Sean Kirst: Bob Wilmers' quiet presence lingers in his 19th-floor office - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst: Bob Wilmers' quiet presence lingers in his 19th-floor office

The office is on the 19th floor of One M&T Plaza. Piles of documents, stacked in a system only Bob Wilmers exactly understood, line the wall behind the desk.

From that vantage point, Wilmers could glance down at Coca-Cola Field. It was especially helpful when his son served as a bat boy for the Buffalo Bisons, almost 30 years ago.

On his desk, to the right, is a mug from the Westminster Community Charter School, a Wilmers passion. He used the mug for water, never coffee. To the left rests a small clock and a calculator, along with eight sharpened pencils and eight yellow legal pads.

Wilmers used an iPad, but not a desktop computer. Given his choice, above all else, he preferred pencils. He'd jot down thoughts in black-and-white composition notebooks. He kept them in an old leather briefcase, never far out of reach.

"He was frugal," said Gerri Kozlowski, his longtime executive assistant in Buffalo. "He didn’t want to replace something if it still had use. He was the only boss I ever had who never threw out paper clips."

Many executives use a chair that lifts them higher than visitors. Wilmers did the opposite. His chair had been around for so long that his hands wore imprints in the leather arm rests. It seemed as if he sank lower and lower into it, over the years.

Finally, on his behalf, Kozlowski asked some maintenance workers to see what they could do. The chair was beyond help. Wilmers accepted that he needed a new one.

It was on order. He never had a chance to try it. At 83, Wilmers died unexpectedly last Saturday in New York City, where he spent part of each week. M&T has named Rene F. Jones as Wilmers' successor as chairman and CEO.

Gerri Kozlowski with the chair Bob Wilmers used for as long as she knew him. Note the imprints worn into the arm rests by his hands. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

For a while, amid the shock, no one is touching Wilmers' office.

"I don't want to cry," Kozlowski said.

She hopes he would have approved of the message she wants to convey. She knew Wilmers as quiet and precise, a guy who often deflected credit.

He was also the kind of citizen-banker whose distinct, unyielding and passionate philosophy on regional banking, specifically on Buffalo and upstate New York, turned him into a legendary figure.

Wilmers did multimillion dollar business in that office, tapping out big numbers on the calculator.

He also had countless discussions about arts institutions and a fragile economy and the fate of children in struggling schools.

End of an era: M&T's Robert Wilmers, force in community, dies at 83

Regional leaders, sometimes national or even international leaders, met him in that building. He had a sweeping and stubborn sense of purpose, a throwback to the era when a prominent banker with a larger mission could forge and project a civic personality.

On a quiet Friday, three days before Christmas, Kozlowski and Mike Zabel, the group vice president for corporate communications at M&T, opened up his office for one reason.

They believe the simplicity, in its own way, becomes a eulogy.

Kozlowski, 73, spent a dozen years with Wilmers. She pointed out a giant plant near his desk. The branches obscured something hanging on a wall.

It is a framed copy of a Joe Nocera column about Wilmers from The New York Times. The headline reads, "The Good Banker." The gist of it is the notion that the largest American banks are often irresponsible, operating behind what Wilmers called "an unsafe business model," too often forgetting the core principles that define community.

The one column about his achievements or philosophy, hidden behind a plant, that Bob Wilmers allowed to hang in his office. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

That column hangs where only he could see it. As for other honors he'd received, the groundbreaking shovels emblazoned with his name, the plaques or awards for community service?

Kozlowski opened a closet door. There were stacks of awards, carefully cataloged. No visitor would ever realize they exist.

"As long as I knew him," Kozlowski said, "he'd much rather listen than speak."

Her desk was by his door. She'd greet him each morning at 8:15 a.m.

On a typical day, he would stay almost 12 hours, until 7:45 p.m.

At the peak of success, he remained uncomfortable, even worried, about giving speeches, she said. When forced to do it, he'd close the door and practice alone.

For dinners with clients and similar events, he carried an index card. It always contained the same information, updated by his staff to the last decimal point. He wanted M&T's latest stock growth, for instance. He wanted its lender ranking from the Small Business Administration.

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Every day, his staff clipped out newspaper articles in Buffalo – about banking, politics, cultural events and beyond all else, community – and put them together with a rubber band. He'd stick them in the briefcase, to read at home.

The joke was that somewhere Wilmers kept a vault, piled high with ancient clippings.

Like everyone close to Wilmers, Zabel and Kozlowski say he routinely peppered them with questions. Zabel has a favorite. When Wilmers was chairman of the state Empire State Development Corp., the New York Observer ran a piece with essentially this headline:

"WTF, ESDC?"

Curious, Wilmers called Zabel to ask what the first three letters meant.

Zabel told him. Wilmers laughed.

This month, he received a plaque for 35 years of service to M&T, the same plaque every employee receives at certain milestones. He never saw it.

The plaque, still in its box, is near 400 Christmas cards stacked on Wilmers' desk. They would have gone to a wide circle of colleagues. Instead, they went unsent, fueling a sense that dominates the building.

The staff said it feels as if Wilmers – at any instant – will be coming back.

As for Kozlowski, her father was a train engineer with the old South Buffalo Railway. She began her career at 17, straight out of high school, more than 50 years ago. By the time she met Wilmers, she was polished at her job.

She applied on the advice of an old friend, Vicky Wienke, his retiring assistant in Buffalo. The engineer's daughter was soon doing a lot of writing for Wilmers, finishing off letters or memos, often working with the team that gave one last edit to the annual report.

He used simple language, short sentences.

She grew to know his voice.

Ask what he was like as a boss, and she'll tell you of the day he sent bottles of wine from Chateau Haut-Bailly, his French winery, to some maintenance workers who did a small job in his office.

She recalls a couple of instances when she had problems at home that seemed overwhelming, and Wilmers said, "What do you want me to do?"

Within a day, the situations dramatically improved.

"I considered him a friend," Kozlowski said.

The last time she said farewell, she realized she wouldn't see him again until after Christmas. She did what she did on rare occasions. She gave Wilmers a hug. In this case – for reasons she can't fully explain — she hugged him a little harder, an instant longer, than usual.

A week ago, just before 1 a.m., her phone rang with the news.

Kozlowski, who sometimes wavered on her plan to avoid tears, remembers she was "scared to death" before her first interview with Wilmers. She braced for a grilling from a powerful banker, but Wilmers – looking up from that old chair — put her at ease.

He inquired gently about her skills and her dreams. He wondered if she had questions for him.

Kozlowski was honest. She asked, "How long do you plan to stick around?"

"I'm not going anywhere," Wilmers said.

In her experience, it was the only promise he couldn't keep.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com and read more of his work in this archive.

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