Had the timing of a phone call almost 50 years ago been different, Robert Schick, president and CEO of Lyons National Bank, might have spent his career delivering mail instead of delivering a return on investment.
At age 18, applying for his first full-time job, he interviewed at the now-defunct Liberty National Bank in Buffalo and got the job. Returning home, he found he had just missed a call from the U.S. Postal Service. He had taken the civil service exam earlier, and they too were offering him a job—except, he had already accepted the other position.
“If I’d have got that call first, versus going down to interview, I’d be retired now on a government pension,” he says with a laugh.
But something about banking turned out to be a good fit. Now he is in charge of a publicly traded community bank, based in Lyons, Wayne County, that is fast approaching $1 billion in assets with some 200 employees and 10th in the region for local market share based on 2015 data.
That’s quite a climb from his first bank job in Liberty’s stock room, followed by two years in the U.S. Navy and several years as a teller, before he caught the eye of a Wall Street broker who had joined Liberty National Bank to manage its investment portfolio.
“They were expanding their investment department, and they wanted somebody they could train their way, and I was the most likely candidate because I didn’t know a stock from a bond,” Schick, 67, says.
The work was interesting, and his new boss, Richard Salembier, was a tough taskmaster.
“Dick’s office was around the corner and my desk was outside of it, and he always had a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He was a very demanding person, so after about six months, when he came around his office and stood in front of my desk, I could tell what he was thinking, because he intimidated me so. I knew I had to be sharp,” Schick recalls.
Schick remained there for 13 years then jumped to Marine Midland Back, now HSBC Bank USA N.A., to sell tax-exempt bonds.
“About two days into it, I realized I’d made a mistake,” Schick says.
He stuck it out for another 18 months and looked to get back into investments, applying for jobs as far away as the West Coast.
When M&T Bank, closer to home, called, he was pleased to stay in his hometown and manage M&T’s investment portfolio. He was happy there, he says, but KeyBank N.A. contacted him about a year and a half later and made him an offer he could not refuse, he says.
Schick worked for KeyBank during a period of rapid growth. When he arrived, the bank had assets of about $300 million and grew that to $1 billion. Then came multiple acquisitions: Permanent Savings Bank in Niagara Falls, Empire of America and Buffalo Savings Bank, or Gold Dome as it was called at the time, which was a $12 billion bank.
“It was the minnow swallowing the whale, and we had a lot of challenges to overcome,” he says. “We went from a billion to an ungodly size, and we all had a great opportunity to show what we could do,” he says.
The consolidations continued as KeyBank went from operating separate regional banks under one holding company to bringing all the institutions together.
“I got tapped to go to Albany to run the combined bank investment portfolio,” he says. “(I) got to meet a lot of the boys on Wall Street. It was a lot of fun.”
A long way
It was a rapid rise for a kid who had grown up on the city streets of Buffalo, hanging out with his friends, impatient and unhappy in a classroom. He became a banker despite coming from circumstances about as far from wealth as possible.
“My father died when I was relatively young, 13. I was going through those years, and it was the nuns of St. Joseph’s (school) during the day and the Boy Scouts at night,” he says. “Every weekend, we were camping somewhere. At 4 o’clock (the scout master) would marshal up enough parents to load us in the cars, and we’d go south of Buffalo or wherever. He got us out of Dodge.”
As a result, Schick has a deep appreciation for both his Catholic school upbringing and the Boy Scouts for keeping him out of trouble when he was a teenager who thought he knew it all. Eventually, his grandparents moved in and they also began to rein in the young hothead.
It was his grandfather who insisted he get a job after graduation, leading to the interview at Liberty National Bank before he was called to active duty as a U.S. Navy reservist.
But Schick’s independent streak, street smarts and friendly, spontaneous nature proved to be a good fit for managing investments and later managing a bank such as Lyons National.
“He’s high energy. He’s certainly committed. He’s caring, and he’s the kind of person who does what he says,” says his friend Donald Fox, a lawyer who met Schick seven or eight years ago when Lyons opened a branch in his hometown of Macedon in Wayne County.
Fox and his wife became friends with Schick after they easily convinced him to set up a local high school scholarship in the bank’s name.
Schick came to Lyons after leaving KeyBank in 1992. He had been butting heads with the boss’s son, who also worked at the bank, and Schick was asked to leave. He came home to Buffalo from Albany and set himself up as a consultant, which is how Lyons National Bank found him when it sought advice on a problem with its investment portfolio.
