First Niagara Financial (FNFG) in Buffalo, N.Y., didn't have to look far to find its next president and chief executive, even though the search process lasted nine months.

The $37 billion-asset company said Thursday that Gary Crosby, who stepped in as interim president and CEO in March, had earned the job permanently. Crosby, 60, also joined First Niagara's board, effective immediately.

"When the board approached me to discuss the possibility, what I said to them was, my approach to delivering long-term shareholder value was going to be with... a focus on operational excellence and sticking to the basics of banking," Crosby said in an interview Thursday.

"We need to move to be customer-centric," he said. "We're going to continue to invest in people that are obsessed with taking our customers and turning them into raving fans of First Niagara."

Crosby declined to discuss any specifics to his strategy, saying the company was in a "blackout" period before the end of the year.

"Gary's wide range of experience, his relationships inside and outside the company, and his demonstrated ability to deliver solid operating results make him the best person for the position," Chairman G. Thomas Bowers said in a press release. "Following a comprehensive search for an executive with strong organizational and operational experience, who can extract value from the outstanding franchise we've assembled, we concluded Gary has the right combination of these attributes."

Crosby, who joined First Niagara in 2009 from ClientLogic Corp., had been the company's chief administrative and chief operating officer when John Koelmel was ousted earlier this year. The company's performance had suffered since, under Koelmel, it embarked on an acquisition spree in April 2010. Last year, First Niagara's market cap fell by almost $250 million, and it posted a total return in 2012 of negative-4.8%.

The company's stock price has appreciated by more than 30% this year.

Crosby declined to say if he planned to close branches or make changes to his executive team. Koelmel was criticized for expanding too quickly, specifically First Niagara's purchase of more than 100 HSBC branches in upstate New York and Connecticut. The company was forced to divest a number of the branches to address antitrust concerns.

Gregory Norwood, First Niagara's chief financial officer, had previously declined to say if he was a candidate for the CEO job. Crosby declined to say Thursday if he would retain Norwood.

"I'm a firm believer in [having] the right people in the right places at the right time," Crosby said. "I feel that we're in a very good place. That's something that, as CEO, I will be constantly assessing."

Crosby, a Buffalo native, has strong ties to his hometown, as did Koelmel. Crosby formerly worked as the chief financial officer and chief operating officer for the Buffalo school district, which he attended.

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