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New M&T Bank CEO expected to stick to Wilmers' conservative approach

René Jones, who spent more than two decades at M&T Bank Corp. working under late Chairman and CEO Robert Wilmers, is expected to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor as he becomes the new leader of the Buffalo, N.Y.-based company.

That means the bank will continue avoiding excessive risks and will stay on the steady path to growth and locally focused lending that Wilmers was known for as he built up M&T's assets from $2 billion in 1983, when he started, to more than $120 billion today, analysts say.

"'Why fix something that's not broken' is probably the way René will approach it," RBC Capital Markets analyst Gerard Cassidy said in an interview.

Wilmers, who died at 83 on Dec. 16, was known in the banking industry for his conservative approach to banking and delivering returns to investors even as other banks suffered. The company now has almost 17,000 employees, up from 2,000 when Wilmers took over, and 24 acquisitions led to a multistate expansion under Wilmers' leadership, according to a company news release.

Jones, who was unavailable for an interview given Wilmers' funeral Dec. 21, called the late CEO "a giant" in an interview with The Buffalo News. Jones, who most recently was one of three vice chairmen of M&T, was named the new chairman and CEO of M&T and unit M&T Bank on Dec. 20.

"I don't know that it's possible to replicate what Bob did," he told the newspaper. "But an ability to keep his themes, the things that were important to him — community, employees, having a strong financial institution and being a small bit of the glue that holds the community together — I think if we stick by those things, we'll continue to be successful and we'll continue to be a productive member of the community."

Jones' longtime colleague, Richard Gold, will become president and COO of M&T and M&T Bank.

Analysts expect a largely seamless transition given these two individuals' long history with M&T. Gold, who joined the company in 1989, was formerly the bank's chief risk officer and oversaw several divisions, while Jones started at M&T in 1992 and was the company's CFO from 2005 to 2016.

In a research note from Keefe Bruyette & Woods, analyst Brian Klock wrote that the "transition should be smooth despite the loss of a legendary banking leader."

"We have always believed one of M&T's core competencies has been the strength of its deep bench of experienced executives," he wrote.

Jones, in particular, is a familiar face to investors after his years of providing them updates while he was M&T's CFO.

Frank Schiraldi, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill, wrote in a research note that he is "well respected by the street and we expect investors will be pleased with the choice."

Cassidy, the RBC Capital Markets analyst, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that Jones will have a "leg up" as CEO given his deep knowledge of the business and his understanding that the "lowest-cost providers giving the best service will come out ahead."

"He was very insightful," Cassidy said. "Any CFO can recite the numbers, tell you what the results were. But when you talk to him, he is insightful of how the business was run, what the different levers were that moved the numbers."

Jones, meanwhile, said in the newspaper interview that Wilmers left his team "very well prepared."

"We often joke about Bob asking us that fifth or sixth question before we proceeded with anything," he said. "I think it's in our DNA, so I don't think we can change that. I think if we can do half the job Bob did going forward, it would be great success."