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At M&T, a tough act to follow as Jones settles into Wilmers' job

When René F. Jones was a 27-year-old new hire at M&T Bank Corp., he went for lunch in the cafeteria and sat at an empty table.

Someone else carrying his own tray walked up and asked, "Is this seat taken?" It was Robert G. Wilmers, the bank's chairman and CEO. Gradually, other employees filled the rest of the seats.

Wilmers, as was his nature, peppered Jones with questions. Jones was thrilled by the experience and called his mother that night to tell her about it.

"That was one of my first impressions of the bank, that there was always access," said Jones, now 54. "Everyone was equal and there was no pomp and circumstance."

Neither Jones nor Wilmers likely imagined where that first encounter nearly 27 years ago would lead. Jones would rise through M&T and became a close associate and friend of Wilmers. When Wilmers died in December 2017, Jones was named his successor days later.

Jones had arguably the toughest act to follow in the Buffalo business world. He took over for someone who was synonymous with M&T and a powerful individual force in the community who had committed the bank's resources to cultural institutions and education.

Jones, with more than 25 years at the bank, was no newcomer, and over the past year, he has guided the bank in steady fashion. M&T is coming off a record-high year of profits, at $1.9 billion. And Jones said the bank remains committed to the community causes Wilmers held dear. "It's just who we are," he said.

Jones has not made sweeping changes during his first year at M&T's helm. A year after Wilmers' death, his 19th-floor office at One M&T Plaza remains empty; Jones remains in his own down the hall and has kept a tradition of bringing together the bank's 15 top leaders every Tuesday. He is determined to keep the bank on firm footing with the conservative banking principles Wilmers espoused.

But the priorities Jones sees as essential to the bank's future are starting to emerge. He is eager to make M&T a destination for top talent, and made two key hires from outside M&T. He sees great importance in investing in technology, an area where the bank was seen as behind the curve before embarking on major upgrades in recent years. There are plans to bring M&T's growing technology workforce together into one place downtown.

Thirteen interviews

Jones' journey to the top of M&T began in Ayer, Mass., a town of 6,000 where he grew up. His father, a Virginia native, was an African-American sergeant under Gen. George C. Patton in World War II, when the Army was still segregated. While going through Belgium, he met the woman who would become his wife. Together, the couple had six children, with Rene the youngest.

When Jones enrolled in Boston College, business seemed like a good way to make a living, and he concentrated in accounting. That background served him well.

"Even when I came (to M&T), it gave me a large advantage to be a (certified public accountant), to be able to look at a bank and a balance sheet and understand how things worked and how trends worked," he said. "And then from there to understand what it was about the customer interactions that built the bank."

Jones was an intern for two summers at Gillette Co., which spurred his interest in later getting an MBA. His first job out of school was with the accounting firm Ernst & Young in Boston, where he focused on financial services. Jones went on to the Group Inc., a small private equity firm in Concord, Mass. He researched companies that were being acquired, developing a broader understanding of business.

Jones, who was by then a CPA, left to study for his MBA at the University of Rochester's Simon Business School. While there, he received a letter from M&T Bank, inviting him to interview for its Executive Associate program. M&T used the program to hire promising young professionals with MBAs. Jones was interested.

"I really thought I had gotten a dose of training for three or four years, and it really appealed to me that it wasn't a training program, and that we would actually engage in helping run a business," Jones said.

He didn't expect to go through 13 interviews to get hired. His 13th meeting was with then-chief financial officer James Varden, in the same 19th floor headquarters office Jones now uses. Varden conceded even he didn't have the last word on hiring Jones. At the time, such a decision needed to be unanimous.

"Thirteen people had to say yes," Jones said. "What you were seeing was the inside of Bob Wilmers' process, which was gaining consensus, focusing on judgment and allowing the process to take care of itself."

René F. Jones in 2018 led the M&T annual meeting for the first time. (Buffalo News file photo)

'Always building'

M&T hired Jones in 1992. He decided that every two years, he would re-evaluate whether to stay in Buffalo or move on. But he never left. M&T kept him engaged and excited, from acquisitions to other compelling work assignments. "There was always something to do," he said. "We were always building. We were always solving problems."

Jones' career took a big step in 2005 when he was named CFO. He held that job for 11 years, becoming a familiar face and voice to Wall Street as he explained the bank's financial results and strategy. The position also put him in close contact with Wilmers, giving him an up-close view of how Wilmers went about his work.

