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Wilmers built a pipeline of talent at M&T that may produce his successor

Rene F. Jones didn't imagine he was embarking on a long career at M&T Bank Corp. when he came there 25 years ago.

Richard S. Gold said M&T's "people and culture" persuaded him to stay.

Kevin J. Pearson said his co-workers and chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers made M&T an appealing place to build a career.

All three are vice chairmen and viewed as possible successors to Wilmers. Their career development reflects an approach Wilmers brought to the bank after arriving in 1983: creating leaders immersed in M&T's way of doing things, experienced in different business segments.

“It makes sense,” Wilmers said. “You have the best and the brightest right here. It makes no sense to go out and recruit outside. But when we need to recruit outside, we do.”

Not every bank uses a long-term, in-house system to fill top roles. When First Niagara Bank elevated Gary M. Crosby to interim CEO in 2013, replacing John Koelmel, he had been with the bank for less than four years. Beth E. Mooney has a lengthy resume in banking, but she was with KeyBank for only four years when she was promoted to president in 2010. The next year, she became Key's chairman and CEO. David J. Nasca, also a banking veteran, was new to Evans Bank when he was named its president in late 2006, en route to replacing the retiring CEO the following year.

M&T looks for certain qualities in its leaders, said John Wilcox, who used to work at the bank and now teaches economics and finance at SUNY Buffalo State.

“You do not climb the ladder at M&T without a great degree of knowledge in your field and a grasp of the numbers,” Wilcox said. “This comes from Wilmers. These are the people who get promoted.”

Setting the direction

Jones, Gold and Pearson are all in their 50s and have been with M&T for at least 25 years. All three have seats on the bank’s management committee, which meets weekly to set M&T’s direction.

They were elevated to vice chairman in 2014, and each is set to earn a base salary of $745,000 this year.

The bank has opted against, at least for now, naming another president following the death of Mark J. Czarnecki at age 61 in February. M&T instead split the president’s duties among its three vice chairmen. “It just seemed like the common sense thing to do,” Wilmers said.

M&T Bank Vice Chairmen, from left, Rene Jones, Kevin Pearson and Richard Gold. (Derek Gee/ Buffalo News)

That approach has left it unclear to observers about who Wilmers’ likely successor might one day be. Wilmers, 83, said this month he didn’t believe in “having a race or a contest” to determine an eventual successor, and gave no indication of his plans to retire. Since Wilmers arrived, M&T's assets have soared to $123 billion from $2 billion, and the bank has blossomed into a powerful economic and philanthropic force, with about 17,000 employees across its territory.

Regardless of who emerges as the choice for a future CEO, Wilmers has built a bench of executives well versed in M&T’s corporate culture. Recruitment programs launched by Wilmers decades ago created a pipeline of talent that flows from those who have just earned undergraduate degrees or MBAs to those at the top ranks of the bank.

Stability is a hallmark of the bank’s top leadership. Wilmers has served as CEO since 1983, except for an 18-month period several years ago when Robert E. Sadler Jr. held the job before retiring. Even during that stretch, Wilmers remained intensely involved as chairman. And Czarnecki held the role of president for 10 years, part of a 40-year career that embodied M&T’s approach to cultivating leaders.

The bank's three vice chairmen have built strong resumes of their own.

Rene F. Jones

Among the three vice chairmen, Jones, 52, might be the most recognizable name.

For 11 years, he served as M&T’s chief financial officer. Every three months, he would explain the bank’s financial results to financial analysts and answer their questions about M&T’s strategy. Jones had a similar public role in speaking at investor conferences. When 43North competition winners lunched at M&T’s headquarters last summer, Wilmers and Jones shared advice with them. About a year ago, Jones handed off the CFO duties to Darren King.

M&T Bank Vice Chairman Rene Jones. (Derek Gee/ Buffalo News)

Jones joined the bank in 1992. He earned an undergraduate degree in management science from Boston College, and his MBA at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School. Jones began his career with Ernst & Young’s Boston-based office, where his emphasis was clients in financial services. He also earned his designation as a certified public accountant. Before joining M&T, he also held positions at The Group Inc.

Jones manages the bank’s treasury division and has overall responsibility for Wilmington Trust, the bank’s wealth and institutional trust management subsidiary. The Wilmington Trust assignment expanded Jones’ breadth of experience, said Brian Klock, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. “He needed to run a line of business in the board’s eyes to be in that running” as a possible future CEO.

Under the new leadership assignments, Jones picked up responsibility for human resources and the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood initiative. Jones is also a trustee of M&T Real Estate and a director of the M&T Insurance Agency.

Long after coming to M&T through a recruitment program, Jones is still there. “It’s the environment, it’s the people and the opportunity to make a big difference in the communities," he said. "We talk about it a lot, but we actually live it, and it creates a great environment to be part of.”

Richard S. Gold

Gold, 56, began his career at M&T in 1989. The East Amherst resident picked up significant duties in the latest leadership assignments.

