Hans Morris: Remembering Bob Wilmers
Berkshire County lost a giant of a man last weekend, someone who had profound impact on this community, which he lived in and loved for 47 years. Bob Wilmers was 83, but had the energy of a 53-year-old. And like most people who knew him, I never contemplated a world without him. So the news that he had died hit me like a load of bricks, and I've heard the same from hundreds of people since.
He was also our partner in the stewardship of this newspaper, something he cared about deeply. And readers might want to know what was he like, and how should we remember him?
I got to know Bob Wilmers in a snowstorm. I was taking the train from New York City to Hudson, N.Y., in the winter of 1990. I had met him previously, in a business meeting, and I found him to be a very hard nut to crack.
Bob was the CEO of M&T Bank in Buffalo, N.Y., and I sent some analysis we had prepared and he commented on the work with withering precision. But here I was at the Hudson train station in a snowstorm, and my car wouldn't start. And Bob offered me a ride in his Toyota Corolla. This car became legendary because he owned it for something like 20 years. At that point, however, it was pretty new, although I recall having to defog the windshield regularly with my handkerchief en route. But we had a wonderful conversation on a wide range of issues, and we've been friends ever since.
How he ended up CEO of a bank in Buffalo was not through an expected route. Bob had started out working in the international department of Bankers Trust straight out of Harvard. He joined the Mayor John Lindsay administration in 1966, working for Roy Goodman as deputy finance director, and when Goodman resigned in 1968 to run for state senate, Bob was appointed finance administrator of New York City, at age 34.
After working for the city, Bob joined Morgan Guaranty Trust, and was shortly sent to Brussels to become the head of Euroclear, a joint venture of Morgan and other European banks. When he returned to New York, after running a big operation at age 40, he was restless back at the bank. He left in 1979 and formed a small investment group to find and invest in undervalued banks.
Bob looked at dozens, but he thought M&T Bank, the fourth largest bank in Buffalo, was fundamentally decent, although it had made some big credit mistakes, and was trading at 70 percent below its book value. He started buying shares, eventually owned more than 23 percent of the bank, and joined its board. A year later, in 1983, the CEO retired, and the board made Bob the CEO.
The stock price of the bank when Bob became CEO was $1.30, and Tuesday it was $173. Including dividends, by my calculation, the annual compound return on the stock for anyone who bought at that time is just over 17 percent, which makes it the best-performing bank stock of the past 35 years, by a wide margin.
As a banker, Bob was peerless. He ran a very traditional bank: it collected deposits from consumers and businesses, carefully lent money to people with whom it had a relationship, and every few years would acquire banks in similar communities in a disciplined way, and always at attractive prices. He also built a special culture, relying on highly experienced employees, and rewarding them for achieving good results.
He liked the people in Buffalo: "They are honest, friendly, well-educated and highly skilled with a strong work ethic and no-nonsense attitude." Similar, in many ways, to what he liked about the people in the Berkshires.
He wrote a widely read and respected annual letter to shareholders, and you can read all of them here: http://newsroom.mtb.com/document-archive/annual-report-letters. These were unusually candid and highly reflective of his personal views — not your typical CEO letter written by the corporate communications department.
He never used euphemisms. He commented on the vagaries of financial reporting; the poor fiscal management in Buffalo and Western New York; the reasons for the financial crisis; a very self-critical assessment of the mistakes the bank had made in mortgage lending in 2004-07 (quoting Fiorello LaGuardia in 1941, Bob wrote, "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut!"); the significant overreaction by regulators to the crisis, including lumping together banks with very different risk profiles; and in one of his more famous letters, his intense criticism of the trading and speculative capital market activities of the largest banks.
I read his letters every year, as did many people.
Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, is also famous for his shareholder letters. This is what Jamie told me about Bob: "He was a friend for a long time, and I have enormous respect for him. I read every one of Bob's letters, and also made a point to send him mine. He was always thoughtful, a patient builder, and a standard-bearer for our whole industry. A class act."
In 1998, two significant things happened: Bob married Elisabeth Roche Wilmers, who herself has become an important figure in the Berkshires (serving, among other things, as a board member of Mass MoCA for 12 years) and in Buffalo. Bob also bought Chateau Haut-Bailly, a respected, family-run vineyard in the Pessac-Leognan region of Bordeaux, France.
Bob said he bought Chateau Haut-Bailly so he and Elisabeth could have their own place in France. It was an elegant estate with a very highly regarded "terroir," but not well known beyond a small circle of — mainly French — buyers. And most of those were aghast that an American banker was buying it — it was a scandal in Bordeaux!
