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M&T bets on 'secret weapon' to draw fresh MBAs to Buffalo

When Peter Goodman was pursuing his MBA at Harvard University, he explored career opportunities in Charlotte, Denver and Boston.

“Within the two-year period, I think you look under the hood of a lot of places,” he said.

He chose Buffalo, drawn by a program at M&T Bank that has produced some of its top leaders.

Goodman was interested in the financial world and gaining general manager experience, and the opportunity in M&T’s Executive Associate program stood out. The program hires people who have MBAs plus work experience and gives them a yearlong, extensive look at all facets of the bank, through meetings with top leaders and training exercises to sharpen their skills.

After his interview with M&T, Goodman called his wife and told her it was the sort of place he could imagine spending his career.

Goodman, 33, has just started with M&T, working in enterprise security. As an executive associate, he’s part of a select group continuing a decades-old tradition of leadership development at the bank.

Not every high-ranking person at M&T was once an executive associate, but two of the bank’s three vice chairmen arrived through the program. Its existence reflects the methodical approach M&T takes to identifying and molding leaders, especially as the bank has blossomed into a 17,000-employee, $120-billion asset organization spread across eight states and Washington, D.C.

It’s also a powerful tool to help recruit top talent that might otherwise go to more prominent cities.

“The herd mentality of business school is toward New York, Chicago, D.C. and San Francisco,” said Andy Smith, M&T campus recruiting team manager. “We’re no stranger to fighting the herd mentality. We find people one person at a time that are willing to” come to Buffalo.

Opportunity for advancement

The Executive Associate program is a prime opportunity for advancement. M&T’s chairman and CEO Robert Wilmers brought the program to M&T, and many of its graduates have stayed. Two of M&T’s three vice chairmen, Rene Jones and Richard Gold, were executive associates.

Since its inception in 1984, nearly 500 people have gone through the program. About 200 of them are still at M&T, including about 50 who are senior managers, said Katie Smith, who manages the program.

Brian Hwang, standing, waits for his group to voice concepts that he adds to a dry-erase board during a recent Executive Associate program workshop. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

For M&T, identifying prospects like Goodman starts around this time of year. The bank has connections with about 20 college campuses and uses a number of activities to drum up interest.

As a result of those campaigns, M&T might end up with 500 resumes for the Executive Associate program to review, Andy Smith said. Of those, perhaps 250 will be invited to on-campus interviews with M&T senior managers. The bank then does follow-up interviews with about 100 to 150 of those candidates, at the M&T site where the job would be, to select the 20 to 30 executive associate class members, Andy Smith said. Not everyone to whom M&T extends an offer accepts: The people whom the bank wants often have multiple offers to weigh.

Goodman was willing to make that move. He arrived with a background in the military and the private sector.

While serving in the Navy, he was drawn to the decision makers. “I got really interested in how they thought, how they came to decide where the ship was going, what we were doing,” Goodman said. The Naval Academy graduate was stationed in Florida and Naples, Italy. As his responsibilities grew, he oversaw a team of about 65 people.

After the Navy, Goodman joined Corning Inc., eager to learn how a Fortune 500 corporation worked. He then went to Harvard for his MBA. His resume suited M&T’s Executive Associate program.

Goodman hails from Texas, but he was familiar with the Buffalo area, since his wife is from Erie, Pa. Buffalo’s size, and the variety of things to do outside of work in the region, appealed to him.

“It made it a very easy sell for me,” he said.

'Impact carries over'

On a recent weekday, Goodman and his fellow classmates gathered inside a conference room at M&T Center, just up Main Street from the corporate headquarters. A training session was in full force. Yellow sticky notes covered the walls. Lively conversations overlapped each other.

The current class members are a young, diverse bunch of men and women. They wrote answers to the exercises on easels and hashed out ideas in small groups. Goodman wore a suit, his jacket still on.

Linda Long, a management consultant, led the session. She coached the class members on making effective presentations to senior leaders. Long invoked the dreaded image of an executive flipping ahead through the pages of a presentation, searching for the “so what.”

“Your job is to make the information very transparent and easy to assimilate into the brain, and thus remembered,” Long told them.

Peter Goodman is a member of M&T Bank's current Executive Associate class. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

M&T’s current 21 executive associates meet two days a month in Buffalo, except for one month when they gather in Baltimore, another M&T hub. Class members are typically in their late 20s or early 30s and work at locations around M&T’s territory.

The current class began in August and will finish with a luncheon next July. Over the course of the year, they will meet with top leaders and go through training exercises. They are bonding as a group and making contacts with past executive associates working throughout M&T, a hallmark of the program.

“I hope it sets them up to succeed, and succeed relatively quickly,” said Katie Smith. “While the formal program runs one year, its impact carries over, as executive associate alumni network with each other, and help recruit newcomers.

Peer advisers assigned

When the classmates meet for training, they are grouped with different people for different sessions to build camaraderie. “Just like real life,” Goodman said. “For instance, if I got a call where they said, ‘Hey, work on a project with someone in Baltimore,’ it could very well be someone I’ve already worked with here.”

Group members also get together outside of training. Goodman and a couple of his classmates recently volunteered at Paws in the Park. Between emails and their phones, the class members are frequently in touch.

Brian Hwang takes part in M&T's Executive Associate program. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Each class member is assigned a peer adviser for the year, someone who is a recent program alum. At the monthly sessions, the members receive overviews of M&T’s divisions from executive vice presidents, and meet senior managers of those divisions. By the end of the program, the class members will have a well-rounded view of the bank’s operations.

“The groups are small enough that they get a chance to ask really good questions and make some really good connections,” Katie Smith said.

During one session each year, the class members fan out to M&T branches. They get a feel for what it’s like to be in front of customers, even if their own jobs might be in a back-office role, Smith said. “It’s really important. That’s a big part of what we do.”

'Secret weapon' for recruiting

While the executive associate program members are learning the M&T way of doing things, they’re also bringing fresh insights to the bank. Even as brand new employees, M&T wanted their perspective, Goodman said.

“We may look at things a little bit differently, and they want us to pose questions that just simply help everyone think about, how many more ways are there to do what we’re doing here, and how to improve it,” Goodman said.

For M&T, there’s always the next class of members to prepare for. Andy Smith called program alumni his “secret weapon” for recruiting on campus.

“They’ll talk candidly, they’ll tell the truth about the experience. and they’ll try to find out if this is for (the prospects), too, instead of just selling it,” he said. Goodman and Keith Belanger, M&T’s senior vice president of corporate services, recently visited Harvard together on behalf of the program.

M&T faces tough competition for talent coming out of the schools, both in the cities where the MBA students imagine themselves working and the type of jobs they’re attracted to. The same applies to winning over prospects who are drawn to investment banks or consulting firms, instead of a commercial bank like M&T, he said.

M&T has to compete against non-financial firms for talent, as well, since some of the jobs it wants to fill are in areas like marketing, operations, strategy and human resources. But part of the Executive Associate program’s appeal is that new hires are placed in specific jobs, while getting a broad view of the company over the course of a year, Andy Smith said.

“When they see that it’s 30-plus years strong, we have their attention,” he said. And not every M&T job is based in Buffalo, given how the bank has grown through the years.

'Source of future leadership'

Darren King, M&T’s CFO, wasn’t an executive associate. But he sees the impact that program, as well as a companion program for new college graduates, has had on M&T.

“Having young, well-educated folks join the bank where we can teach them the M&T way and culture is a great source of future leadership,” he said. “We look to complement that with people who come from the outside,” from other banks, and consulting firms and professional services firms.

Some former executive associates have been standouts in their careers. Michael Pinto arrived in 1985. He rose to chief financial officer and then vice chairman, overseeing M&T’s vital mid-Atlantic region. He was seen as a possible eventual successor to Wilmers, before Pinto died in 2014, at age 58.

King said the leadership programs increase diversity within M&T, by recruiting people from different backgrounds. “The more diverse opinions you have around a problem, the better outcome you’re likely to get on the other side,” he said.

Someday, Goodman could be the M&T veteran standing in front of a class, educating the new recruits. For now, he is learning, just like his fellow classmates. But he is aware of where the program could take him: “It’s really exciting to see what can happen if you get your foot in the door and do well.”


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