All banking is local

Patron: The man behind the purchase of Allfirst Financial believes in good corporate citizenship. His record in Buffalo proves it.

November 17, 2002|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

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.

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