Buford Sears was looking to rejuvenate his banking career when he moved to Buffalo in 1992.
By then, the West Virginia native had spent 13 years working for Atlanta-based banks. But his career had stalled amid mergers.
"I had this sort of hotshot rocketship career path that was very much plateaued out," he said.
That would change. Sears took a job with M&T Bank in Buffalo 27 years ago, which led to opportunities at First Niagara and then KeyBank. Sears, Key's Buffalo region market president, is retiring March 29. He has become a familiar face – and voice, with a Southern accent that stands out in Buffalo – in local banking, and helped guide First Niagara's integration with Key in 2016.
Sears' wife grew up in Buffalo, which got the couple interested in coming here.
"The joke was in '92 when we moved here, that the moving van should have taken our stuff for free, because there were hundreds of people moving from Buffalo to Atlanta, but nobody was moving from Atlanta to Buffalo," he said.
Sears has seen local banking and the economy change a lot since he arrived. The top competitors in the early '90s included Marine Midland Bank and FleetBank. First Niagara was still called Lockport Savings Bank. New players have entered the market.
"It's obviously more competitive — there are more competitors than there were then," Sears said. "Part of that has happened in just the last three to five years. And you also have to remember that today compared to 1992, the Buffalo economy is doing better, it has more to offer as a potential market to a bank."
But Sears says he feels good about the position Key is in, two and a half years after the merger.
Gary Quenneville, Key's regional executive, will add Sears' duties to his job. Quenneville, who started with Key in 1985, worked closely with Sears on the First Niagara-Key transition locally.
Quenneville said Sears has built a national reputation in healthcare banking and developed a wealth of contacts through his career.
"I've had more fun working with him than competing against him," Quenneville said. "That part's good."
In retirement, Sears will still serve on KeyBank's Western New York Advisory Board and the First Niagara Foundation board of directors, among other boards. He will stay in the Buffalo area.
"I'll still be very active, out and about in the community. I just won't have an office here at KeyBank that I come to every day."