"His ability to ask questions and to listen to customers and to listen to employees is a skill worth having," Jones said. "What I get now is, the reason judgment was so important to Bob was, if one person or a small subset of people were making all the decisions, it would limit the possibilities and growth of the company."

Jones and two of his M&T contemporaries, Richard S. Gold and Kevin J. Pearson, were later elevated to vice chairmen.

They represented the next generation of M&T leadership, each well versed in the bank's way of doing things.

Even so, the bank faced an abrupt leadership change in late 2017 when Wilmers died. Jones was named chairman and CEO, and Gold was elevated to president and chief operating officer. For the first time in decades, the bank's leadership was in new hands.

Michael McTamney, an analyst with DBRS, a credit ratings agency, said he sees M&T being run very similarly under Jones as it was under Wilmers. "Under (Jones') leadership, they've performed very well over the past year, but just as they have performed very well over the long term."

Brian Klock, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, compared Jones' situation to taking over for Michael Jordan on the Chicago Bulls. "You've got a high bar when you're replacing someone like Bob Wilmers," he said.

But Klock said Jones had built a good rapport with Wall Street long before his recent promotion. "I think there are a lot of investors that know René from those days as CFO and feel comfortable he wouldn't do anything different than what Bob did, and feel confident in him," he said.

René F. Jones, then a vice chairman, at a luncheon with 43North winners in 2016. (Buffalo News file photo)

Priorities emerge

While Jones has not made extensive changes since becoming chairman and CEO, signs of his influence and priorities are emerging.

Jones says M&T needs to diversify its employee ranks "in race, gender, thought, experience." And the bank reached outside M&T to make two significant hires, in technology and retail banking.

Wilmers was a staunch advocate for recruiting and cultivating talent. Jones said he and his leadership team want to take that further, in light of how much technology is transforming banking.

He noted how tech companies like Amazon and Wayfair talk about customer experience more than technology.

"In my mind, that goes hand in hand with the idea that, it isn't technology that's most important, it isn't data that's most important – it's technologists and data scientists and customer experience engineers," he said. "And if you have the best relevant talent in those spaces, along with the talent that we already have here in the bank, then you're always going to have the capability to be relevant as things change."

There's another prominent side to M&T that Wilmers built over the years: its generosity to community causes, including education and the arts. M&T's impact is felt in dollars, volunteer support and board memberships. Jones said those commitments continue.

"We're as engaged in those activities as ever," he said. "We think that there's a growing need in our communities to have more people participate and we continue to be really active where we think the needs are."

Jones may not have the same name recognition that Wilmers developed over the course of more than 30 years in Buffalo banking. But he is active in his own way, serving on the boards of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the Jacobs Institute, as well as the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Council of Overseers. He also was named to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s federal advisory council.

Robert D. Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, said he has not seen any dropoff in M&T's community involvement under Jones.

"They continue to want to fund and support numerous initiatives within this community, and continue to do it and partner with us and others in the philanthropic community," Gioia said. "I think it's a culture. I think it's what they have seen to be very successful and rewarding and has paid dividends for not only the community as a whole, but many, many organizations and people."

René F. Jones speaks at a tribute to Robert G. Wilmers at Kleinhans Music Hall in January 2018. (Buffalo News file photo)

While Jones is entrusted with leading a bank with $120 billion in assets, he balances his work duties with family time. He lives in Eggertsville, with his wife, Brigid Doherty, and their two daughters, Haley, 16, and Sophia, 14.

"You'll see him standing in the rain at his daughter's soccer game or driving them to activities," said Thomas Quatroche, president and CEO of Erie County Medical Center, and a friend of Jones'.

In his free time, you might find Jones and his family outdoors skiing. He walks about 20 minutes a day for exercise.

"He's a family guy," Quatroche said. "He has a good sense of humor. He's very down to earth. He's very inquisitive."

Jones has come a long way at M&T from his first lunch with Wilmers.

"I love this job," Jones said. "It is such an honor to be part of my 17,000 colleagues, with the energy level, the commitment, and then actually play such a constructive role in the community. I wouldn't have it any other way, in any other place, in any other town."

Jones was the keynote speaker at the 2019 Prospectus Premiere. Listen to his speech at: 

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