Robert G. Wilmers, the longtime chairman and chief executive officer who drove M&T Bank Corp.'s growth from a small local bank into one of the nation's biggest financial institutions, died unexpectedly late Saturday night.
Wilmers, 83, died at his home in New York City, said M&T spokesman C. Michael Zabel. His wife of 20 years, Elisabeth Roche Wilmers, was by his side, added Zabel, who said he received a phone call at 2:30 a.m. Sunday.
No information was available yet about the cause of death.
Wilmers was a larger-than-life figure in banking, business and Buffalo circles. He transformed M&T into a powerful economic force while also leaving his stamp on cultural institutions and public education in the region. He led the bank for almost 35 years, establishing a reputation for cautious but opportunistic growth while sticking mostly to conservative and traditional banking.
He also played a major role in the Western New York region and the state, and was widely viewed as the dean of the local business community. He was known for being outspoken on topics ranging from the financial services industry and regulation to taxes, public policy and education.
And he was viewed as a convener of influential voices, bringing business, community and political leaders together to push for changes. At a banking conference in New York City, for instance, Wilmers introduced Gary Crosby, CEO of First Niagara Bank, to Beth Mooney, the CEO of KeyBank. Key went on to acquire First Niagara.
"He was a remarkable banker, an even more remarkable citizen and a wonderful friend," said Warren E. Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and a longtime M&T shareholder. Berkshire Hathaway owns The Buffalo News and Buffett is its chairman.
"Buffalo just lost its best friend," Buffett told M&T Vice Chairman Rene Jones on Sunday morning.
In keeping with the Buffalo-based bank's succession plan, the Board of Directors immediately named lead outside director Robert T. Brady as non-executive chairman of M&T. Brady is the retired former chairman and CEO of East Aurora-based Moog Inc.
"Bob Wilmers' accomplishments as Chairman and CEO of M&T Bank are surpassed only by his commitment to our community, and every day he worked to fulfill his belief that the bank can only do well if the communities it serves do well," said Brady.
"The management team he built at M&T is long-tenured and deeply committed to Bob Wilmers' conservative, consistent, community-focused banking philosophy, and they will carry on that legacy, continuing to build M&T as a strong, successful and independent bank."
M&T did not name a new CEO right away, but said that its three vice chairmen – Richard S. Gold, Rene F. Jones and Kevin J. Pearson – will retain their roles and maintain responsibility for day-to-day operations.
The bank notified senior management by phone late Sunday morning, and also sent out word to all employees. "But it's difficult on a Sunday to reach everyone, so the news will be reaching our employees most likely today and tomorrow," Zabel said "This was news that had to be shared as we're able to do it."
The news caught the bank and broader community largely by surprise, as Zabel said there had been no indication of any health issues. That's in contrast to the deaths of former M&T President Mark Czarnecki and former Vice Chair Michael Pinto, both of whom died while battling cancer.
"With both Mike and Mark, we all had some time to prepare," Zabel said. "This was somehow more shocking and it's been the end of a tough year, but when you think about the team of people that Bob has assembled, the group of people that have built a culture together and a company together, we have a lot to build on as we move forward."
Steady hand, huge growth
Wilmers was widely respected in the industry and known for guiding M&T with a steady hand and traditional banking principles. He was synonymous with M&T, where he became chairman and CEO in May 1983, and held the roles almost continuously since then. At the time, the bank had $2 billion in assets, 2,000 employees and 51 branches in New York, and it had faced struggles.
Fueled by a steady series of 24 acquisitions, he oversaw its remarkable growth into an institution that today has more than $120 billion in assets, with about 17,000 employees and 783 branches in eight states and the District of Columbia. Of the 100 largest banks in 1983, only 23 remain today, and M&T notes with pride that it ranks first among them in stock price growth.
Even competitors admired him and mourned his loss.
"I knew Bob as a banking legend, colleague and competitor, but also as a friend," KeyCorp's Mooney said Sunday in an emailed statement expressing condolences. "M&T’s clients, employees and shareholders benefited from his leadership and steady guidance. The communities the bank serves, especially Buffalo, were fortunate to have someone with Bob’s vision, values and commitment."
