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Christianna Denelsbeck graduated from college this year in her home state of Alabama, but found her “dream job” with M&T Bank Corp. in Buffalo.

In fact, she chose M&T over two other offers she had in Alabama.

“I just saw a lot more potential here,” Denelsbeck said. “I tried to think of which company would I want to invest in, if I was looking at their stock options.”

Successfully recruiting someone from the South to Buffalo might seem unusual. But M&T hired Denelsbeck through a selective program the bank uses each year to attract young talent and prepare them for management roles.

This year’s class of M&T’s Management Development Program, known as MDP for short, consists of a record-high 80 young people. The program lasts close to a year and introduces the new hires to all of the bank’s operations, not just the department they work in.

The program’s impact is felt beyond M&T. It provides job opportunities for young professionals from Western New York, and, in other cases, draws people from outside the area. Many of the new hires live downtown, renting apartments and injecting more spending into places like restaurants.

If the program succeeds, new hires like Denelsbeck will stick with M&T for a long time, perhaps even switching departments as they develop their careers and discover what most appeals to them.

Dan Boscarino, senior vice president of human resources, said the MDP, as well as another program aimed at developing executives, reflect the bank’s long-term approach to hiring.

“It’s a feeder pool into senior management at the bank,” he said. “It’s bringing a whole different perspective and a young perspective into the bank that has new ideas, energy and that we can also mold them. And we’re bringing people from all over. So it’s not just the culture of the community you’re hiring from, because you want that diversity.”

M&T recruits from college campuses locally, in other parts of New York, and in other states. In some of those places, the bank might not even have branches. Boscarino said that is not a hindrance: The program has a long track record, introduced to M&T by chief executive officer Robert G. Wilmers back in the 1980s.

“We’ve got almost 30 years’ history of going to these top liberal arts schools,” Boscarino said. “So because of that, we’ve had a lot of hires, we have a good reputation, we treat people very fairly through the process. And when they come here, they usually have a very good experience.”

The process of choosing members of the next MDP class starts early. In July, M&T puts out feelers internally about jobs that will need to be filled starting the summer of the next year. The recruiting proceeds accordingly.

“Come September, we’re on campus interviewing,” Boscarino said. “And you try to get as many hires in place as you can by the holidays, by the first of the year.”

Some of the MDP members came from a 10-week summer internship program M&T has for 10 college students entering their senior year. Ideally, all 10 of them will perform well enough to earn job offers with M&T after graduation, Boscarino said.

Taylor Hogenkamp was one of those former interns. The East Aurora resident graduated from Hamilton College and now works for M&T Securities.

“I was so lucky to have the opportunity come back,” he said. “I was challenged a lot last summer and I knew it was going to be more of the same.”

The 80 members of this year’s MDP class started in July. (Four of them were already employees of the bank who were invited to join the MDP based on their job performance.) Forty-six of them are assigned to jobs in Buffalo, while the rest are working in positions elsewhere in M&T’s footprint.

The class members met in Buffalo for orientation this summer, a chance for them to get to know each other and their new employer. Buffalo-based M&T has assets of $83 billion and about 16,000 employees.

“The main point really is to give them full division overviews of everything that’s going on in the bank, and have key speakers coming in from senior management and help them grow their network and get comfortable with transitioning from college to the professional world,” said Jillian Titus, assistant vice president and manager of the college development program.

The class members – even the ones who work elsewhere – will continue to meet in Buffalo for core training sessions for about one week each month, until they “graduate” in June 2014. They are also split into smaller groups to work on bank-wide projects that they will make presentations about next February. A past example was creating an employee recognition program. The projects offer another chance to meet and work with senior leaders at M&T.

Titus, a 2007 MDP class member, sees lasting value in the program. The new hires make contacts within the bank, both among their fellow new hires and with veteran employees, she said. They also see how all the different elements of M&T fit together, so everyone learns about topics like the branch network and the regulatory climate.

“We really want to make sure that they understand how they’re impacting everything, because at the end of the day, the culture of M&T and the processes and procedures we have in place impact all areas of the bank,” Titus said.

Laura Savattieri can relate to that idea. The Williamsville native graduated from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and was assigned to M&T’s branch at the Tops supermarket on Niagara Street. She has learned what a whirlwind life in a branch can be, but the MDP training offers another perspective.

“When you’re in your little satellite branch, you don’t think about 1 M&T Plaza and the 19 floors that they have here,” she said. “So I think that’s a huge benefit of the core training, that your blinders come off and you get that reminder of everything else that’s going on and you get that bigger picture.”

The ongoing training also showcases the bank’s range of jobs, should the new hires someday crave a change. “It really just keeps your mind open to all the opportunities within M&T and why as an employee you would want to stay here for 15, 20, 30 years,” Savattieri said. Among the high-ranking M&T officials who went through the MDP are Janet Coletti, senior vice president for business banking, and Susan Sciarra, senior vice president for retail banking.

It is not easy to become a member of the MDP, Boscarino said. And narrowing the field of candidates takes a lot of work.

Start with the recruiting. M&T makes visits – such as at career fairs and other events – to about 50 college campuses, from local institutions like University at Buffalo, Canisius College and Niagara University, to prominent schools like Harvard and Princeton. Students are invited to submit resumes for consideration. Across all the campuses, M&T ends up talking to more than 600 students.

The most-promising prospects are invited for follow-up interviews, often at the Buffalo headquarters, and talk to multiple people at the bank. Some students might interview for more than one job, depending on their interests and skills, Boscarino said. “At the MDP level, these recent grads or future grads really don’t know what they want. So we try to give them as much exposure to various businesses around the company so they can get a feel of what banking is.”

M&T scrutinizes candidates’ grade point average, their standardized test scores, the clubs they were involved in, and whether they held leadership roles in those groups. The bank also looks at internships the students had, and whether they received job offers from those employers. M&T also asks the students about their own impressions of the bank, and whether they think the place would be a good fit for them.

Boscarino admits it can be a challenge to persuade students who are unfamiliar with Buffalo to take a job here.

“You’ve got to get them here,” he said. “You’ve got to show them the property values, you’ve got to show them the 20-minute commutes. That’s why the summer [internship] programs are so important, that’s why the alumni are so important. You’re fighting the Buffalo reputation every day, I don’t care if it’s general hiring or college recruiting. But as I always tell people, it’s a hard place to move to, it’s a hard place to leave.”

Denelsbeck, the Alabama native now working in business banking, likes her new surroundings. “There’s just so much to do here,” such as festivals and sports events, she said. “It’s the impression of a city where you just keep finding out new things to do all the time.” And living far from home, her MDP classmates give her a support system to rely on.

How successful is M&T at keeping employees who arrive through the MDP? The retention rate fluctuates, depending on how vibrant the economy is and the number of other job opportunities out there, Boscarino said. Other factors might also come into play, such as an employee getting married or opting to leave for law school or business school.

“When you’re in college recruiting, the reason you hire 80 is, in three years, you know you’re not going to have 80,” he said. “You’re going to have 70, you’re going to have 60, you may have 50, it depends. But the ones that stay, if you can get them past three years, it’s usually that they’re sticking. And then they’re here and moving through their career.”

All of the time and effort that goes into the MDP pays off for M&T, Boscarino said.

“It’s expensive,” he said. “If we didn’t think it was a success, and added huge value, we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s almost like we run a business of college recruiting.”

email: mglynn@buffnews.com