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First Niagara Stays Aggressive: Best in Class

BUFFALO, N.Y. ( TheStreet) -- First Niagara Financial (FNFG - Get Report) president and CEO John Koelmel has a conundrum on his hands. As the head of a $14 billion-asset bank with roots in upstate New York, but a growing presence in Pennsylvania, does the ardent football fan continue to root for the home team of the Buffalo Bills, or does he dare switch his allegiance to one of the two solid teams located in his new market?

First Niagara
First Niagara

It's a question he has received from at least one local media outlet, Koelmel tells TheStreet in an interview conducted last week.

"It's tough to be a Bills fan," he says, referring to the football team's 6-10 record in the 2009 regular season. "The Pittsburgh Steelers obviously have a team to cheer for. I took some abuse in the Buffalo papers for that."

Sports analogies often bubble up in Koelmel's speech, and he has even shown up to employee town hall meetings wearing a football uniform as a way to motivate his staff. While that attitude will hopefully get a chuckle or two for the 57-year-old former accounting executive, Koelmel is constantly thinking of the end game for his company. One analyst described Koelmel, who joined First Niagara as CFO in 2004 and became CEO late in 2006, as energetic, passionate, motivational and charismatic.

"He's kind of evolving as the company evolves," says Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst Damon DelMonte. "He's got a good story to tell and a lot of people want to hear it."

"I enjoy playing offense," Koelmel says. "That's what we're about as an organization."

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