The Buffalo Niagara business community has been on a see-saw for most of 2012.
For every good thing that's happened, like the slow but steady progress of the Buffalo Billion state aid program, there has been something else to set us back, like the stagnating job market that has squelched much of the optimism about the strength of the region's recovery coming out of the recession.
So with that in mind, here's a look at some of the business community's winners and losers during the past year.
• Eric Reich and Michael Weisman: These University at Buffalo graduates achieved the dream of every budding entrepreneur. Back in 2001, they started Campus Labs to help colleges and universities analyze data about their programs and students. Eleven years later, they sold its business for more than $40 million to Higher One Holdings, a Connecticut-based company that helps colleges and universities process tuition payments and disburse financial aid. Now that's a success story.
• Albany Molecular Research: It pays to be a pioneer. Really pays. The Albany drug research company is getting $50 million in state money through Gov. Andrew Cuomo's “Buffalo Billion” to open a $250 million drug research, development and testing center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The center, which is expected to employ 250 people, would be a high-profile anchor in the efforts to jump-start the region's life sciences sector. But to get Albany Molecular to come, the state had to bring a Brink's truck to its front door, to the tune of a whopping $200,000 in state cash for every promised job, making it one of the sweetest incentive packages ever granted to a company in the Buffalo Niagara region.
• M&T Bank: The Buffalo-based bank keeps doing what it does best: consumer and business banking. And it keeps paying off. M&T's stock is up 29 percent this year – more than double the market's gain for 2011 – which makes its shareholders happy. It filled in gaps in its mid-Atlantic branch network by snapping up Hudson City Bancorp for $3.7 billion, one of the biggest banking deals of the year, which makes its executives happy. The bank's continued growth allowed it to expand its 5,100-person local work force by 120 last year, with openings for another 285. And that makes all of us happy.
• Home owners: It's been a good year to own a home in Western New York. Home sales are up almost 9 percent this year. Homes are selling about a day faster than they did last year. The median sale price is almost 3 percent higher than 2011. And the glut of homes that held down the local housing market last year has disappeared, with the nine-month inventory of homes for sale dwindling to a more normal 6.6 months, creating a market where buyers and sellers are more evenly matched.
• Peter Humphrey: CEOs keep getting fabulous parting gifts from companies that, more and more, are telling workers they'll have to fend for themselves in retirement. The retired CEO of Five Star Bank is the latest example, walking away with a $2.85 million going-away present, including a nearly $350,000 lump sum, monthly payments of $41,670 for two years and then $150,000 a year after that through a supplemental pension plan only for top executives. Humphrey won't even have to worry about a car payment: Five Star gave him his company car.
• SmartPill: The Buffalo medical device manufacturer was a poster child for what the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus might become. The nine-year-old firm developed an ingestible diagnostic device that was straight out of the Fantastic Voyage movie. And its executives had a knack for raising money – more than $60 million – to keep the company going until the sales started flowing in. Only the sales never really came, and frustrated investors shut off the flow of new money, sending the company down the financial tubes. An Israeli company bought SmartPill's invention on the cheap and will make it in the Middle East, leaving Buffalo with nothing to show for nine years of toil and trials.
• UB Shale Institute: Shale gas is the next big thing in the Northeast, and someday, maybe even in New York if state regulators and politicians agree that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely in horizontal wells. So it was natural that the University at Buffalo would try to stake out a position as an expert in the controversial field by forming the UB Shale Institute to study the environmental and economic impacts of hydraulic fracturing.
The whole effort was botched from the start. UB portrayed the institute as an independent and impartial think tank, but it was obvious from the start that it was anything but that. Its principal researchers had strong ties to the drilling industry, which gave the institute a distinct pro-drilling tilt, despite UB's claims of independence. The institute's funding was murky, and it lost credibility when it claimed its initial study was peer-reviewed, when it wasn't.
By late November, UB pulled the plug on the institute, but the damage to UB's credibility will take much longer to repair.
• Greatbatch Inc.: When you've been down on your luck for as long as the Buffalo Niagara region, even the little slights hurt. So when Clarence medical device and battery maker Greatbatch Inc. said it was moving its headquarters to the Dallas suburbs, it stung — far more than the loss of four high-paying executive jobs that ensued. Even though all of its other operations are staying here, the move still hurt our prestige, costing us one of our few corporate headquarters. And it was a home-grown company to boot. Talk about a kick in the pants.
• NRG Dunkirk: The coal-fired power plant is on the road to being mothballed – a victim of the flood of cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas into the market and tougher pollution standards – because it can't compete in today's changing electricity market. With ample supplies of shale gas available, that's not going to change in the coming years. And that puts other coal plants, like NRG's Huntley Station in the Town of Tonawanda, on notice, too.
• One HSBC Center: What do you do with a nearly empty office tower? That's the challenge facing the folks at Seneca One Realty after HSBC did the expected and said it will follow the Philips Lytle law firm out the door next fall, raising the alarming prospect of the city's tallest building turning into the tallest symbol of downtown Buffalo's struggles. To their credit, Seneca One officials already have put their thinking caps on about the future, bringing in experts from the Urban Land Institute to help chart a new future for the tallest non-government building in upstate New York.