M&T CEO Robert Wilmers is latest Bloomberg Billionaire - The Buffalo News
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M&T CEO Robert Wilmers is latest Bloomberg Billionaire

The stock market's "Trump Bump" has turned M&T Bank CEO Robert G. Wilmers into a billionaire.

Wilmers, the soft-spoken executive who has helped turn M&T from a sleepy regional bank into one of nation's biggest financial institutions during his 33 years as its top executive, pushed into the billionaire ranks after the Buffalo bank's shares jumped by 25 percent following the November presidential election.

The steep rally has boosted the value of Wilmers' M&T stock by a little more than $100 million since the Nov. 8 election of Donald Trump, who many analysts believe will try to roll back some of the regulations that financial institutions now face and create a better operating environment for banks.

That gain was enough to turn Wilmers into a billionaire, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Expectations for the Trump administration have sparked a rally in bank stocks that has pushed up share prices by an average of 21 percent since the election.

"The environment has never been better for financials," said Peter Winter, managing director at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles. "You've got interest rates moving higher, Trump is pro-business and then there's the hope that there will be some regulatory reform."

The last two months have been especially good to M&T's stock, with the shares jumping from $114 on Oct. 14 to $155 on Thursday – a gain of 37 percent, even though the rise in the local bank's shares has plateaued since the beginning of the year. An investor who bought M&T shares during the summer of 2012 has seen the value of that investment more than double since then.

Of course, Wilmers' billionaire status is only on paper. A drop in M&T's stock price could turn the banker back into a multi-multi-millionaire.

For the moment, though, he joins a short list of Buffalo-based billionaires. Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr., the chairman of concessions giant Delaware North Cos., with a fortune that Forbes magazine pegged at $4.1 billion, ranked as the 142nd richest person in  America last year. Robert Rich Jr., the chairman of Buffalo food products manufacturer Rich Products, ranked 150th with a fortune estimated at $3.8 billion.

Terry Pegula, the Florida resident who along with his wife, Kim, owns the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, was 134th with an estimated net worth of $4.1 billion.

Wilmers, 82, has been the bank's CEO for more than 30 years, guiding the bank through a series of acquisitions that have built it into a banking company that had $123 billion in assets at the end of last year, 58 times more than the $2.1 billion it had when he took over in 1983. Since then, M&T has pushed beyond its home market in the Buffalo Niagara region to extend its branch network across upstate New York and into states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

"Wilmers has engineered almost 30 years of consistent earnings growth, conservative lending standards and excellent returns to shareholders," said Jim Sinegal, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. "The bank's stock has returned more than 19 percent annually since 1980 – an extremely impressive return in a competitive industry."

Along the way, Wilmers has been relatively modestly compensated compared with much more lucrative pay packages in the banking industry, often worth tens of millions of dollars or more. Wilmers criticized the banking industry's compensation practices in a letter to shareholders in 2015.

Wilmers, for instance, was paid $1.38 million in salary and bonus in 2015 – the same that he received in both 2013 and 2014. But Wilmers also traditionally receives an even larger portion of his total compensation in stock, which is designed to give him and other top M&T executives a bigger financial stake in the performance of the bank's shares. During 2014 and 2015, Wilmers received stock worth an estimated $1.7 million each year. As Wilmers has accumulated more shares, his net worth has grown in tandem with M&T's share price.

Wilmers, through a bank spokesman, declined to comment.

Not all of Wilmers's moves at M&T have worked out as planned. Its 2012 purchase of Hudson City Bancorp to expand M&T in New Jersey, was delayed as the Federal Reserve reviewed M&T's anti-money laundering controls. M&T ended up engaging 12 consulting firms at a cost of $178 million to improve its risk management processes with the Fed finally approving the merger in September 2015, one of the longest delays in U.S. banking history, according to analysts.

On Friday, the company reported fourth-quarter results that missed analysts' estimates, as a charitable contribution affected earnings.

Bloomberg News contributed to this story.

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