Bob retained the granddaughter of the proprietor, Veronique Sanders, to remain as the manager of the estate, and Bob began investing in and consistently improving both the quality and the distribution of the wine. He vowed to his staff in 1998, that if Haut-Bailly received a rating of 100 points from Robert Parker — which is practically impossible — he would bring the entire staff to New York to celebrate. And in 2014, Parker rated the 2009 release 100 points, and to New York the entire staff went. And the Bordeaux wine community now celebrates Le Banquer Americain, and the French government made him an Officer de la Legion d'Honneur this past October.
In June 2015, Fred Rutberg called me on Saturday morning, and over a cup of coffee he described his idea of buying The Berkshire Eagle. I agreed with Fred's sentiments about what had happened to the paper, and the importance of quality journalism and opinion in a community like the Berkshires. I had dinner shortly thereafter with Bob, and told him why I thought it was interesting, and he said he would never want to own a newspaper, but he would be interested in owning The Berkshire Eagle. And he recommended we get his friend Stan Lipsey, the retired publisher of the Buffalo News, involved, since neither Fred, Bob, nor I really knew anything about running a newspaper. And about a year later, after many ups and downs, we bought it.
For the better part of two years, I have been in regular contact with Bob on this project. I got to see how he thought about issues, how he formulated his decisions, and how he engaged with the management team and the other directors. At one point, he told me this was one of the more intellectually interesting and challenging businesses he had engaged in, and he devoted substantial time to the enterprise.
We had monthly board meetings, often on Saturday mornings, and he wanted a weekly report, which took quite a bit of adjusting to meet his standards. He took reporters out to lunch, and wanted to interview all new reporters to understand what made for quality editorial content. He wore his blue work shirt — with a "Bob" name patch over the pocket, and helped sort inserts in the press room. He knew the names of staff members.
And most of all, he asked very challenging questions. Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson told me the other day that dealing with Bob Wilmers kept you on your toes. His questions were direct and got to the heart of the matter, and if you didn't know what you were talking about, that became evident pretty quickly.
Bob never dominated the discussion or sucked the oxygen out of the room. All conversations were intellectually honest, rigorous, direct and cleared up everyone's thinking. And he was ambitious for the newspaper, just like he was for Haut-Bailly: He said to the newspaper staff on the morning of the new ownership announcement that our goal was to be the best community newspaper in the United States. Period. The quality of his thinking, combined with the ambition of what he wanted it to be, and his persistent focus on excellence, makes us all want to make it better.
Bob had immense impact in our community. He was a supporter of many of the arts organizations in the Berkshires, usually giving anonymously and quietly, but often at critical junctures, and often with a challenge or requirements that ensured the results would be transformational.
He was uninterested in bailing out organizations that weren't effective, or that had a muddled approach or no clear plan, and he could be very blunt in his assessment of this. But in many cases, he and Elisabeth were the essential component to getting an idea moving, or making it successful.
At Mass MoCA, we had been talking about an idea for "museum collaboration" for years, and had an opportunity with Yale University to realize it with the Sol Lewitt gallery. But the museum was so financially fragile that we didn't dare pursue it until we had financial situation stabilized. Bob said we had to pursue it, and gave us a very meaningful challenge and support to make it happen. Mass MoCA, Jacob's Pillow, The Clark, The Mount, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Barrington Stage, Tanglewood, Hancock Shaker Village and the Berkshire Film Festival (and for all I know many more, since he kept his help very private) were all beneficiaries of the support, guidance and, at times, harsh doses of truth from Bob and Elisabeth.
I know plenty of people who know Bob well and have a similar story; Bob could be prickly, and hard to get to know. And he kept everyone on their toes. But as you got to know him, your perspective changed. Bob was really funny. He was curious about everything. He was adventurous, worldly and widely connected, but down to earth. He knew the name of everyone in town. He lived in the house he bought 47 years ago. He drove old cars and rode an old bicycle around New York City. He hated demagoguery of all types: in politicians, business leaders and community leaders. He wanted facts and results. But I don't know anyone who worked for him who doesn't think he was the best boss they ever had. And he was deeply fair and compassionate, and understood what makes a community work.
In one of his letters for the bank, he wrote about the communities where M&T did business, but it could have just as easily have been talking about Berkshire County:
"When President Clinton was first nominated to be president, in his acceptance speech he said Al Gore and he came from towns where people knew when they were born and cared when they died. Many of M&T's communities are such places and as such they are more representative of the values of Middle America than of Wall Street or Hollywood. These values represent the inner strength of the United States in which people overwhelmingly desire to see their towns, villages, neighbors and institutions do well, and are concerned when they do badly. There is often a strong bond among the religious institutions, the local businesses, the schools, the libraries, the universities, the hospitals, and the social organizations, as well as the people who work in local government. It has always been important that bankers play a leading role in such communities as they tend to be part of the glue that bonds them together with a focus on improving the quality of life."
Bob loved our community, and he loved this newspaper. And we are dedicated to seeing his goal of making The Berkshire Eagle the best community newspaper in the United States come true.
Hans Morris is a co-owner of The Eagle.
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