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'It's hard not to think about Bob,' CEO Rene Jones says as M&T shareholders meet

At M&T Bank's annual shareholders meeting, a hush falls over the room when the chairman and CEO approaches to the lectern to start the proceedings.

On Tuesday, for the first time in decades, that person was someone other than Robert G. Wilmers, who died last December. It was Rene F. Jones' turn to step to the microphone inside M&T's headquarters and weigh in on matters both inside and outside the bank.

It's been nearly four months since Jones was promoted to chairman and CEO. While Jones is now the face of the bank, Wilmers' presence was still felt at the meeting. Wilmers' widow, Elisabeth, looked on from the second row. Jones reflected on M&T's exponential growth since Wilmers addressed his first annual meeting, in 1984.

"I'm proud to say, as Bob did in his first speech, that today at M&T, the news is good, and the state of the bank is strong and sound," Jones said.

Jones later said it was "surreal" to take Wilmers' place at the head of the meeting.

"You go through the steps you have to do and the procedures you have to do, but it's hard not to think about Bob, when you're up there, especially reflecting back," Jones said. "He was such an influence on all of us."

It's been a time of transition at M&T. Both Wilmers and Mark J. Czarnecki, the bank's president, died last year. Richard S. Gold was named president at the same time Jones was promoted. The new leaders oversee a powerful economic force with nearly 17,000 employees, including about 7,200 locally.

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In his remarks, Jones said M&T has stuck to the core principles the bank was known for under Wilmers' leadership, while also embracing change to enable the bank to stay competitive and relevant.

M&T considers its commitment to community banking to be its "lodestar," and will continue to bank "the careful, conservative and consistent way," Jones said.

Among those principles, he said, was trying to understand customers' needs, following prudent lending standards, carefully growing and deploying capital, and "maintaining a disciplined yet opportunistic acquisition strategy."

At the same time, Jones said the bank must evolve by keeping pace with consumer technology and upgrading its commercial loan systems. He also called for changes inside M&T, by promoting a "more diverse, inclusive environment that allows each of us to be our best."

That approach ensures M&T will attract the best possible talent, he said. "If you put up any barriers to who might come, the equation doesn't work for us."

The bank's "employee resource groups," organized around a host of characteristics including race, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation, have proven influential, he said. More than 4,100 employees participate in one or more of the roughly 50 groups, he said.

"They play a vital role in growing our company: they inform the organization about policies, practices and products that help meet diverse employee and customer needs, professionally develop their members, assist in recruiting talent and promote business development," Jones said.

Looking beyond the bank, Jones hailed economic progress in Buffalo at places such as Canalside, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the Northland Corridor and Niagara Street. But amid the gains, he said, the city is plagued by poverty, an "unacceptably low" high school graduation rate, and statistics that point to a slowdown in construction activity.

"Indeed, now that we see our economy can work — that it is working — we should be accelerating our efforts and our investments, especially in those parts of our city, and on those parts of our population, that remain untouched, and that are in danger of being left behind," he said.

M&T has been quiet on the acquisition front. Jones didn't comment on whether M&T has any deals brewing, but he did quote a favorite saying of his predecessor: Banks aren't bought, they're sold.

Jones said M&T's financial health "is strong. People like to be part of the M&T family, and so that bodes well for the future, in terms of growth through acquisition." Jones said he also felt optimistic because "there is not yet an M&T Bank in every community.

"When I look out to the communities that are adjacent to us, that we're not yet at, I see opportunity for a bank like M&T, a bank that could be a bigger part of the community than maybe the current very, very large financial institution that's attempting to actually serve them today," he said.

Jones said his new job has come with increased demands.

"But the best part is I'm with all my colleagues. We've worked together for a very, very long time. We support each other. It's probably the thing that will put the bank in the best stead for time to come, and it's also why we have so much fun here," he said.

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