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A big loss at HSBC; The hope is the buyer of local branches maintains jobs, strong community ties

Now that it's happened, it's easy to see the steps, events and decisions that are leading to the decline in the presence of HSBC Bank USA in Buffalo.

It wasn't so long ago that the Knox family presided over Buffalo's Marine Midland Bank. The family brought local concerns and involvement to the bank and a stewardship of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery which, among other superlative contributions, left the gallery with 800 new pieces of art.

Even when the bank passed into the control of HSBC, leadership -- strong leadership -- remained in Buffalo.

In the early 1990s John Bond, later to become Sir John Bond, was president and CEO of what was still called Marine Midland Bank. He resided with his family in Buffalo, where he became a part of the philanthropic, cultural and civic scene. Bond loved living in Buffalo, and it showed.

Those who followed never really attached themselves to the community, and soon they were gone, to be replaced by similar leaders.

In a last flash of local leadership, CEO Brendan McDonagh was here till 2006. The next CEO was based in New York City, and now there is no one in Western New York to talk to at the bank.

Unfortunately, the current HSBC CEO and board are not satisfied with the bank's performance worldwide, and with one huge swing of the sword will divest themselves of the bank's 175 branches upstate, including more than 70 in the Buffalo area. It's not unusual for a large corporation to find a segment of its business no longer fits into the master plan, and that's what happened here.

What will become of HSBC Bank? What will become of HSBC employees and customers? No one knows.

But someone will buy the branches and whoever that is will have a huge impact on the area and its work force.

Ideally, the buyer will be one that will keep as many branches as possible open and keep those former HSBC workers employed.

Ideally, whoever buys those branches will make up for some of the corporate presence HSBC probably will give up.

Corporate leadership benefits the fabric of the community in many ways -- gifts to the United Way and other charities, presence on cultural and civic boards, purchasing of tickets to help an event and generally sustaining cultural institutions. There is much more. Corporate involvement can be both broad and deep.

Unfortunately, Buffalo is a city with few corporate headquarters. There's no way a local institution directed from a distant city can do as much as if the headquarters were here.

It's hard to imagine that a new owner of the 70 local branches will be better than the situation when the Knoxes or Bond ran the bank.

But it's not impossible. And HSBC could still be a force in area finance. In addition to its branches, HSBC also has its regional headquarters in Buffalo, as well as corporate finance, technology, audit, corporate real estate, customer service and upstate commercial banking functions.

However, there's no way to view this chapter other than as a very, very sad one for Buffalo.

Unfortunately, there's little Buffalonians can do but hope for the best, and meet the challenge of what tomorrow will bring.