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Wilmers upbeat about WNY economy

M&T Bank Corp. Chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers hasn’t always provided the sunniest view of Western New York’s growth prospects when he has addressed the bank’s annual shareholders meeting.

He took a different tack on Tuesday.

“The tide is turning,” Wilmers said at the bank’s downtown headquarters. “As I stand here with an eye toward Buffalo’s skyline, I am optimistic, not just for our own company’s future, but for the city that has been our home and our headquarters since the day we were formed in 1856.”

Wilmers said business in Buffalo is “on the upswing.” The region’s gross domestic product has grown since 2007 at a rate faster than the national average, he said, and the city’s workforce is becoming more educated.

He credited Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” program with backing projects in high-growth sectors like health care and solar technology. And he said private-sector income in the region since 2009 was up a total of $1.7 billion, “a phenomenon that provides tremendous economic benefit for the community at large.”

M&T has helped fuel the local growth, he said. The bank’s area employment has soared to 6,949 today, more than two and a half times its total of 2,649 in 1991. And M&T has tripled its use of downtown office space to more than 1 million square feet. The bank has provided $4.7 billion in financing to Western New York companies since 2010, he said.

Wilmers cited several examples of how M&T has taken a leadership role in the community by backing causes with its money, people and ongoing support. “Because our prospects are so tethered to the city’s own, we’ve done everything we can to aid in its renaissance,” he said.

He described how the bank helped the Darwin D. Martin House, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Buffalo Zoo overcome struggles that had put their futures in doubt. He also called M&T’s commitment to education “groundbreaking and transformative.”

“We were built here and here we will stay,” he said. “We are Buffalo’s bank and we are grateful for that status and ever aware of the mantle of leadership it carries along with it.”

In his address, Wilmers never mentioned the prospect of Buffalo losing another major bank’s local headquarters, First Niagara Financial Group, as KeyCorp works to acquire First Niagara. His larger point was that a bank based here can have a powerful impact on the community, beyond extending credit and opening customers’ accounts.

Wilmers said he remains concerned that new small-business growth and creation is slowing, and he called for the Small Business Administration to ensure more companies gain access to capital.

He said the SBA’s fastest-growing loan segment since 2012 has been for loans of more than $2 million, growing 91 percent over that period, he said. More of the SBA’s lending authority should be directed at smaller-dollar loans, he said.

“Much work needs to be done in order to remove the barriers that prevent banks from participating in the program if the SBA is to fully realize its stated mission of assisting small businesses and lifting the economy,” he said.

The extensive rules governing SBA programs might deter small community banks from participating, which could reduce small businesses’ access to capital, he said.

M&T has led the SBA’s regional loan rankings for 21 years, and ranks No. 7 nationally. In remarks after the meeting, Wilmers praised the work of the SBA’s longtime Buffalo district director, Franklin J. Sciortino, and said his comments were directed at decisions made higher up in the federal agency’s leadership.

In other comments:

• Wilmers said M&T “welcomed the competition large and small,” as KeyCorp works to acquire First Niagara and create a stronger No. 2 rival in the Buffalo market.

• M&T would be open to making other acquisitions now that its deal for Hudson City Bancorp is complete, Wilmers said. But the bank can’t do so until a letter of agreement between M&T and federal regulators over its Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering program is lifted. Wilmers said he hoped that issue would “get resolved ... in the next year or so.”

• Wilmers said M&T has a deep leadership bench. “We’ve got 14 people on the management committee [including himself], I guess an average of about 10 years, in the bank about an average of 20 years. I would say they’re all extremely bright and very competent, and I think that easily half of them could probably do a better job than I do.”

• He expressed no enthusiasm for an M&T stock split, in response to a shareholder’s question. “Warren Buffett is a large shareholder (at M&T), and he seems to do OK without splitting the stock in Berkshire Hathaway. I think I’ll follow his guidance.”

• Wilmers said Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash is “still in his first year but I’m hopeful and optimistic he’ll do a good job. We certainly need it.”