Share this article

print logo


Buffalo's most powerful and effective business leader doesn't even live in Buffalo.

But John Rigas of Coudersport, Pa., chairman of Adelphia Communications, came to town bearing jobs -- and that's more than enough to win appreciation from a community that's starving for them.

"John Rigas is the only business leader who has made a serious commitment to downtown," said Thomas Quatroche, a town councilman in Hamburg who responded to The Buffalo News' leadership survey. "Others should follow his lead."

Rigas did far better than most of his business colleagues in The News survey. Institutions and leaders who have struggled for decades to boost Buffalo -- such as the Group of 18 and Andrew J. Rudnick -- scored far lower.

In other words, those who responded to the survey rewarded results, not intentions.

Perhaps that's why the business community as a whole fared poorly. About 72 percent of respondents said business leaders were doing either a fair or poor job in making decisions that benefit the community.

"We pontificate real well," said Colleen C. DiPirro, president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce. "My take on it is that we have little or no private-sector leadership."

Robert G. Wilmers, chairman of M&T Bank, offered a possible explanation as to why Buffalo lacks business leaders.

"We've all got to work together," he said. "We do a very poor job of working together, and the results show."

Of course, the results showed a local economy that has gained few jobs over the past decade. And while many blame New York's legacy of high taxes and big government, local leaders acknowledged that the business leadership bears some share of the responsibility.

"What leadership?" asked one government official. "They're all profit-driven, with no sense of the common good."

Some noted that Rigas worked to land $133 million in government funding to bring 1,000 jobs to Buffalo's waterfront.

But in the end, Rigas thinks he came out at the top of the business leader ratings because he and his family were willing to make a commitment to expand Adelphia's operations in Buffalo and keep the family-owned Buffalo Sabres in town.

"I think the projects that we've embraced certainly are popular ones," said Rigas, who also negotiated a deal to help keep the Sabres playing in HSBC Arena.

Business leaders who supported other popular projects also fared well in the survey. Ranking closely behind Rigas in positive effect were Erland K. Kailbourne, a retired banker who led the campaign to keep the Buffalo Bills in town, and Wilmers.

Under Wilmers, M&T Bank takes an extraordinarily public role in the community, spending $4 million to improve Westminster Community School in Buffalo, sponsoring countless arts events and filling the boards of local organizations with its executives.

Those facts, combined with Wilmers' outspoken argument made over the years that better and cheaper government will improve the local economy, helped M&T earn a top spot on the list of the community's most powerful and most effective institutions.

"Wilmers and M&T are superb corporate neighbors," said Anthony Colucci Jr., a Buffalo lawyer and vice chairman of Buffalo Place, which manages the downtown pedestrian mall.

HSBC Bank and its regional director, Brian Keating, also ranked high in the survey, the bank at seventh most positive effect among institutions and Keating as eighth most positive effect among business leaders.

People said much the same about General Motors, which ranked as the second-most-powerful and effective business institution in the survey, in part because of its $501 million investment to preserve the 3,800 jobs at its Tonawanda Engine Plant.

Survey respondents weren't so kind to institutions that said they would try to boost Buffalo but have had less success.

Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, a regional job-development effort backed by more than $5 million in public money and about $22 million from the private sector, scored in the middle of the pack.

While many people praised Thomas A. Kucharski, the head of BNE, several others asked, "Where are the 50,000 jobs?"

That's what BNE's founders promised to bring to the region in five years, and Kucharski acknowledged that the organization isn't on target to meet that goal.

Nevertheless, many lauded the BNE for at least providing some cohesion to economic development in a region with more than two dozen agencies working at that task. Part of that cohesion involves Kucharski's taking over the reins of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

"There was no way to talk about collaborating on economic-development initiatives with that situation on the ECIDA," said Robert T. Brady, chairman of Moog Inc. and a member of both the BNE and ECIDA boards. "Everything became a turf war."

Speaking of turf wars, they are likely what hurt both the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and Rudnick, its president, in the survey. Several people interviewed criticized Rudnick for injecting his opinions into just about every major public issue.

In the end, Rudnick finished near the bottom of the list of most effective business leaders, just one spot up from Paul Snyder, the entrepreneur some blame for the departure of the Buffalo Braves two decades ago.

"I've been hired to bring about change, not to be concerned about making everybody happy," said Rudnick, who nonetheless vowed to "soften some of the edges."

One community leader, however, says the criticism of Rudnick has a positive side. Until recently, the business sector rarely spoke up or was involved. Now, he said, through Rudnick, it is making its voice heard.

In contrast to Rudnick, the Group of 18 has operated quietly behind the scenes. A group of top-level executives who came together in the mid-1980s in hopes of reviving the Buffalo Niagara region just as business leaders did in Cleveland, the Group of 18 scored lower in positive effect than any other business group in town.

Despite that low score, some of Buffalo's most highly regarded business leaders -- such as Wilmers and Kailbourne -- are members of the Group of 18.

What's more, the group's members point to some solid accomplishments. Members of the Group of 18 played a key role in securing funding for the Darwin Martin House and Roswell Park Cancer Institute's new facility, building Buffalo's new airport, attracting low cost airlines to the airport and striking the deal to improve Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Nevertheless, the Group of 18's image as a rich men's club has devastating effects.

"Many people in the community will fight anything the Group of 18 is involved in just to protest the old-line business leaders," said Brady, a member of the group.

The Buffalo News ranked as the most powerful institution, but ranked 20th out of 30 in terms of positive effect. Its publisher, Stanford Lipsey, ranked third in power and 20th in positive effect.

"The Buffalo News has often undermined the credibility of the area's African-American leaders," said the Rev. G. Stanford Bratton, co-director of the Network of Religious Communities. In particular, Bratton said The News was too hard on Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve and former Buffalo School Superintendent James Harris.

Meanwhile, Alden Supervisor Richard Savage attacked The News for supporting Democratic politicians and their tax-and-spend policies during the area's economic decline.

"It, too, must accept responsibility for what has happened to the area," he said.

Lipsey said he wasn't surprised by the criticism.

"We're a pretty hard-hitting newspaper," he said. "We lambaste people -- and these are people who are used to calling the shots and telling people what to do."

There are no comments - be the first to comment