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Andrew J. Rudnick, a key figure in Western New York’s economic development efforts for the past 28 years, will retire in June as president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Possibly the most visible business spokesman in local history, Rudnick presided over the merger of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce and Greater Buffalo Development Foundation in 1992 to create upstate New York’s biggest and most influential business advocacy organization. He said Tuesday he will relocate to the Gulf Coast in his native Alabama, while Partnership officials indicated they will hire a major recruiting firm to conduct a national search for his successor.

“It’s time – my head, heart and bones tell me that,” said Rudnick, known for his trademark bow tie and, until recently, a bushy moustache. “Moreover, I sincerely believe this organization and the regional employer community we serve are at a particularly positive point to undergo a leadership change.”

During a wide-ranging interview in his Main Street office, Rudnick, 65, pointed to a host of accomplishments. They all resulted, he said, from the efforts of a city still struggling to emerge from its industrial past. While not always successful, he said Buffalo and Western New York are on the cusp of embracing an “eds and meds” economy that increasingly revolves around institutions like the University at Buffalo and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“There is an optimism here at the opposite end of the spectrum from the mid- to late-1980s,” he said, explaining that associates at his former home in Houston gave him a “you’re moving to Buffalo?” look when he first accepted his new post in 1986.

“Now, Buffalo is much more cosmopolitan; our business is increasingly tied to the rest of the world,” he said. “And figuratively, we are much less ‘bigoted’ than we used to be. We are much more open to people of different sizes and shapes and backgrounds.”

“I think the community is doing a lot better economically and educationally,” he added. “Things that got started 10 to 15 years ago are beginning to pay off now.”

Tim C. Loftis, a partner in the Jaeckle, Fleishmann and Mugel law firm who is Partnership chairman, pointed to Rudnick’s role in major economic initiatives such as SUNY 2020 and resurrecting historic downtown properties. Under Rudnick, he said, the Partnership has “brought value to the table.”

“Andrew has, in so many ways, been the heart, soul and brains of our organization since its inception, and his presence will be sorely missed,” he said in an email to Partnership members.

Rudnick acknowledges that he has earned a cadre of critics who remain unimpressed with the area’s pace of progress and the continued loss of employers and population. Some, like 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino, conducted public campaigns against him, even listing him with other “predators” on a Niagara Thruway billboard.

Rudnick said he takes the barbs in stride as Buffalo and Western New York continue to make the transition from heavy industry and dependence on public-sector jobs. But he also said the area has come a long way from the dark days of major industrial shutdowns.

“I am proud of this organization, its members, staff and supporters,” he said. “I would match it against any metro in the country, and we didn’t start in a good place, given the history that preceded.”

With an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a master’s from Columbia and a doctorate from the University of Alabama, Rudnick was recruited from a Houston economic development association by the “Group of 18,” an informal organization of powerful businessmen who, at the time, expressed little faith in the area’s elected leadership.

Within a few years, he was instrumental in combining the “macro” goals of the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation with the “micro” functions of the old Chamber, similar to efforts in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

“Once the merger occurred, it was like it made sense forever,” he said. “I believe it’s worked.”

In the two decades since, Rudnick said, the Partnership has commanded “clout, respect and attention,” especially from state and local government. That resulted in major state investment in places like the emerging Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, he said, which is expected to someday employ 17,000 people.

“The business community and private sector [are] being listened to,” he said. “We speak in a unified, smart voice that is not shrill but based on fact and thoughtfulness.”

“And the respect is there because we stayed with the issues,” he added.

Rudnick said the Partnership was instrumental in lobbying for the new Buffalo Niagara International Airport and low-cost carriers in cooperation with elected officials and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. He said new initiatives designed to keep low-cost hydropower in Western New York also proved successful, while the Unshackle Upstate program that works with other economic development groups outside New York City has produced an “enormous effect.”

But Rudnick seems most proud that the area started marketing its cross-border relationship with Southern Ontario. He credited the late Patricia O. Rehak, former Partnership vice president, with developing the concept.

“We have a few unique attractions as a region, but our border location may be most important,” he said. “This organization believes we should exploit everything we do cross-border; it will benefit us in so many ways in the future. It’s our edge.”

After 28 years of studying the area’s strengths and weaknesses, Rudnick said problems remain.

“We are still a mid-sized American metro without a lot of home-based corporations. We are not Houston, New York, Chicago or Los Angeles,” he said. “Add to that a lingering recession, and how to maintain momentum in the midst of all that is a huge challenge.”

Loftis said he will lead a search committee that includes several past Partnership presidents, including Robert B. Wilmers, chairman of M&T Bank; Robert T. Brady, chairman of Moog Inc.; Louis P. Ciminelli, chairman of LPCiminell Inc.; Jonathan A. Dandes, president of Rich Baseball Operations; and Anna Marie Cellino, president of National Fuel Gas Distribution Corp. The Partnership also will hire Korn-Ferry International to conduct the search process to replace Rudnick.

“We’re looking for the best available candidate – period,” Loftis said. “It could be somebody locally or somebody from Kalamazoo.

“But this organization has been a critical part of the momentum of this community,” he added. “One way to maintain that is to find the most talented person we can.”

Rudnick said he plans to take it easy for a while after leaving Buffalo in June but would not rule out returning to the workforce – possibly as a teacher.

As others of his generation also leave, he challenges their successors to continue the work.

“We have to build that next generation and have them care,” he said, “and have them engage.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com