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Editorial: Wilmers was an exceptional banker and a model for civic leadership

Even in a region brimming with generous people and able business leaders, Robert G. Wilmers stood out. Focused, perceptive and visionary, Wilmers spent almost four decades turning M&T Bank into a national powerhouse while investing, corporately and personally, in his adopted city of Buffalo. Western New York will dearly miss one of its premier citizens.

Wilmers died unexpectedly overnight Saturday at his home in New York City. He was 83, though anyone who didn’t know it would have been hard-pressed to guess it of the bicycle-riding, winery-owning, civic-minded long-term CEO.

He was, first and foremost, a banker, and a truly exceptional one. His success at M&T paved the way for his influence in a community that he worked, heart and soul, to improve. His influence was felt around the area, especially in education and the arts.

He built that influence honestly and over the course of decades. Based on experience as a banker with Bankers Trust and J.P. Morgan & Co., interrupted by four years as deputy New York City finance commissioner for then-Mayor John Lindsay, he began in the late 1970s looking for an undervalued bank to buy and develop.

To this region’s everlasting benefit, he chose M&T Bank from a list of 80 institutions.

Starting in 1979, an investment group he founded started buying shares in M&T, gathering almost 24 percent of the bank’s stock and joining the board. By 1982, he was president and the next year became CEO. And so began a long, fruitful career characterized by a vision of careful but determined growth that today counts among its assets more than 775 branches and some 17,000 employees in eight states and the District of Columbia. Under his guidance, M&T rose to the top 20 of American commercial banks. He commanded – and deserved – respect within the industry and the community.

For some business leaders, that would be work enough for a lifetime. Wilmers had other ideas. He parlayed his elevated status into a high-level community activism that left Buffalo better – far better – than he found it.

His impact can be found at the Buffalo Zoo, to which he made a personal gift of $4 million and put up another $75,000 to find a new zoo president. That search led to the hiring of Donna Fernandes, whose leadership pushed the institution to new heights. That’s vision.

He was honorary chairman of the restoration project at the Darwin Martin House, to which he also donated. The house, built by famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is now one of Buffalo’s top tourist attractions. That, too, is vision.

He gave a $1 million challenge grant to fund the restoration of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, now an anchor of Buffalo’s reawakening Main Street. Under his leadership, M&T this year became a sponsor of the city’s Reddy Bikeshare program. That’s leadership coming from a man known to ride his own bicycle near his Manhattan home on Central Park West.

If he was committed to Buffalo’s culture, though, he well understood the crucial role that improved education would have to play in the city’s life. In 1993, the bank became a corporate supporter of Westminster Community School, and helped it convert to a charter school. The bank is a driver of the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, meant to improve schools and the neighborhood in a 97-block area in the northeast part of the city. He also paid for the $100,000 superintendent search that led to the hiring of James Williams. That’s commitment.

Former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello may have best described Wilmers’ indispensable role in the revival of a city then down on its luck. “The more we have Bob Wilmers involved, the better off we are as a community.” He said that 12 years ago. What was true then was truer still on Saturday. He was the kind of leader that communities take care to remember, both for what he did and for the influence his steady example may yet produce on others.

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