All banking is local


BUFFALO, N.Y. - There probably is no other person who has had a greater impact on the city of Buffalo than Robert G. Wilmers.

He's helped turn around a poorly performing urban elementary school, saved the philharmonic from bankruptcy, preserved a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright, worked to shave millions from the city's budget and pledged millions from his own pocket to improve the local zoo.

Yet, most people in Buffalo don't know who he is.

"Robert what?" said Tony Kahy, owner of Theo's Place, a restaurant on Main Street.

That's exactly the way Wilmers wants it.

Wilmers, 68, is the chairman and chief executive officer of M&T; Bank Corp., the city's largest locally owned bank. His quiet demeanor is seen not only in his private life, but also in his bank, whose nondescript, 20-story tower has only small plaques to identify the company.

"Bob Wilmers is the best thing to happen in Buffalo in the last 25 years," said Andrew W. Dorn Jr., president and chief executive of the Greater Buffalo Savings Bank, a competitor. "He is behind the scenes. He is the guy who ... is there with his money and the bank's money."

Although Wilmers prefers to operate in the shadows, he and the bank are receiving unaccustomed attention after agreeing in September to acquire scandal-scarred Allfirst Financial Inc. in Baltimore for $3.1 billion. The deal will make M&T; the country's 18th-largest banking company with $49 billion in assets and more than 700 branches snaking through six Northeastern states and Washington, D.C.

The deal may have heightened M&T;'s standing, but Wilmers wants none of the attention.

In an interview in his spacious corner office with a sweeping view of Lake Erie and the Canadian border, he shuns introspection, revealing only fragments about his personal life, and then reluctantly.

Asked why he is so involved in Buffalo civic affairs and he smiles, then responds tersely: "I honestly don't know the answer. You do what you feel is right."

Even those who say they know him and talk freely of his accomplishments don't understand why Bob Wilmers does what he does.

"You are getting at the essence about what makes a person a certain way," said Stanford Lipsey, publisher of the Buffalo News, who describes Wilmers as his closest friend. "I can't say where it came from. That is his makeup. He came to Buffalo with that kind of attitude."

Andrew J. Rudnick, who has known Wilmers for more than 30 years and is the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a group that promotes business in the city, said Wilmers is not a secretive person, although very private.

"I think he keeps pretty separate what is inside of him and what he does," Rudnick said.

Buffalo hasn't seen many men like Wilmers. He has had experiences that are uncommonly broad. He has traveled the world, lived overseas, speaks French fluently and owns a winery in France, Chateau Haut-Bailly.

He once headed the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium and was presented with a medal for his service to the kingdom of Belgium. His list of friends includes Warren E. Buffett, the world's second-richest person; Arthur Levitt Jr., former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; and New York Gov. George E. Pataki.

Belgian connection

One of three children, Robert George Wilmers was born April 20, 1934, and raised alternately in New York City and Belgium. His mother, Cecilia, was a housewife, and his father, Charles, an executive with the Belgium utility holding company, Sofina, eventually becoming its president.

Wilmers attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire. He received a degree in history from Harvard University in 1956 and attended Harvard Business School.

He joined Bankers Trust Co. in New York in 1962, specializing in overseas debt and equity financing. Four years later, he left banking to become a top finance official under New York Mayor John V. Lindsay after being a volunteer in his campaign.

Government work "was something I knew nothing about," Wilmers said. "It sounded like it would be interesting and Lindsay was a very attractive, mesmerizing guy."

Wilmers worked for the mayor until 1970, when he returned to banking to run the Brussels office at Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., later heading its international banking department in New York.

He launched his own investment firm in 1980 in New York City, and began picking up shares of First Empire State Corp., a small upstate bank, which eventually was renamed M&T; Bank Corp.

Losing jobs

Wilmers was attracted to First Empire because it was making money, the stock was selling at a third of its book value, no one owned a large percentage of the bank, enabling one to acquire shares easily, and it was a well-known institution in Buffalo.