Schick’s advice to the bank was to take an $800,000 loss to prevent a worse problem down the road. The board agreed and shortly thereafter offered him the job of chief financial officer.
“So my story is: I went to work for them, lost them $800,000 and they hired me—not too many people can do that. But it’s been a marriage made in heaven since,” he says.
Taking the helm
Within roughly two years, in January 1997, the CEO retired and the board asked Schick to take over.
“We’ve grown from just three branches to 13 branches, from 26 employees to about 200 employees, from $60 million in assets to almost a billion dollars in assets. And we’re one of the strongest producing and performing community banks in the country in our size. We’re No. 1 in New York,” he says.
Chief Operating Officer Thomas Kime is his second in command and will take over as president, with Schick serving as chairman of Lyons Bancorp Inc., the bank’s parent company, effective Jan. 1. Schick will remain as CEO but focus on revamping the board’s governance structure as the bank approaches and reaches the $1 billion milestone.
Kime says Schick has a least two major facets as a leader.
“One side of him is a hard-driven, profit-motivated business guy, and the other side has an interest in community and community organizations, an interest in seeing young people move ahead and do well,” Kime says. “So on one side, he pushes people and wants to see the bank do well. He wants to see nonprofits accountable for what money they spend and what they do. At the same time, he’s very willing to dive in and pitch in and be on boards and be involved with raising funds for organizations.”
Schick has served and continues to serve on local nonprofit boards. He is about to step down as chairman at Keuka College, is active with a new private Catholic school, St. John Bosco, in East Rochester, and is a longtime supporter of the Boy Scouts, among other things.
At Kime’s urging, Schick embraced a policy of including a community room in each of the bank’s new branches, providing a meeting place, complete with kitchen facilities and audiovisual technology, for local nonprofit boards and community groups.
At Lyons, Schick found he was much happier being a big fish in a small pond. It was more like his earlier days in banking, before KeyBank grew to a point where he did not know many of his co-workers.
“I’m more of a big picture guy than getting down in the guts of things. Maybe that’s why I like the investment side of it. I can see the big picture. You have to be a little more spontaneous. The markets don’t wait for you. If you see an opportunity, you’ve got to jump. It’s almost like a chess game,” he says.
But he attributes much of his success at Lyons to being a good judge of character and picking the right people to work at the bank.
“My theory has always been: hire the best people you can find, smarter than you—that’s not a challenge,” he adds facetiously. “Paint the picture for them and then get the hell out of the way.”
In addition, he likes people and values his relationships with leaders in the community, his employees, customers and friends.
“Those are the things that ring my bell,” he says.
And when it comes to what weighs on him most, he says it is his responsibility to his employees.
“What worries me is 200 employees and their extended families, and if I do something stupid, how that’s going to affect them,” he says. “That’s the biggest thing.”
That does not mean he has outgrown his independent streak—it just shows in a different way. One of them is his affinity for cats.
“I like their independence. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. That’s probably a little bit of me,” he says.
Schick has about a dozen feral cats that live near his home and visit regularly. Along with other cat lovers in Geneva, Ontario County, he has arranged to trap these wild cats, have them spayed or neutered, and give them their shots before releasing them again so they are not spreading disease or reproducing.
“They’re sort of my dependents. I get up and look out in the morning and they’re sitting there waiting for me to come out,” he says. “When I come home at night, as soon as the garage door opens, they come running from all directions.”
Schick, who is divorced, has two daughters and a granddaughter with whom he enjoys spending time. They often travel together, especially to warmer climates such as the Caribbean or Hawaii. At one time, he was a serious golfer, playing as many as 36 holes in a day. Much of that has fallen to the wayside as he focuses on growing the bank.
“But I love what I’m doing,” he says. “So, I would rather be here than a lot of other places.”
Title: President and CEO, Lyons National Bank
Education: B.A., Medaille College in Buffalo in 1978; graduated in 1984 from the ABA Stonier Graduate School of Banking, 1984
Family: daughters Dawn, 45, Danielle, 21; granddaughter, Emily, 14.
Residence: Geneva, Ontario County
Interests: Community service, travel, golf and taking care of a tribe of feral cats.
Quote: “I’m more of a big picture guy than getting down in the guts of things. Maybe that’s why I like the investment side of it. I can see the big picture. You have to be a little more spontaneous. The markets don’t wait for you. If you see an opportunity, you’ve got to jump. It’s almost like a chess game.”
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