Gold had served as chief risk officer since 2014 but just gave up that role to oversee retail banking, business banking, and mortgage and consumer lending and marketing. He also kept responsibility for the bank’s legal division.

M&T Bank Vice Chairman Richard Gold. (Derek Gee/ Buffalo News)

Klock said Gold took on a crucial assignment as chief risk officer, when Donald Truslow announced his retirement. Truslow had started M&T’s efforts to upgrade its anti-money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act systems, to satisfy federal regulators’ concerns, and Gold carried on that work. Completing that task was important to ensure M&T could complete its deal for Hudson City Bancorp, Klock said.

Bank of Akron CEO Anthony Delmonte Jr. once worked at M&T and called Gold “a wonderful human being, an extraordinarily knowledgeable guy and very, very capable,” and said he had good people skills. “You can be yourself around him.”

One banking industry observer said if it appeared Gold picked up many more duties than the other two vice chairmen, that might simply have been Wilmers’ way of leveling the playing field among the three.

Gold earned a bachelor's degree from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. He worked at Bankers Trust and Citibank before joining M&T.

Outside of M&T, Gold teaches a course for the University at Buffalo School of Management’s Professional MBA program, as an adjunct professor.

“Our experience is, when executives of Rich’s caliber are willing and able to give up the time, they do it because they love the opportunity to be able to interact with students,” said Paul Tesluk, dean of the management school. “I think that gives them the opportunity to do something they don’t in their senior executive role, and I think it keeps them passionate and helps them stay up to date on the latest in that area.”

Gold said he enjoys the spirit he finds working at M&T.

“I’ve had an opportunity to do a whole bunch of different things, and that’s all been very enjoyable," Gold said. "But in the end, it’s the culture of the place. It’s a feeling of community and collaboration. People really enjoy each other. There’s a lot of intellectual stimulation and great, talented, well-educated people. Everyone is sort of rowing in the same direction for that common cause. You don’t find that everywhere. It’s a very unique sort of feeling to M&T.”

Kevin J. Pearson

Pearson, 55, has focused on building the bank’s commercial banking and credit divisions. He also picked up responsibility for M&T’s technology and banking operations division.

Pearson is based in Baltimore, where M&T has significant operations since expanding into the market through acquiring Allfirst Financial in 2003.

M&T Bank Vice Chairman Kevin Pearson. (Derek Gee/ Buffalo News)

He came to M&T in 1989 through its private banking division in New York City. In 2002, he was named executive vice president and New York City Metro Area executive. His resume includes other roles away from M&T’s home base, including Philadelphia region president and head of commercial lending in the Tarrytown region.

Pearson took responsibility for M&T’s entire commercial banking line of business when Mike Pinto, another longtime M&T executive, scaled back his work due to illness in 2014. Pinto died later that year.

If Pearson seems geographically removed from M&T’s hometown, consider that Pinto, who was once thought to be a possible successor to Wilmers, was also based in Baltimore, and that region is a growth market for the bank. And Pearson still travels to Buffalo for the weekly management committee meetings.

Last September, Pearson joined the board of Mercy Health Services Inc. in Baltimore, which oversees a hospital, a long-term care facility, a physician enterprise and a foundation. Sister Helen Amos, the board chairwoman, called Pearson “very personable and a quick study.”

Amos usually gives new board members a year to decide what committee might best suit them. But after only a couple of board meetings, the chairwoman of the system's finance committee liked what Pearson had to offer and asked for him to join the committee, a request Pearson accepted.

Pearson graduated from Santa Clara University in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in commerce, and earned an MBA. Before joining M&T, he worked at Citicorp Credit Services and Citibank Private Banking.

Pearson said he is drawn to the way M&T does business. “I think it's the way we take care of employees, the way we think about the bank, always trying to do the right thing for customers, employees and shareholders, striking that balance," he said.

 A deliberate approach

M&T takes a deliberate approach to attracting promising managers, through two recruitment programs.

M&T launched the Management Development program, which hires people who have just earned undergraduate degrees, in 1983, shortly after Wilmers arrived. The bank has hired nearly 1,300 people through the program. About 34 percent of them are still at M&T, and of those, 58 are senior managers.

M&T started the Executive Associate program, aimed at people with MBAs, in 1984, and has hired nearly 500 people through it, including Gold and Jones. About a third of the Executive Associate hires remain with the bank, including 54 who are senior managers.

Who will succeed Robert G. Wilmers? The question is still open.

Wilmers lost a longtime trusted adviser and friend when Czarnecki died, and he has praised the late president for his lasting influence on the bank and the community. Now Wilmers has three experienced vice chairmen reporting to him.

"For this type of level, (Wilmers) hasn't wanted to go outside," Wilcox said. "I would assume at some point they have to designate an heir apparent."

How soon that will happen is unclear. Wilmers politely sidestepped a question about how long he sees himself staying in charge.

“I love the bank,” he said. “It’s a great institution and I’m proud to be part of it.”

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