to, if the management group wants to talk about a matter, we talk about it, however long it takes, because ultimately you’re getting the issue, whatever it might be, to a better resolution. More opinions are better.

Q: How does M&T recruit new hires?

A: We have a number of sort of programmatic efforts to bring individuals into the bank, get them trained in one way or another, depending on the business line with which they’re affiliated and preparing them to contribute.

We also rely heavily on employee referrals. I think that’s a very, very important aspect of our recruiting success. When you have an employee referral, you need to treat that like gold, because those individuals know what it’s like to work here.

We also do recruiting in a more traditional sense, sometimes using organizations to help us when we’re recruiting for certain positions, and then we’re periodically advertising for certain positions when they become available.

We have about 600 positions that are open right now in the Western New York area alone.

Q: How about retention? Is there stiff competition to keep people aboard?

A: Absolutely. We talk an awful lot about that. We work hard, and I think we would like to work harder and harder, at making sure our managers are good and dedicated and smart leaders. Because I think you rarely leave a good manager.

So if you feel like that person is interested in you, and cares about you, and is helping you grow and develop, and then you add to that that you’re with an institution you admire and feel really confident about the vision and the direction of the bank, you’re inclined to stick with us.

Our tenure is very high here. I think our average tenure is 10½ years, which is I want to say double what it is in most financial institutions.

Q: What kind of skills or qualities does the bank look for in new college graduates?

A: In some cases, we’re looking for very technical skills. It may be that we’re looking for people who are going to work in our central technology group, or people that are going to work in our compliance and risk group, or people that are going to work with some of our modeling functions.

Beyond that, I think we look for people who have good general management skills. Now, when you’re early in your career, it’s hard to have a lot of those specific skills. But I think if you can show you have sort of a balance to your approach and that you have a commitment to collaboration, I think those are things we’re definitely looking for.

I also think regardless of the position you find yourself in, whether it is technical in orientation or whether it’s a little bit more of a general management type of position, good communication skills are really, really critical.

Q: You are one of two women on M&T’s management committee. How would you like to help more women move up to that high level?

A: I would say that our commitment to the bank to a sort of diverse and inclusive environment has developed considerably and is better than it ever has been. I think that we really want, and I know I really want, to make sure that we have an environment that feels really inclusive and very comfortable so people here can succeed.

And beyond that, in large part we’re here to serve communities and serve customers, so we want to make sure we look like those communities and those customers.

You want to look up or over and see people who look like you, because you tend to think that perhaps if that person did it, and is contributing that way, I think I could, too.