During the three-plus decades that Bob Wilmers ran M&T Bank, both the industry and his Buffalo, N.Y., bank faced some of their most difficult challenges.

Wilmers, who died this weekend unexpectedly at age 83, handled these trials in a way that others would be wise to emulate, said John Kanas, chairman of BankUnited.

“Young bankers would do well to study the career of Bob Wilmers because he established a prolonged history of success in a difficult business, over lots of bumpy times,” Kanas said.

Many bankers and others associated with the industry echoed Kanas' comments on Monday, including U.S. Bancorp Chairman Richard Davis and SunTrust CEO Bill Rogers. They all called Wilmers a mentor, a friend and a stalwart supporter of traditional banking. Stephen Steinour, chairman and CEO of Huntington Bancshares, described Wilmers as "maybe the most successful banker in half a century."

Bar graphic of M&T growth under leadership of Bob Wilmers

Most recently, Wilmers led M&T through the tortured process of completing its $5.5 billion acquisition of Hudson City Bancorp in Paramus, N.J. More than three years elapsed from the deal’s announcement to its closing in 2015, due to regulatory concerns about compliance with money laundering rules.

Almost no one else would have had the stomach to handle that kind of delay, said Ed Herlihy, an attorney at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz who was M&T’s lead adviser on the transaction.

“Bob once told me that this deal would define his legacy,” Herlihy said. “M&T previously had an unblemished reputation, and he wasn’t going to let that tarnish it. They would have been perceived as a different company if they had capitulated to regulators.”

M&T spent more than $400 million to upgrade the technology underpinning its anti-money-laundering compliance systems. M&T incurred those expenses even though the investment did not guarantee that regulators would approve its deal for Hudson City.

During the delay, Hudson City was investigated for allegations of discriminatory lending, which it settled for $33 million.

“It was a nightmare trying to do that merger, and it really stressed him,” said former BB&T Chairman and CEO John Allison, who frequently spoke with Wilmers. “But he had made an agreement with Hudson, and he kept it.”

During the extended wait, Wilmers continued to pen the lengthy shareholder letters for which he is perhaps best known. Although Wilmers refrained from critiquing regulators in those letters, he forcefully stated his view that, in response to the financial crisis, too many new regulations were enacted.

“The recurring theme is that banks have been working with new regulations that are constantly evolving, sometimes with a lack of clarity,” Wilmers wrote in his year 2016 shareholder letter. “Amidst the uncertainty and angst that this engenders, it is difficult for traditional banks to use their renewed culture, fortified by heightened risk management and compliance discipline, in the service of their core mission.”

The letters gave comfort to bankers across the country, and from institutions of all sizes, during a period when they really needed it, Herlihy said.

“It was a dark time for the industry, and Bob gave courage to bankers to stand up to the onerous and unfair regulatory challenges,” Herlihy said.

M&T navigated other choppy waters during his long tenure. In the 1990s and early 2000s, commercial banks and thrifts were fierce enemies, but Wilmers helped persuade the two groups to come together, said Mike Smith, CEO of the New York Bankers Association.

“He believed in a united industry,” Smith said. Commercial banks and thrifts in the state merged their trade organizations in 2006.

Wilmers was also praised for his longstanding commitment to improving Buffalo, where M&T holds 64% of the retail deposit market share, and western New York. A native of New York City who grew up in Manhattan and in Belgium, Wilmers was involved in numerous charitable organizations in Buffalo. Wilmers also insisted that M&T retain its New York state banking charter during a period when many banks of M&T’s size were switching to national charters, Smith said.

“The communities the bank serves, especially Buffalo, were fortunate to have someone with Bob’s vision, values and commitment,” Beth Mooney, chair and CEO of Cleveland-based KeyCorp, said in an emailed statement. KeyBank is the second-largest bank in Buffalo.

Wilmers was especially interested in the condition of public education in Buffalo, and encouraged private citizens to become more involved in improving the school system. In the 1990s, M&T adopted one of the poorest-performing public schools in Buffalo and helped it become a charter school.

“There’s an enormous respect and regard that all of us had for Bob — he was the sort of person who, when he spoke, we all paid attention,” Steinour said. “But it was never about Bob. It was about what he felt would be helpful to the community. … He cared deeply about M&T and the team there, but equally deeply about the communities he served and especially Buffalo.”

Along with his achievements in banking and the community, Wilmers was fondly remembered by many of his peers for his old-fashioned, no-nonsense approach to life and work. He wasn’t afraid to work long hours, for example.

George Hamlin IV, chairman of the $2.6 billion-asset Canandaigua National Bank & Trust in upstate New York, faxed Wilmers a letter in 1999, proposing a purchase of some M&T branches in Rochester late one evening, and Wilmers responded immediately — from his vacation home in France, where it had to be the middle of the night, Hamlin said.

“He called me from his villa in France. What was he doing up at that hour?” Hamlin said. “That’s who Bob Wilmers was.”

Then there were Wilmers’ modes of transportation. He was known to pedal an old bicycle around Manhattan, where he owned an apartment near Central Park. And he didn’t drive a luxury automobile, as Kanas explained in recalling one of their negotiating sessions.

Kanas said he and Wilmers discussed “about 10 times” a merger between M&T and North Fork Corp., which Kanas eventually sold to Capital One Financial in 2006. The two executives’ “stubborn” ways kept a deal from happening, Kanas said, but he repeatedly tried to come to an agreement with Wilmers.

One of Kanas’ efforts involved flying to meet with Wilmers in Buffalo, where there was about three feet of snow on the ground, Kanas said.

“He picked me up in an old, banged-up Chevy Nova,” Kanas said, with a front fender that looked like it was falling off and tires that were almost bald.

“That’s the way Bob played it,” Kanas said. “He was a billionaire who always tried to look like a commoner.”

Alan Kline contributed to this article.

Andy Peters

Andy Peters

Andy Peters writes about regional banks, consumer finance and debt collections for American Banker.
Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton is a reporter for American Banker, where she writes about the business of national and regional banking.