Bruiser Boucher, Irish banking's great survivor

Mon Dec 16, 2013 2:03am EST
 
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By Padraic Halpin and Laura Noonan

DUBLIN (Reuters) - In March 2011 Bank of Ireland had four months to find 4.2 billion euros or the government would seize control. The country's central bank was issued powers to fire senior financiers. The outlook seemed bleak for Richie Boucher.

While analysts and commentators sharpened their knives, Boucher - the bank's burly chief executive, described by one MP as "a hard bastard with a hide like a rhino" - started setting up meetings.

One was with Bill McMorrow, head of US real estate investment firm Kennedy Wilson. As he went to talk to Boucher, Ireland was still reeling from its capitulation to an international bailout, bond yields were rising and bank depositors fleeing.

Nonetheless, Boucher coolly suggested McMorrow gather some friends and invest 1.1 billion euros ($1.5 billion).

"Within half an hour, I had a big conviction that he had the skills to lead the bank to where it needed to go," recalls McMorrow, who discreetly contacted billionaire investors Prem Watsa and Wilbur Ross to join him in accepting Boucher's deal.

Bank of Ireland had its investment thanks to the billionaire investors' input and their participation in a rights issue, that ran alongside a debt-for-equity swap. The state's stake fell to 15 percent from 36 percent and Boucher's bank gained the status of being the only Irish lender to stay out of state control.

Now, thanks to Zambian-born Boucher, Bank of Ireland is on the verge of becoming the first in the country to return fully to private hands after repaying 1.9 billion euros to the state earlier this month ahead of the government's exit from the EU/IMF bailout program on Sunday.

"He's one of those really great leaders," McMorrow told Reuters. "There are only a handful of bank CEOs in the world that could have pulled off what he did... I don't think the longevity of his employment ever crossed his mind."   Continued...

 
Group Chief Executive of the Bank Of Ireland, Richie Boucher, gestures during an interview with Reuters at the company's head office in Dublin, Ireland June 12,2009. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton