After World Bank, Conable Gets a New Look at Banking

A director's seat at a $9.7 billion bank in upstate New York might seem a bit narrow to the departing chairman of the mighty World Bank, but it suits Barber Conable Jr. fine.

A native of western New York, Mr. Conable attended his first board meeting of First Empire State Corp. on Sept. 11.

"I'm interested in learning something about the [commercial] banking business," he says. "I also am interested in an institution that is as community-oriented as M&T," First Empire's lead bank.

It has been a while since Mr. Conable has been free to devote a lot of time to enterprises on his home turf. Mr. Conable represented Rochester in Congress from 1965 to 1985. He served on the House Ways and Means Committee for 18 years and was part of the Republican leadership in the House for 14, gaining renown as a tax expert.

Back and Forth

He returned to Rochester full-time for two years to the University of Rochester with the title of distinguished professor, but he was also on the board of the New York Stock Exchange. And from July 1986 till the start of this month, he was chairman in Washington of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The World Bank began to focus more on antipoverty measures during Mr. Conable's tenure. "We tried to make sure our lending had a social component," he says. It also gained an environmental department and emphasized women's issues more. And its loans outstanding increased from $14 billion in 1986 to $24 billion five years later, when Mr. Conable handed over the reins to Lewis Preston, the former chairman of J.P. Morgan & Co.

Mr. Conable sees some similarities between development work and banking. "It's been said that development is like riding a bicycle. Either you keep going forward or you fall over," he says. And as for banking, "every institutions has to stay up with the technology and what the world expects of it."

Steered Clear Earlier

What with his time on the Ways and Means Committee and his experience running the World Bank, Mr. Conable's fiscal acumen is clear. But till now, he has steered clear of commercial banking.

"I stayed away from banks when I got out of Congress," he says. "I was concerned about the state of international banking."

But he admires First Empire's chief executive, Robert Wilmers, who took the reins in 1983. And he likes First Empire's focus on business in areas where it has a presence - chiefly its Buffalo base, but also Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, the Hudson Valley, and New York City. "M&T is a good local bank," he says. He expects his experience and judgment to prove useful to First Empire even though he has not been a commercial banker.

In addition to serving on First Empire's board, Mr. Conable is on the board of Pfizer Inc., Corning Inc., and the insurance giant American International Group Inc.

He and his wife Charlotte, an expert on women's issues and the problems of the aging, live in Alexander, a town of 400 between Rochester and Buffalo and close to Mr. Conable's hometown of Warsaw. They have four children and five grandchildren, many of whom live just a few miles away. Mr. Conable is a conservationist and an amateur anthropologist who has studied the Iroquois.

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