Robert G. Wilmers, successful banker and Eagle co-owner, dies
Warren E. Buffett: Wilmers was 'remarkable banker, even more remarkable citizen'
PITTSFIELD — Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank Corp. and a co-owner of New England Newspapers Inc., died unexpectedly at his home in New York City on Saturday night. He was 83.
A longtime resident of Stockbridge — he purchased his home there in 1969 — Wilmers was a regional philanthropist and a local one, too. He quietly made donations totaling in the millions to cultural institutions across the Berkshires from The Mount in Lenox to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
Wilmers was among the group that purchased The Berkshire Eagle and three Vermont papers in May 2016. The group also includes Hans Morris of Stockbridge, Judi Lipsey of Buffalo, N.Y., and Fredric D. Rutberg, of Stockbridge, who is president and publisher of the company.
"The Eagle lost a visionary leader committed to excellence and Berkshire County lost a devoted, generous neighbor who supported practically every civic and cultural cause in our area," Rutberg said.
As a businessman and Stockbridge resident, Morris knew Wilmers for 30 years before both men decided to be part of NENI's new ownership team. Morris wasn't too surprised his friend got involved in the local Fourth Estate.
"He cared so much about newspapers, so much about journalism. He read five papers a day," Morris said.
The Wall Street Journal, in reporting news of Wilmers' death on Sunday, said of him: "His manner was low-key and he spoke in public only rarely. But he didn’t mince words."
Morris echoed that Wilmers trait.
"He was demanding, very exacting, but he never raised his voice," Morris said.
For the staff at The Eagle who had labored under corporate ownership for 21 years before he and his colleagues bought the paper, Wilmers quickly became a figure of stability during his visits to the newspaper. Wilmers made it a point to visit the paper and its news staff regularly, holding lunches with all levels of staff and learning about the newspaper business directly from the top editors to the pressmen.
His death also drew tributes from top businessmen and politicians on Sunday.
Wilmers was "a remarkable banker, an even more remarkable citizen and a wonderful friend," Warren E. Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and a longtime M&T shareholder, told The Buffalo (N.Y.) News on Sunday.
"He was a brilliant banker and a thoroughly decent, caring man," said U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Wilmers also cared about the Berkshires cultural scene in tandem with his wife Elisabeth Roche Wilmers, a longtime board member at Mass MoCA.
Locally, Wilmers and his wife were benefactors throughout the Berkshires.
"Bob and Elisabeth were partners in all things and together were generous in their philanthropic efforts," said Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson. "His generosity didn't come with strings, but with the highest of standards."
The Wilmers' generosity was often outside the limelight and not made in haste, noted Sarah Eustis, CEO of Main Street Hospitality, parent company of the Red Lion Inn.
"An investment for him, philanthropic or business, he had high standards for the venture to be successful," she said.
Wilmers was also successful making friends wherever he went, especially in Stockbridge where he counted Jane Ryan among his close confidants.
"He was one of the pillars of my world," she said.
Ryan found Wilmers to be a down-to-earth guy with a quirky sense of humor that made him fit in well in Stockbridge.
"He had no pretensions. He drove an old blue car for years before he had to give it up," she said. "He was part of the community playing tennis, and he knew everyone at the Stockbridge Golf Club."
During the April 2016 announcement announcing the purchase of this newspaper company, Wilmers expressed optimism about the potential of the Berkshire economy.
"We want to focus on having a great local newspaper," he said at the time. "We don't believe newspapers are dying. We want to have the best community newspaper in the country."
Wilmers has been the chairman and CEO of the Buffalo, N.Y.-based M&T Bank since May 1983. In that time, Wilmers turned what was a $2 billion banking operation into a $120 billion regional financial powerhouse. Under his tenure, M&T completed 24 acquisitions, grew from 51 branches in one state to 783 branches in eight states plus the District of Columbia, and from 2,000 employees to nearly 17,000."
Bob Wilmers’ accomplishments as chairman and CEO of M&T Bank are surpassed only by his commitment to our community, and every day he worked to fulfill his belief that the bank can only do well if the communities it serves do well,” said Robert T. Brady, the former chairman and CEO of Moog Inc. Brady became M&T’s non-executive chairman Sunday. “He will be missed greatly — by his beloved family, by the colleagues whom he respected so deeply, by his incredibly broad network of dear friends and by all of our neighbors in M&T’s communities."
Wilmers was also the "rarest of birds: a banker willing to tell harsh truths about banking," wrote Joe Nocera in a May 2011 op-ed column in the New York Times.
In Nocera's column, titled "The Good Banker," he wrote that Wilmers was critical of the giant national banks who helped fuel "The Great Recession" that began in 2007-08. Wilmers felt the risks those banks took with consumers' money put all banking in a bad light.
“Most bankers are very involved in their communities, and they can stand up and be counted," Wilmers was quoted as saying. "I saw a poll recently that showed we are now considered the third worst profession. That bothers me." Bank analyst Tom Brown followed Wilmers' banking career — one, he says, the industry should emulate.
"Bob Wilmers was not just a great example for all bankers to emulate, but an equally outstanding businessman and civic leader," said bank analyst Tom Brown in a statement to The Eagle. "He was unique and had such a positive impact on so many of our lives."
Wilmers received many honors and awards for his service to the banking industry, as well as for his leadership and contributions to the Buffalo, N.Y., community.
The awards include the Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce's Western New Yorker of the Year Award (1991); State University of New York at Buffalo School of Management's Niagara Frontier Executive of the Year Award (1992); The Buffalo News' Citizen of the Year Award (1987 and 1994); American Banker's Lifetime Achievement Award (2005); American Banker's Banker of the Year Award (2011); the State University of New York at Buffalo’s highest honor, the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, for civic patriotism (2015); and most recently, in 2017, the Legion d'Honneur from the French government. He has also received honorary degrees from Canisius College, Niagara University and the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Wilmers graduated from Harvard College and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration.
Wilmers is survived by his wife of 20 years, Elisabeth Roche Wilmers; his son, Christopher, and his wife, Serena; and his grandsons Dylan and Theodore. He was predeceased by his son Robert G. Wilmers Jr. Wilmers is also survived by four stepchildren and 11 stepgrandchildren.
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