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First Niagara cuts up to 346 workers in 4 states; Eliminating all assistant branch managers; position no longer needed in bank's strategy

First Niagara Financial Group is laying off as many as 346 assistant branch managers throughout its four-state franchise as it adjusts its branch staffing to meet its customers' current and expected needs.

The Buffalo-based banking company confirmed Wednesday that it is cutting the No. 2 position in all of its branches because the post is not necessary for its strategy.

Spokesman David Lanzillo said the bank is realigning its branch staff to focus more on customer sales and service, so it can boost revenues without increasing expenses.

"We are refocusing our branch staffing to enhance our sales and service capabilities and better position our branch teams to serve the needs of our growing customer base," he said by email.

He said it is not simply a cost-cutting move. "First Niagara continues to be a growing organization," he said.

"As with any well-run business, we always strive to operate effectively and efficiently in serving our customers. That means we continually assess our resources -- products, systems, infrastructure and, most importantly, people -- to ensure they are optimally aligned across all areas of our business."

The bank would not say how many jobs are affected, but it has 346 branches in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and most have an assistant manager, Lanzillo said.

"Any actions that impact people are all the more difficult," he said. "Retaining talented and committed employees is our top priority."

He said some affected employees "will be given an opportunity to move into sales-focused roles."

The bank held an internal job fair last week in Western New York, he said, and "we believe that we will be able to offer nearly all affected employees in this area new opportunities elsewhere within First Niagara."

The cuts are among the largest by First Niagara and the first cuts in years that were not directly related to a merger.

First Niagara, under President and CEO John R. Koelmel, has become known more for adding jobs than reducing them, particularly here.

The bank cut 100 jobs in 2007 and 2008 as part of a corporate restructuring, which came as the bank was streamlining operations following a major expansion to eastern New York three years earlier. It also closed a call center in Albany and moved a consumer loan servicing unit from Hudson to Western New York.

At the same time, the bank was revamping its strategy and preparing for what Koelmel correctly anticipated would be major growth opportunities in coming years.

Since then the bank has added about 2,700 jobs from acquisitions in Pennsylvania and New England, as well as from new jobs created in Western New York to support those purchases. And it's bringing on more than 1,000 additional employees from its pending purchase of 195 HSBC Bank USA branches across New York and southwestern Connecticut, minus the 64 branches it is selling to other banks.

First Niagara cut 219 jobs in Connecticut after it boughtNewAlliance Bancshares of New Haven. It also cut 300 jobs at three facilities in eastern Pennsylvania, mostly back-office and administrative staff, and closed 14 branches as part of a restructuring there following its purchase of Harleysville National Corp.

After the latest cuts, the bank will have more than 6,000 employees across the four states.