Mark J. Czarnecki built a distinguished 40-year career at M&T Bank, rising from assistant to branch manager to the bank's president and chief operating officer.
But for all the promotions he earned, Czarnecki's colleagues and friends remember him more for his kindness and humility, and his dedication to his job and the community.
Czarnecki died at age 61 on Sunday, after a lengthy treatment for cancer in his pancreas. He disclosed his diagnosis in August 2015, but stayed in the bank's No. 2 executive role.
Longtime colleagues say his personal style left a lasting impression that they have sought to emulate.
"I always thought he disproved the adage, 'Nice guys finish last,'" said Richard S. Gold, who first met Czarnecki about 25 years ago and is now M&T's chief risk officer. "You would be astounded about how many people who cite him as a mentor and friend and someone to lend a hand as they were building their careers."
As president and COO, Czarnecki had overall responsibility for the Buffalo-based bank's day-to-day management. Those duties included its retail, business banking, consumer lending, investment and mortgage businesses, as well as human resources, marketing and technology and bank operations.
The Buffalo native joined M&T in 1977. He started at M&T six years before Robert G. Wilmers came to the bank, which proved a turning point in M&T’s history. Czarnecki climbed the management ranks as M&T began its own steady rise, growth that was fueled by a series of acquisitions over the decades. He became M&T’s president in 2007 and added the duties of chief operating officer in 2014.
Wilmers, the chairman and CEO, said "no task was too small, no job was too large" for Czarnecki. "He focused on the big things, he focused on the little things. He'd been here for 40 years and knew an awful lot of people. He was a great judge of people."
Wilmers relied heavily on Czarnecki's judgment to select people for important roles at the bank. "I think the team we have running the bank today is in no small part due to him. They're in those positions due to him."
"Everybody had respect for him because of his focus on whatever it was: doing things the right way, having a proper culture, making sure we were doing business with the right people, making sure that every area of the bank was doing what it was supposed to do, whether it was automobile lending or auditing or worrying about the risks we have in the bank," Wilmers said.
Czarnecki was on the boards of directors for M&T Bank Corp. and its primary subsidiary, M&T Bank. He also was part of M&T’s management committee, which meets weekly to set the bank’s direction.
Colleagues such as Janet M. Coletti, who joined M&T in the mid 1980s, said they benefited greatly from his example. Coletti, a management trainee when she first met Czarnecki, was assigned to a branch. "The branch manager at the time said, 'I think it would really be beneficial for you to spend some time with our commercial loan officer.'" That loan officer was Czarnecki, and he took along Coletti on her first customer call, to T-W Truck Equippers.
Not long after that, Czarnecki was named manager of a branch in Amherst, and Coletti worked with him. "He was devoted to the employees first and foremost," said Coletti, now M&T's executive vice president of human resources. "He really took good care of us in the branch, so then by extension, the customers always felt so good about working with us and banking with us."
Coletti sensed even then Czarnecki was destined for bigger things. Along with running the branch, he found time to work with the Town of Amherst and its chamber of commerce, and contributed to internal projects for the bank.
Czarnecki's personal qualities shone through even as he took on greater responsibilities with M&T, Coletti said. "I think one of the hallmarks of our success at the bank is that we work together really, really closely and collaboration is so important, and I think the reason behind that is Mark. He embodied that and sort of lived that every day."
Czarnecki was dedicated to M&T until the end. "He was intensely involved in what was happening at the bank, as late as last week," Coletti said. Last week, Czarnecki was putting together a schedule for this week's management committee meeting.
Wilmers said Czarnecki did not pull back from his work at the bank after learning he had cancer.
"I think he probably worked even harder, because he realized he had less time," Wilmers said. "He was anxious that the bank be in as good as shape as possible when he was around no longer. He never said it in those words or thought it in those words. He just wanted everything to be right at the bank as soon as possible."
He summed up Czarnecki's legacy at M&T this way: "Whatever's good about the bank today, in large part that's thanks to him."
Gary Crosby, the former CEO of First Niagara Bank, periodically saw Czarnecki while he was undergoing treatment. "He was always upbeat and bound and determined to beat it, but he was always realistic in terms of what he was up against."
Gold said Czarnecki maintained a strong interest in ensuring M&T's employees worked well together and was eager to help employees along in their careers. "Wherever he went, he always kind of kept us in tow," he said. "He never let go of a relationship he established."
Czarnecki reflected the bank's steady approach to growth. “The culture of the bank is to lend to people we know, build on the relationships, with a relatively conservative credit culture,” he said in an interview several years ago. “And that’s been the distinguishing factor for us.”
Czarnecki also served in roles apart from his duties at M&T. He was president of the New York Bankers Association in 2010 and was active in community organizations, serving as chairman of the Westminster Foundation and the Westminster Community Charter School, both in partnership with Buffalo Promise Neighborhood.
Crosby and Czarnecki worked together on Westminster, when Crosby was with the Buffalo school system. "He was a tough negotiator, but as I think back, he always had the interests of the kids in mind. I was really impressed and touched by how dedicated he was to the success of the kids at Westminster, (and) at the school district in general," Crosby said.
David J. Nasca, president and CEO of Evans Bank, said even as M&T grew both locally and in other regions, Czarnecki "was a guy that was very committed to seeing Buffalo prosper. So it was good to have a senior leader that was a significant presence at a regional bank that was still very committed to Buffalo and made things happen in Buffalo."
Kevin Quinn, HSBC Bank USA's top Buffalo-based executive, who worked at M&T for 11 years, described Czarnecki as "always a stand-up guy and I think a highly respected and trusted banker. And there's no question about his dedication to both M&T, as well as the Western New York community. So it's a big loss on many fronts."
Buford Sears, KeyBank's Buffalo regional market president, who worked at M&T from 1992 to 2010, called Czarnecki a "class act and a very good man."
Czarnecki was also vice chairman of the University at Buffalo Council and director of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and served as the chairman of the Buffalo Zoo’s board of directors. While he was the zoo board's vice chairman, he led the search for a new president that in 2000 hired Donna Fernandes, who went on to transform the institution.
"He always had Buffalo's best interests at heart, no doubt about that," Crosby said. "His spare time, which was precious, he devoted to the community for sure."
Czarnecki earned a bachelor of science degree from UB and an MBA from Canisius College. He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Elizabeth, and their children, Christopher and Gregory.