Buffalo, like other Rust Belt cities, had been losing jobs for decades. Bell Aerospace, which employed about 40,000, withdrew in the 1950s, and Bethlehem Steel and Republic Steel followed in the 1970s and 1980s, laying off about 36,000 workers.

Buffalo's population was 292,648 in 2000, half of what it was in 1950. Although it is the second-largest city in the state, Buffalo is the ugly stepsister to New York City, 393 miles to the southeast.

It is perhaps best known for its snowstorms and the Buffalo Bills professional football team, which made four consecutive Super Bowl appearances - from 1991 to 1994 - only to lose every game.

Despite Buffalo's economic woes, Wilmers packed up and moved. "The opportunity was here," he said.

Wilmers became First Empire's chairman in 1983. A far-flung struggling institution with $2 billion in assets, the bank had a branch office in Paris and a portfolio of troubled international and real estate loans.

Wilmers restructured First Empire's loan portfolio, cleaned house and hired new management.

It was during that time that he met Lipsey, the publisher of the News. Lipsey took an immediate liking to Wilmers and introduced him to his friend, Buffett, whose investment company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns the newspaper.

"I just made arrangements for Bob and Warren to meet," Lipsey said. "I thought something might jell there."

It did. Buffett pumped $40 million into M&T; in 1990 through Berkshire, giving Wilmers fresh capital to expand the bank.

From 1990 to 2001, M&T; made 10 acquisitions, bulking up to $31 billion in assets and boasting some of the best performance numbers in the country. M&T;'s stock price soared and Berkshire's initial stake today is worth $541 million.

Fates are intertwined

Wilmers' dream is to have the bank and the city feed off each other and flourish, saying: "If the community does well, the bank does well."

That is reason enough for him to plunge into some of the toughest problems facing Buffalo.

None was tougher than School No. 68.

Wilmers was troubled 10 years ago by the appalling conditions and performance of the elementary school, which is surrounded by shabby housing and sits adjacent to a dingy corner grocery festooned with signs touting cold beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

The school had the lowest test scores in the city, the worst attendance record and virtually no parent involvement.

Wilmers persuaded Buffalo's board of education as well as the unions representing teachers and administrators to let the bank adopt School 68.

"The bank was doing well ... and we felt we ought to give something back," Wilmers said. "We thought about ... the biggest problems in the community we had and we focused on education."

A board of trustees, made up of Wilmers, Buffalo's school superintendent, the head of the teachers union and several others, was formed and began a nationwide search for a new principal. The group picked Yvonne Minor-Ragan, an outgoing former principal from Chicago.

M&T; has pumped $5.5 million into the school. There are computers in every classroom, a new computer lab, fresh paint, a library and paid consultants who coach the teachers.

Wilmers has instructed his staff to do whatever is necessary to help. When the school's computers crash, M&T;'s technicians fix them. If students need new books, a call goes out to the bank, which negotiates the best price. If Ragan wants data on the numbers of families moving into the school's district, the bank crunches the numbers.

"Whatever we need, they are committed to getting it for us," Ragan said. "The bottom line is student achievement."


The transformation of School 68 - since renamed Westminster Community School - has been stunning.

Test scores put it among the top 2 percent of city schools, 80 percent of the parents are involved and the school's enrollment has more than doubled to 565 students, Ragan said.

There are no telltale signs in the hallways or classrooms that the bank has anything to do with the school's transformation, and many of the students have never heard of Wilmers.

"Everyone wants a hero, everyone wants a leader. He [Wilmers] doesn't call press conferences to toot his own horn," Ragan said.

Wilmers' involvement has touched other aspects of the city. He advised Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello last year on how to cut $30 million out of the city's budget, donated $1 million to restore the Darwin D. Martin House, a landmark built by Frank Lloyd Wright, and pledged $4 million to the Buffalo Zoo.

He also is trying to revive the troubled Buffalo Sabres professional hockey franchise, which was taken over by the National Hockey League, an indirect victim of the Adelphia Communications bankruptcy.

