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Robert Wilmers, M&T Bank chairman and civic leader, dies at 83

Mike Desmond

One of Western New York's most powerful business and civic leaders has died. Robert G. Wilmers, the CEO and chairman of M&T Bank, died unexpectedly Saturday night in New York City.

Wilmers' impact on the region's business, educational and cultural communities was profound. Over the past three decades, he was viewed as one of Western New York's most influential leaders.

Mike Zabel is group vice president of corporate communications at M&T. Zabel told WBFO Wilmers' death was unexpected and that he had followed a regular work schedule only Friday. Wilmers was 83.

"I think it's a very sad day for all of us at M&T Bank," said Zabel. "He's been our leader, our chairman, our CEO since 1983. He's led one of the most successful regional banks in the entire United States. It's also a very sad day for the Buffalo community."

Wilmers’ influence went beyond the boardroom. He helped to shape regional agendas and advocate for change.

“He tried to address the issues facing the Western New York community," said Zabel. "Issues of too much and too expensive state and local government that affected the economy across upstate New York and the out-migration of so many of our educated and talented young people.”

Among the initiatives Wilmers played a key role in shaping were the Westminister Community Charter school and Buffalo Promise Neighborhood.

Credit Eileen Buckley/WBFO
Wilmers sits at his desk in his office in One M&T Plaza in downtown Buffalo.

Wilmers played defining roles in the arts and cultural arena. He also served as a member of Buffalo's control board from the board's inception in 2003 until 2007 -- an era when the city was grappling with major fiscal woes.

Wilmers rose to CEO in 1983, where he oversaw the companies rise into a top-20 U.S. commercial Bank. He played a big role as a civic leader and pushed for Buffalo to improve the city’s public education system.

“He’s been a strong leader in terms of corporate citizenship and his commitment to the City of Buffalo and to education in Buffalo and to the arts in Buffalo,” said Zabel.

Andrew Rudnick spent two decades as president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. Rudnick  said he met Wilmers a half-century ago when Rudnick was an undergraduate at Harvard University and Wilmers was performing alumni work for the university.

"When I met Bob, he was in his mid 30s. And, everything about him -- his persona, his interests, his family, the way he carried himself -- all of those things made me say to myself, 'this is who I want to be, when I grow up," Rudnick told WBFO.

Anthony Masiello had many dealings with Wilmers when Masiello served as state senator and later as Buffalo's mayor. Masiello said he relied on WIlmers' expertise -- particularly during the budget crisis that spurred the state to create the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority.

"[Wilmers was] very instrumental in helping guide myself through very difficult times," Masiello said. "He had terrific people at M&T Bank and still does. He had an eye for talent. He had an eye for education, people who were highly educated, highly motivated but also had good hearts and good minds, were all part of the Bob Wilmers team."

"While many will remember Bob Wilmers for his unparalleled skill in business, I will always remember him for his wonderful generosity and his love for Buffalo and WNY," said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in a statement. "Mr. Wilmers has been a tremendous asset to our community and his absence will leave a deep void that can never be replaced. My heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with his family and many friends today."

Terry and Kim Pegula also issued a statement:

“We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of our friend Robert Wilmers. For several decades, Mr. Wilmers displayed an unsurpassed commitment to the Western New York community and the effects of his commitment will be felt for generations. On behalf of the Bills, Sabres and Pegula Sports and Entertainment, we offer our condolences to the Wilmers family and the M&T Bank community. He will be greatly missed.”

"Saddened to hear Bob Wilmers has passed on," Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted. "He was not only a giant of the banking world, but also a dedicated public servant who cared deeply about making New York a better place to live. He will be missed."

Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.

WBFO's Mike Desmond reports on reflections from local officials who knew Robert Wilmers well.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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