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David Robinson: To WNY, Bob Wilmers was much more than a banker

Robert G. Wilmers was much more than the Buffalo Niagara region's biggest banker.

Wilmers, who died unexpectedly Saturday night, was a unifying force for the region's business community at a time when it was scattered and weakened by self-interest.

As chairman and CEO of M&T Bank, Wilmers, 83, was one of the first to see the potential in the Buffalo Niagara region as a back office banking power, where the region's lower wage scale and more affordable cost of living would allow banks like M&T to grow and serve their customers, without taking on the lofty expenses of the sexier money centers, like New York City and Chicago.

He was a strong believer that a business can only be as strong as the community it's in, which prompted him to turn M&T into one of the biggest boosters of the region's cultural organizations and Buffalo's troubled public schools.

And most of all, he was a heck of a banker, building tiny M&T Bank, a small bank in the depressed backwater of Buffalo that had just $2 billion in assets when he took charge in 1983, into one of the nation's 20 biggest banks, with more than 17,000 employees and more than $120 billion in assets – 60 times more than when he arrived in Buffalo.

Wilmers wasn't afraid to make a deal, either, using 24 acquisitions in the ensuing 34 years to turn M&T into a national banking power, even joining with Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren E. Buffett in 1991 to help put together the financial backing M&T needed to buy 14 branches of the failed savings and loan, Goldome, and vault M&T into a top-tier bank in Western New York.

"Bob Wilmers was the clear leader of the business community," said Robert T. Brady, the former Moog Inc. chief executive officer and a long-time M&T board member.

"From a practical perspective, his major contribution was the development of the bank," Brady said. "But he also set an example that the leaders of Western New York business should feel an obligation to support and improve the circumstance of Western New York, economic and otherwise."

A New York City native who spent much of his childhood in Belgium, Wilmers quickly embraced the Buffalo Niagara region after coming to M&T. Wilmers' soft-spoken nature belied a man with a keen intellect and a sweeping grasp of both M&T and the banking industry. It was not uncommon for M&T employees to recall the first time they met Wilmers as an encounter that was more of an interrogation than a conversation.

"He had a tremendous command for detail. He knew a lot about a lot," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

"He was a man very much interested in other people," Brady said.

"When you were getting acquainted, he wanted to know all about you and your interests," Brady said. "At the end of the meeting, he knew all about you. You may or may not have learned much about him. He didn't like to talk about himself."

In the early 1990s, he was a driving force behind the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation, which he helped transform into the region's first major initiative to study the forces driving the Buffalo Niagara economy and how to capitalize on them.

The group eventually merged with the Buffalo chamber of commerce to form the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, but in many ways, it was the first attempt to move beyond business boosterism to a more studied approach to economic development and business issues – a precursor to the strategic plans that now form the backbone of state's regional economic development councils.

Wilmers briefly headed the state's economic development efforts. He used his annual messages in M&T's annual report as a bully pulpit to address economic and development issues, first in Western New York, and then as M&T grew, to discuss national banking and financial matters.

Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank, received a framed cover of the Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce magazine naming him "Western New Yorker of the Year," from Randall Clark, chamber chairman, on Jan. 31, 1991. (News file photo)

"If there is a hierarchy by measure of positive impact in business and civic life, then Bob is at the top of it," said Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who heads Empire State Development.

"He created many thousands of jobs here the old fashioned way: By hard work, and by achieving success in the market with customers both small and large," Zemsky said. "Bob never shied away from a difficult challenge, including his notable and successful engagement with helping to right Buffalo's fiscal health and his prior heading of" Empire State Development.

[Gallery: M&T chairman Robert G. Wilmers through the years]

Through it all, M&T stuck to the same approach as it grew from a local bank to a regional one, retaining its focus on being a community bank, albeit a major regional one. Wilmers was critical of some of the practices of many of the nation's biggest banks. M&T instead chose to focus more on basic banking services. And he stuck with Buffalo during an era when far too many other businesses were choosing to flee to what they saw as greener pastures elsewhere.

"Bob loved Buffalo," Zemsky said. "His bank headquarters could have been anywhere and he chose to continually grow M&T's presence here."

Gallagher-Cohen agreed. ""His business was so far beyond Buffalo," she said. "The amount of time he devoted to helping this community was unprecedented."

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