"His involvement with us is for real reasons," said Darcy Regier, the Sabres' general manager. "They never asked for anything, they just offered help. I'm always looking around, 'What is the trade-off?' There isn't any."

Said the mayor: "Bob Wilmers' heart and pocketbook is in Buffalo, N.Y. Bob Wilmers has never asked for any government subsidies or incentives and he gives back."

"A huge impact"

Rudnick, the head of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, proclaims that Wilmers "has become more David Rockefeller-like than David Rockefeller. This is a place where he could have a huge impact."

Still, James W. Pitts, president of Buffalo's Common Council, the city's legislative body, would like to see more from Wilmers and the bank.

"I think they need to do more in investing in under-served communities," he said "I think they need to have a higher profile when it comes to minority business investment."

Although Wilmers is generous, it doesn't mean that he is depriving himself of an enviable lifestyle. He is a multimillionaire who has several residences, and is ferried on business trips in a Learjet he half owns. He made Forbes magazine's list of highest-paid chief executives after making $24 million last year, largely from stock options.

Wilmers also is a man of contradictions. Despite his wealth, he still drives a 1990 Toyota Corolla station wagon. While he's given generously to the zoo, he has enjoyed bullfights and cockfights while on vacations.

"If not a contradiction he is certainly a man of different compartments," Rudnick said. "Owning a vineyard doesn't mean that you are pretentious, it means that you can live different types of lives simultaneously. I think he does. I think he lives ... without much pretension."

Wilmers is of slight build and speaks softly, but colleagues say he quickly cuts to issues and isn't afraid to say what is on his mind.

"He creates an environment where things aren't swept under the rug," said Brian E. Hickey, president of M&T;'s Rochester Division.

Hickey recalled when Wilmers peppered him with questions over a proposal to move the bank's Rochester headquarters several years ago.

"He kept asking me questions - to the point at which I finally said, 'Bob, the answer to that question is not important to what we are trying to achieve here.' He looked at me and said, 'OK,' " Hickey said.

Pitts, the council president, called Wilmers' style "hard-nosed, cold business. Period."

By all accounts, Wilmers works hard, even on holiday. Lipsey recalled spending a weekend with Wilmers and his wife at their vacation home in Stockbridge, Mass., when three Federal Express packages arrived at the doorstep.

"Wherever he goes he is working," Lipsey said. "He is incessantly on the phone. He gets a lot done."

His schedule is frequently hectic and requires considerable travel. Recently, Wilmers awoke in Buffalo, had breakfast in Syracuse, lunch in Albany and dinner in Islip, on Long Island.

Loss of son

But a friend said the death of his 26-year-old son, Robert, almost 10 years ago forced him to gain better balance between family and work.

"I wanted him to have a happy life," Wilmers said of his late son. "It makes you see how ephemeral everything is. If you live through that, you can live through anything."

The impact of his son's death on Wilmers was "huge," said Rudnick, the Buffalo Niagara partnership executive. "One of the results of it has been more of a care about his family, the balancing act, the time. I think he structures his time very carefully."

Wilmers has a son, Christopher, 30, from his first marriage, and four stepchildren.

Lipsey said Wilmers dotes on Christopher, who is working toward a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. When his son wants to see him, Wilmers is on a plane.

"One time it was Alaska," Lipsey said. "He knocks himself out."

Even to friends, Wilmers remains a mystery. They can only speculate why he cares so deeply about Buffalo.

Good examples

Mary-Kay Wilmers, the banker's sister, who is editor of the London Review of Books, said her parents set good examples.

"They were generous with us, they were generous with their friends, they were generous to causes that they believed in," she said. "They were very good examples."

Wilmers believes that the bank has an obligation to every community it serves. He expects M&T; employees to be involved in activities outside the bank.

"Our commitment isn't just to Buffalo," Wilmers said. "I do very much find as a community bank it is incumbent on us to be involved in all the communities we serve. You can't be a community bank just having the best rates in town."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad