Robert Wilmers, an American banking executive and the owner of Bordeaux's Château Haut-Bailly, died Dec. 16 at his home in New York City. He was 83. Wilmers, known by everyone as Bob, suffered a heart attack while recovering from a recent surgery.
Charming, intelligent, quiet and yet in command, Wilmers was a financier, a wine lover and a philanthropist. As longtime CEO of M&T Bank, based in Buffalo, N.Y., he built a reputation for sound, responsible leadership, taking over the firm when it was in trouble and building it into a regional company that helped businesses and consumers alike. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, M&T was one of the only major American banks to remain profitable, because Wilmers had long argued that banks should avoid speculative financial ventures and subprime lending.
"He was a remarkable banker, an even more remarkable citizen and wonderful friend," said investment banker Warren Buffet, in a statement.
A lifelong Francophile, Wilmers purchased Haut-Bailly in Pessac-Léognan in 1998, and made significant investments in the cellars and vineyards, turning around a struggling property with great potential. He also hired Véronique Sanders, a young woman with little experience but plenty of passion and drive, to manage the property that had previously belonged to her family.
Wilmers was born in New York City in 1934. He spent large portions of his childhood in Belgium, where his father worked, and fell in love with Europe. He studied at Harvard University and then Harvard Business School. Soon after he began a career in finance on Wall Street, he left to work for Mayor John Lindsay, taking the No. 2 job at the city's finance department, wanting to serve his hometown.
Later he went back to Brussels, managing J.P. Morgan's Belgian operations and then working on their international operations from New York. But he grew tired of life at the big firm, and in 1979, he and a group of friends founded their own firm and went looking for a bank they felt was undervalued. "I'd never been to Buffalo," Wilmers told Wine Spectator in a 2015 interview. "But I saw that M&T could be successful if they stuck to fundamentals." He and his partners bought a quarter of the shares and Wilmers was named CEO in 1983.
For the next three decades he built M&T into one of the top 20 banking firms in the country, largely by being prudent in boom times and then expanding during recessions when his competitors were struggling. He also invested heavily in Buffalo's cultural institutions and schools, believing the bank could only succeed if the community did. He served as administrator of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1993 to 1998.
In 1997, Wilmers married for a second time, to Elisabeth Roche, who was originally from France. He had already been looking for a vacation home in Europe, and he was passionate about wine. A friend made some quiet inquiries in Bordeaux and found Haut-Bailly. Owned for several generations by the Sanders family, it had suffered from a lack of investment in recent decades, and several members of the large family wanted to sell.
"I had no idea when I first bought it that it would be so intense," Wilmers told Wine Spectator in 2015. "It was all very primitive compared to now. We had to rebuild the chai or the equipment would get stolen. We had to fix the vineyard workers' homes."
But while he was prudent in banking, Wilmers was unafraid of making big investments in the winery. He also hired an able partner to get things done while he was in New York. Véronique Sanders was the granddaughter of the previous director, Jean Sanders, who Wilmers kept on for the first few years. Wilmers met with Véronique and felt she had the drive to make the necessary changes.
In the decades since, Haut-Bailly has gone from a property whose wines were very good to a leading estate of Bordeaux whose wines are outstanding. The 2005 and 2010 vintages of the property's red wine both earned 95 points from Wine Spectator.
Wilmers has not been a flashy owner, but he has quietly invested in Bordeaux too and was a major backer of La Cité du Vin, a cultural center whose mission is to tell the global story of wine, which opened in 2016. In 2008, he was made a Chevalier of France's Légion d'Honneur and this year was elevated to the rank of officer. In 2012, he bought Château Le Pape, near Haut-Bailly; he was often seen riding an old bicycle between the two properties, enjoying the beauty of France in his own quiet way.
Wilmers is survived by his wife of 20 years, Elisabeth Roche Wilmers, his son, Christopher, grandsons Dylan and Theodore, as well as four step-children and 11 step-grandchildren.