His influence extends throughout the bank. Since Wilmers’ arrival, the bank implemented recruitment programs and developed a pipeline of future leaders. Wilmers favored promoting from within for most top jobs at the bank, evidenced by the long M&T tenures of each of the bank’s three vice chairmen.
His activities were hardly contained to M&T’s rise into a top-20 U.S. commercial bank. As a civic leader, he was a driving force behind charitable support for a variety of cultural institutions, and pushed for Buffalo to improve the quality of its public education system.
"There have been very few men who have done as much for Buffalo since its founding hundreds of years ago, as Bob Wilmers has done for several decades," said U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-NY. "He was a brilliant banker and a thoroughly decent, caring man."
Impact beyond banking
Wilmers' commitment to Buffalo was unquestioned, even as he maintained his New York City roots. He kept an apartment on West Ferry Street in Buffalo, and another on Central Park West in New York City, where he was known for getting around on his bicycle, even into his 80s. He also owned a home in Massachusetts. In 1998, Wilmers bought a small French winery, Chateau Haut-Bailly, that makes a single mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
And his involvement in the community was far and wide. The Albright-Knox Art Art Gallery, Buffalo Zoo, Shea's Performing Arts Center, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Buffalo's Olmstead Parks and the Darwin Martin House are just a few of the institutions that benefited from Wilmers' involvement, especially during the dark economic times of the late 1980s and early 1990s, noted Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
Wilmers made a $4 million personal gift to the zoo, and put up $75,000 to pay for a search for a new zoo president, a process that led to the hiring of Donna Fernandes, who went on to transform the institution.
"In Buffalo's darkest and most uncertain days, it was Bob Wilmers who stood up and saved what are arguably Buffalo's greatest assets: its cultural institutions," Higgins said.
Higgins praised Wilmers for stepping in to fill a community leadership void created after the region's manufacturing base collapsed. "I used to say that Bob Wilmers and M&T Bank didn't lead everything, but they were behind everything that was good that was happening in Buffalo," the South Buffalo politician said.
Buffalo News Publisher Warren Colville, who has known Wilmers for 30 years, called his death "a gigantic blow to the community."
"He may have been Buffalo's greatest supporter in so many ways. Anyplace you want to look, he was always there, and he always did the right thing," Colville said.
Wilmers and the late Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey together started the Group of 18, an informal organization of local leaders.
"He had an incredible mind. He had great vision," Colville said. "He was very passionate about certain things.
Under Wilmers, M&T also became active in supporting public education. In 1993, the bank became a corporate supporter of Westminster Community School, eventually helping it convert to a charter school. M&T is also a driving force in the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, an effort to improve schools and the surrounding neighborhood in a 97-block area in the northeast part of the city.
Wilmers paid for a $100,000 search that led to the hiring of James Williams as Buffalo’s school superintendent in 2005.
“I try to do the right thing,” Wilmers said in a past interview. “Like with the school search – my main concern was for Buffalo to have the best superintendent possible.”
Indeed, Higgins even credited Wilmers with encouraging his own development as a politician. After Higgins lost a 1993 bid for county comptroller, he applied for graduate school at Harvard University and was accepted. But he deferred his admission to Harvard because he was a young husband with two children and felt he needed to keep working.
When Wilmers heard about that, he told Higgins he might be able to help. "And within 24 hours, he had established the Western New York Harvard graduate fellowship – and I was the first recipient," Higgins said. "He had more confidence in me at the time than I had in myself."
To be sure, Higgins acknowledged, he and Wilmers disagreed on occasion in later years, on matters ranging from the New York Power Authority's reauthorization of its Niagara Falls hydro plant to the future of Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
But Higgins said Wilmers remained a great resource for him over the years as they continued to meet regularly over lunch or in Wilmers' office. "He was an enormous influence on my professional career in both light and dark days," Higgins said.
Buffalo by way of Belgium
Wilmers was born in New York City and spent part of his childhood in Belgium, where his father was an executive and then president of a Belgian utility.
He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, graduated from Harvard College at Harvard University in 1956 and attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Business Administration. Wilmers took a job with the international department of New York-based Bankers Trust Corp., an elite lender that focused on corporations and the wealthy.
After three years, he took a leave to work as deputy New York City finance commissioner for four years under Mayor John Lindsay. He oversaw 2,000 people, a $6 billion budget and a $13 billion cash flow.
