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M&T CEO says bank will carry on in Wilmers' tradition

Each year, M&T Bank chariman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers' letter to shareholders was an anticipated message, not just by its 17,000 employees or those who owned the bank's stock.

Far from simply rehashing the past year's results, Wilmers used the letter as a platform, weighing in on everything from the performance of local government and public education, to the burden of banking regulations and the challenges entrepreneurs faced.

Wilmers died Dec. 16, leaving it to his successor, Rene F. Jones, to write what Jones said was known within M&T as "the letter."

Jones used his first such message, published this week, to praise his predecessor but to also assure any skeptics that bank was on solid footing because of the foundation Wilmers built.

Wilmers became "synonymous" with the bank during his 35 years of leading it, Jones wrote. "No other loss could be so central to our system of values – so core to the essence of who were are today."

M&T chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers, in 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

It would be "only natural" for people to wonder about the bank's direction without him, Jones said. M&T "will not only carry on, but carry on in the tradition of Bob Wilmers," he said.

That tradition was the a product of a "self-selection" process that has created a "unique culture" at M&T, Jones said. For many years, he said, potential employees had to be willing to join a regional bank based in Buffalo, "marked by strong performance, but operating in slower-growth, midtier cities in an area once described as the 'rust belt.'"

"Joining our team, uprooting one's career and family, is a choice that not all were willing to make," Jones said. "Those who have chosen not only to join M&T, but to remain with us, have readily embraced our approach to banking itself."

M&T's senior leadership team has an average tenure of 23 years with the bank. Jones himself joined M&T in 1992, recruited through a leadership development program.

While M&T is known for promoting from within, Jones said M&T has also been willing to reach beyond its own organization for talent, such as in building up its wealth management practice.

Wilmers also was active in ensuring the makeup of M&T's board of directors was "well suited for the challenges facing the company and its customers today," Jones said. Six of its 15 non-management directors were elected in the past three years, bringing expertise in areas such as advanced manufacturing, health care and cybersecurity.

Jones said that through his annual letter to shareholders, Wilmers became "unusually visible and vocal about issues important to M&T and our partners. He realized that his experience and his position afforded him the opportunity to use these pages for greater good."

While Wilmers' name was on the letter, Jones said many employees contributed behind the scenes to the final product, researching trends and topics. Each issue was assessed to determine what would be included. Jones said the work "goes on all year, starting as soon as the ink is dry on the prior year's message."

And that tradition, Jones said, will carry on.

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