One of Western New York's most powerful business 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.
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."
Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.