Returning to banking, he joined J.P. Morgan & Co.'s Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. From 1973 to 1977, he led the company’s Belgian operation – that country’s fifth-biggest bank – and was decorated by the Belgian king for his community work.
He returned to the United States and set up and ran Morgan’s international private banking unit. That would be his last career stop before Buffalo.
A turning point in Wilmers’ career – and M&T’s future – came in the early 1980s. By then, Wilmers had formed an investment company, raised money from like-minded investors and sought an undervalued bank to buy, eventually choosing M&T from among 80 banks.
From the end of 1979 through early 1982, the group bought up shares of M&T, ultimately amassing nearly 24 percent of the stock and joining the board.
The goal was to push for change. But Wilmers was named president in 1982, and when the CEO retired, the board in 1983 elected Wilmers as CEO.
He never looked back, and only once showed any inclination to retire from M&T. In 2005, Wilmers handed the roles of president and CEO to Robert Sadler Jr. as part of an initial transition, but he remained intensely involved as chairman. Just 18 months later, Sadler retired after deciding the top job wasn't for him, and Wilmers reclaimed the CEO’s duties.
Wilmers was known for being passionate about issues he cared about and advocating for change, but he wasn’t perceived as someone who craved the spotlight. In interviews — where he often didn't say much anyway — he deflected credit for the bank’s accomplishments and sidestepped some questions with the line, “That’s above my pay grade.”
“If you didn’t know who Bob Wilmers was, you would have no idea from the way he carries himself and the way he treats others,” said Andrew J. Rudnick, the former president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, in a 2005 interview. “He just doesn’t seek the adoring public or the aggrandizement or the accolades.”
Wilmers earned accolades anyway. American Banker gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 and named him its 2011 Banker of the Year. The Buffalo News twice named him a Citizen of the Year. He received honorary degrees from Canisius College, Niagara University and the University at Buffalo. UB gave him its highest honor, the Charles P. Norton Medal, and the president of France presented him with the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 2008.
He also served as chairman of the New York State Bankers Association in 2002, and was a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1993 to 1998.
His public profile grew well beyond Buffalo and banking. In 2008, Wilmers accepted an unexpected assignment, when Gov. David A. Paterson named him chairman of Empire State Development Corp. Wilmers remained in charge of M&T, but he resigned from the Empire State Development role a year later.
And his annual letter to shareholders was not only a staple of his leadership at the bank, but also a widely regarded critique of industry, community and government leadership. The letter went beyond a mere recitation of the bank’s financial performance over the past year. He commented on everything from public education to politicians to the local economy’s health, and his words carried weight.
“Whether for better or worse, there’s no doubt that Wilmers is top gun,” said then-Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde in 2005. “For my money, there is nobody around here with more pull to get what he wants or to sidetrack what he doesn’t like.”
And although M&T grew exponentially under his leadership, Wilmers often sought to distinguish traditional commercial banks like M&T from risk-taking Wall Street institutions that relied heavily on investment banking or private equity.
Instead, M&T depended on the basics of banking, although acquisitions were also a vital part of its growth strategy. During the S&L crisis in the early 1990s, Empire of America and Goldome were seized by federal regulators. M&T teamed with Key to divide the local spoils, and M&T brought in a new investor, Warren Buffett, to pull off the Goldome deal.
M&T bought Allfirst Financial in Maryland in 2003 for $3.1 billion in cash and stock, expanding the bank’s mid Atlantic presence. And in 2012, M&T agreed to buy New Jersey-based Hudson City Bancorp for $3.7 billion.
But the Hudson City deal ran into unexpected delays, as federal regulators found shortcomings in M&T’s anti-money laundering system and Bank Secrecy Act programs. M&T staffed up and poured tens of millions of dollars into upgrading its technology and systems, but Wilmers stayed committed to the Hudson City deal, predicting it would be the bank’s “next shining success story.” M&T finally completed the deal, which had risen in value to $5.3 billion, in late 2015.
Wilmers is survived by his wife, Elisabeth; his son, Christopher; four step-children, Camille de Wouters, Guillaume de Wouters, Juliette Chevalier and Charlotte de Coupigny; two grandsons and eleven step-grandchildren. His oldest son, Robert Jr., died in 1993.
No details were available yet on funeral arrangements.
News Staff Reporter Matthew Spina contributed to this report.