Robert G. Wilmers, Bank Chief and Buffalo Philanthropist, Dies at 83

Robert G. Wilmers at M&T headquarters in Buffalo in 2009. He became a major benefactor there, though he continued to live in his native New York City.

Robert G. Wilmers, who had led the Northeast regional bank M&T as its chief executive since 1983, steering it through the 2008 financial crisis without so much as reducing its stock dividend, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

An M&T spokesman confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

Mr. Wilmers spent nearly 35 years at the helm of the Buffalo-based M&T Bank Corporation, which grew from $2 billion in assets in 1983 to more than $120 billion today.

As the country’s largest banks sought government bailouts at the height of the crisis while hundreds of smaller institutions failed, M&T glided through the turmoil unscathed, an achievement Mr. Wilmers’s industry peers attributed to his conservative management style.

He never involved the bank in speculative trading and made a point to know his customers, running M&T as though it were a much smaller institution.

By buying up smaller banks, Mr. Wilmers eventually expanded M&T to nearly 800 branches in locations as far from Buffalo as Baltimore and Washington.

“While M&T Bank is in no way a community bank by any reasonable definition, its chairman, Bob Wilmers, thought and acted like a community banker,” Camden Fine, the head of a Washington trade group representing the nation’s smallest banks, said in an email.

To build up M&T, Mr. Wilmers, who was not a native of Buffalo and commuted there from Manhattan, cultivated local connections. Soon after buying his first shares of the bank in 1980, he befriended the publisher of The Buffalo News, which is owned by the investor Warren E. Buffett. That relationship led Mr. Wilmers to Mr. Buffett, who invested in M&T soon after.

To stay in touch with customers, Mr. Wilmers hosted regular dinners for them, inviting 50 to 60 at a time and appearing at each one to mingle. The last dinner was on Dec. 5.

Brent Baird, a Buffalo investor who became an outside director at M&T, said that while Mr. Wilmers was worried at first about being seen as a carpetbagger trying to do business in an unfamiliar place, he worked his way to prominence in Buffalo through philanthropy and community development efforts.

“He became sort of more Buffalo than a lot of the rest of us,” Mr. Baird said in a telephone interview.

At his death, Mr. Wilmers was overseeing fund-raising for an expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the sixth-oldest art museum in the United States. He was also awaiting the opening of a new prekindergarten center in Buffalo, part of a network of charter schools he had built through M&T to try to improve education for the city’s poorest residents.

But despite his prominence in Buffalo, New York City was Mr. Wilmers’s real home base. He flew to Buffalo on Monday mornings after breakfast, then home again on Wednesday nights for dinner with his family at his Central Park West apartment, his son Christopher said.

He spent vacations at a house in western Massachusetts and in the Bordeaux region of France, where he bought Château Haut-Bailly, reviving its flagging 600-year-old vineyard.

In 2016, Mr. Wilmers and three other investors bought a group of small New England newspapers, including The Berkshire Eagle.

Robert George Wilmers was born in New York City on April 20, 1934, to Charles Wilmers and the former Cecilia Eitington. He spent his childhood in New York and Belgium, where his father was an executive of the utility Sofina. He graduated from Harvard University and attended Harvard Business School but did not receive a degree there.

Early in his career, Mr. Wilmers worked as an officer at the Bankers Trust Company. He campaigned for John V. Lindsay in his successful race for mayor of New York City in 1965 and later served as the mayor’s deputy director of finance and his acting finance administrator.

After leaving City Hall, Mr. Wilmers became a vice president of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, a predecessor of JPMorgan Chase. While he was chief executive at M&T, he was also chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation under Gov. David A. Paterson.

His death elicited tributes from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, who said in a statement, “There have been very few men who have done as much for Buffalo, since its founding hundreds of years ago, as Bob Wilmers.”

In addition to his son Christopher, Mr. Wilmers is survived by his wife, Elisabeth Roche Wilmers; four stepchildren, Camille de Wouters, Guillaume de Wouters, Juliette Chevalier and Charlotte de Coupigny; a sister, Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of The London Review of Books; two grandchildren; and 11 step-grandchildren. Another son, Robert Jr., died in 1993. His marriage to Gertrude de Gersdorff ended in divorce.

In a telephone interview, Christopher Wilmers, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said his father had regularly visited him on research trips to remote places, even when conditions were tough.

“It wasn’t always necessarily his thing,” the younger Mr. Wilmers said, “but he never complained.” Once, he said, his father flew to Alaska to spend a week with him and a friend in a remote cabin. It rained most of the time; the three men passed the time playing the card game hearts. The elder Mr. Wilmers’s strategy was more conservative than his son’s.

“Nothing fancy,” Christopher Wilmers said, “but in the long run he ends up doing better than anybody else.”

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