In talking with those who know Gary M. Crosby, the new interim president and CEO of First Niagara Financial Group, an image of a familiar Hollywood movie banker begins to come together – and it looks a lot like George Bailey, the hometown hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Unlike the shifty financiers who propelled “Wall Street” (that’s the movie with “Greed is good” as the catchphrase) and those who propelled an international financial meltdown in 2011’s “Margin Call,” Crosby has kept his feet planted solidly in the community where he grew up, went to school and has worked ever since.
That has been true since his time working in computer software, in a venture capital firm, in the Buffalo Public Schools and, most recently, as executive vice president and chief administrative and operations officer of First Niagara Financial Group.
Crosby, 59, now sits at the top of the banking company, at least temporarily. He was named interim CEO on Tuesday after First Niagara’s board abruptly removed John R. Koelmel from the top job. The board also announced it will conduct a national search for a permanent successor to Koelmel.
Until then, those who know Crosby say the Buffalo-based banking company is in good hands.
“He’s very committed to Buffalo, and it’s always foremost in whatever he does – ‘How do I make Buffalo better?’ ” said John D. Murray, former president and CEO of the YMCA Buffalo Niagara. Murray, who recently retired from the Y, worked often with Crosby after Crosby joined the nonprofit’s board in 2000. Crosby later became chairman of the Y’s board of directors, and in 2006 he was given the organization’s highest honor for volunteers, its Gold Key Award.
“He could go anywhere in the world with the talent and abilities he has,” Murray said, “but he has decided to stay here, work here and volunteer in the community here.”
One of the decisions Crosby made was to take on the post of chief financial officer for the Buffalo schools in 2004, when the district’s fiscal condition was so dire it threatened the whole system. A Canisius College graduate, he had already achieved success in business with more than one company: From 1999 to 2003, he was with Seed Capital Partners, a venture capital company, and before that, he was among the founders of ClientLogic Corp., where he was also chief financial and operating officer.
“He didn’t need this job,” said Barb Smith, who succeeded Crosby as the school system’s chief financial officer in 2009. “He came here to make a difference and to leave the district in a better position than when he arrived.”
And he achieved that, Smith said. She worked side by side with him for five years, and she has only good things to say. “He’s very intelligent and highly ethical. I have a lot of respect for him – and a lot of people have a lot of respect for him.”
Those people include members of Buffalo’s Fiscal Stability Authority, such as Joseph Stefko, who is now president and CEO of CGR in Rochester. No matter what decisions are made at First Niagara, Stefko is confident Crosby will come out well.
“He’s sharp, he’s honest, and he’s data-driven,” Stefko said, making it clear he means that last quality as high praise. “He’s a guy who is able to see both the forest and the trees, and to put it all together in a positive way.”
Stefko agrees the school district and community-at-large benefited from the Crosby’s skills.
“He’s a deep thinker – a strategist – and he brings an unwavering commitment to Western New York and to making the region a better place for everyone,” Stefko said.
That’s true even when it may cost extra money, as happened when the school district made the decision in 2009 to keep open School 84, a troubled school serving disabled students. The building on the Erie County Medical Center campus was in disrepair, and state and local officials were at odds over what to do about it. But James Williams, then Buffalo Public Schools superintendent, and a group of dedicated parents found support from the district’s finance officer.
Crosby, quoted in a Buffalo News story four years ago after the school’s future was secure, said this about walking its run-down hallways: “It was an incredible experience. It was emotional. It was the happiest school in the district, and I walked away committed to making the reconstruction happen.”
The bigger problems he faced – much like those facing First Niagara in the wake of some expensive expansions, led by the purchase of a million accounts from HSBC Bank USA in 2011 – required more pragmatic solutions.
In the schools, enrollment was plummeting in 2005, and the district was looking at laying off up to a quarter of its workforce.
At the time, Crosby urged the School Board to be realistic, while also acknowledging that other factors could change the picture dramatically. The words he spoke to the board’s finance committee then could echo at the bank today.
“I don’t ever want this district accused of being shortsighted,” he said at the time. “What we need to do is hunker down the best we can and hold the line on spending everywhere.”
Crosby returned to the private sector in 2009 when he become chief administrative officer at First Niagara, shortly before the company began its aggressive expansion. It was also a return for him to a bigger payday: Bloomberg BusinessWeek estimates that his total 2012 compensation was about $1,788,720, including salary and stock options.