Joseph Saffire lived around the world working for banks, but he never stopped thinking about Buffalo.
His work for HSBC and then Wells Fargo & Co. took him to places like the Philippines, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany and England. He experienced other cultures, picked up bits of foreign languages and made lasting friendships.
But like other Buffalo expatriates he met overseas, he always thought about one day coming home to stay. When the right job opportunity arose at First Niagara Financial Group, he took it. Earlier this year, the bank named Saffire executive vice president of commercial financial services. He left a London-based position with Wells Fargo for what he hopes is a “one-way ticket back.”
During most of his two decades with HSBC, Saffire was in the bank’s international manager program, which assigns its members to different countries, sometimes with little notice. He joined Wells Fargo at the end of 2012, then started at First Niagara in late April.
Gary M. Crosby, First Niagara’s chief executive officer, called Saffire “a born and raised commercial lender.” When Crosby was changing his leadership team, Saffire’s name came to mind. “We had some other candidates, but Joe quickly rose to the top,” Crosby said.
Crosby liked Saffire’s global experience. Another plus: Saffire at one time held a high-ranking, Buffalo-based position with HSBC in which he oversaw a territory that included all of the states First Niagara now does business in, so he knows those markets, Crosby said.
Saffire, 44, arrives as First Niagara aims to bolster its results and win investor confidence in its growth strategy. His wife and four children were accustomed to visiting here each summer; now they are making Amherst their home. He will still travel in his job, but this time within First Niagara’s four-state territory.
“I’m not really that comfortable in an office, to be honest,” he said. “We can do a lot from the road, and I plan on using technology to my advantage.”
In an interview with The Buffalo News, he talked about his international experiences and why First Niagara’s job appealed to him:
Matt Glynn: What was it like to live in so many countries?
Joseph Saffire: It’s one thing to visit a country on a trip, but when you actually live there and work there, I think you really learn to appreciate more about that particular country, that particular culture, the business community. So it was really fantastic. We had a chance to live in Asia; we were there almost 10 years. … In all of them, we left with friends. We have friends from all over the world, different cultures. And obviously, the business experience has helped me just to have that sort of international understanding of what companies today are facing. It’s not just companies in Hong Kong, it’s companies in Buffalo who are exporting or importing or setting up subsidiaries overseas. So to have that sort of experience and understanding of what they’re all doing is something that will live with me forever.
MG: What kind of support system did you have overseas?
JS: Moving overseas is probably a lot easier than moving domestically in the U.S. I think if you’re a family and have to uproot and move from Buffalo to Cleveland, it’s probably a lot harder than it is to move from Buffalo to London, in a way. Because when you go overseas, there’s a lot of other expatriates from other countries that are in the same situation. Your kids will probably go to an international school or a school that has a lot of other expatriate children. They’re all in the same boat, so people are much more open to make friends and really you’re just kind of involved in the community right off the bat.
MG: What made you want to come back to the United States and join First Niagara?
JS: I wasn’t desperate to come back. Obviously I had a very good career and we enjoyed what we were doing overseas. I think just the timing for this move was perfect. ... I’ve always kind of kept my eye on First Niagara, kind of watched what they were doing, even since they were Lockport Savings Bank. ... I think what they’ve been doing is fantastic, not just for Buffalo and having a bigger employer here, but just their commitment and Gary’s commitment to technology and development of the infrastructure, focusing on the integration of these various acquisitions over the last few years, developing and hiring great talent, focus on the culture of the business. …
You look at First Niagara and you say, how can you compete with a Wells Fargo who’s probably got technology that’s advanced and so forth? I think what First Niagara brings to the table is empowerment of people, the ability to make local decisions in communities where we operate, which is very difficult for larger banks. ... Our customers really pick up on that.
MG: First Niagara is a relatively smaller bank (HSBC has $2.8 trillion in assets, Wells Fargo has $1.5 trillion, while First Niagara has $38 billion). Did that make it a harder decision?
JS: Actually, Gary was concerned, ‘Are you going to be OK working for a smaller bank?’ ... But it was really the time I spent (based in Western New York) where I probably felt professionally rewarded the most. I really enjoyed the connection to customers, whether they’re Moog or a smaller business. You can really connect with people here in these markets, whether it’s Pittsburgh or Rochester. It’s the same sort of people running important businesses. And you can connect, you can be meaningful, you can be important to them, you can become trusted advisers.
That’s lacking when you look at a role like I had in London, where I was calling on Nestle in Switzerland. You can’t connect with these people, right? I mean, they have 35 banks calling on them. Yes, it’s exciting, you can do bigger and interesting transactions, but for me, it was more about the connection to individuals.
When I was in Asia, one of my roles I enjoyed when I was still kind of in the training program was involved in helping structure loans that would help make (customers) better and succeed better. And that’s the kind of work I like to do.
MG: Do you join First Niagara expecting the bank will remain independent, rather than be sold?
JS: Oh, yeah. That was a big part of it. Thinking about what Gary was saying earlier in the year to the analysts and the shareholders is that we are committed to the bank. And I listened to those words carefully because I want to be a part of an organization. I have young kids, I want have a long career, I don’t want to have to leave again or move again. So if the bank was for sale, I wouldn’t have probably joined the bank.
I want to be part of an organization. It’s important to this economy, it’s important to this community, it’s important to Pittsburgh, it’s important to many communities that we’re in.
And you know what happens when another bank that comes in – there’s a lot of duplication of staff. So I want to be here with an organization that’s going to continue to grow.
And you know it can happen. You look at M&T and they’re a very important employer in this community and they’ve continued to do very well. And they’re in different markets and there’s still a big employee base here. So First Niagara needs to be that, as well, and we are that today, obviously.
MG: How will you measure success in your job?
JS: I like to know what’s going on. It’s obviously a big business that I’m heading up, and there are a lot of businesses within our business. You have insurance, you have leasing, you have health care. So there’s a lot of businesses and a lot of really competent people running these businesses.
I need to just get involved, I need to get closer, I need to understand their critical issues. ... I’ve always been a client person, I’ve always been out meeting with customers. I don’t want to get too tied in, although I know there are demands of my time in this role. One of my priorities and measures of my own personal success is how I’m able to do that, how to balance what is needed of me here in the office and outdoors.