Business Irish

Monday 22 September 2014

BoI's Boucher on dealing with illness as an executive

'I have responsibilities... so if there is an issue then people have to be told'

Published 02/08/2014 | 02:30

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Bank of Ireland's Group Chief Executive Richie Boucher. Picture credit: Frank Mc Grath
Bank of Ireland's Group Chief Executive Richie Boucher. Picture credit: Frank Mc Grath

It would be going too far to suggest Richie Boucher was relaxed as we sat down in his Dublin office yesterday.

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We met just hours after the bank announced its first six months of profit since the crash - a huge milestone for Boucher who is the most senior Irish banker to remain in situ following the crash - but it comes a day before he is due to undergo surgery for cancer.

The Zimbabwe-born Bank of Ireland boss has a public persona that, for reporters, lends itself nicely to comparison with some of Africa's less-cuddly wildlife. He comes across as being about as soft and approachable as a rhinocerous.

But in person he is friendly and courteous, even managing to crack a couple of jokes about the treatment he's due to undergo today.

The decision to go public with the illness, which he expects will keep him out of the office for about a month, surprised many.

"First off, the way I looked at it, these things happen. It is not something to be ashamed of," he says.

"Secondly my job is very public. I have responsibilities to customers, staff and shareholders so if there is an issue then people probably have to be told.

"When you have responsibilities to a lot of people that degree of transparency is necessary. It doesn't mean it is something you crave. But you just have to do it and if you are going to do it, try and do it properly."

News about the cancer treatment was initially circulated to staff at the bank through a memo that quickly made its way into the public domain.

The reaction has been hugely positive, he says.

"I think a lot of people are surprised. It has been quite touching. I'm lucky I have great colleagues in the bank. Right across the bank people are great, very supportive. The board is supportive and the shareholders - I do get to speak to the very big shareholders and they are supportive. These things happen let's just deal with it."

Boucher says he's lucky doctors found the stage one cancerous polyp in his colon during a routine medical check-up. After the surprise diagnosis he jokes that clinics should now be paying him commission, given the new business he's probably sending their way.

In practical terms, once he was diagnosed he needed to make arrangements to take time off, he says.

And, he notes, in an age where everyone has a camera phone, the chances of keeping anything secret are pretty remote.

Like AIB and Ulster Bank, this year's return to profit is important for Bank of Ireland though, ironically, the bank's share price has been in the doldrums lately after soaring last year.

The shares had been going gangbusters until March when the stock hit almost 40 cents a share just before high-profile shareholder Wilbur Ross decided to cash out of a stake he bought back in 2011 at 10 cents a share. Ross has made close to half-a-billion euro on the sale, but Bank of Ireland shares have struggled to recover since.

Was the US investor's exit a blow?

He'll be missed, Boucher says, but he insists the turnover of shareholders is part of the normalisation of the bank.

"Mr Ross was a very positive contributor. He was a very professional board member, very diligent in his attendance at the board. He brought great knowledge and he is a great guy."

The two men are still in contact, he says.

"He (Wilbur Ross) is an activist shareholder. He is always looking for opportunities and we've been in touch about a couple of things that he's been looking at in Ireland.

"As a shareholder, I can't really comment on his decision, and he made his own comments at the time about that.

"But if I talk about it in general terms there is this phase that banks go through ... as you go through restructuring, stabilisation to now the growth phase, your shareholder base tends to change."

He cites the example of "burned" junior bondholders who were given shares in the bank in 2011 under a so-called debt for equity swap.

"Bondholders have moved out of the market and their shares have gone to other people. So the bondholders evolved."

"About 70pc of the WL Ross stock was placed with UK institutions who hadn't been a big feature of our shareholder base back in 2011 and 2012 so it's a natural evolution," he insists.

The ideal, he says, is to have A broad-based and diverse shareholder base.

That could be some way off - the bank is 14pc State-owned and with chunky stakes held by the likes of Ross's former co-investors Fairfax.

Boucher insists the strategy doesn't change, regardless of the ownership - even with the State.

"We engage with the Government but we engage with the Government more as a big bank in the economy," he says.

In most cases - more than 80pc he reckons - the bank and Government's objectives are fully aligned anyway. He doesn't go into the other 20pc, but is under no illusion that the two are one and the same.

Where they are aligned is in the need for Bank of Ireland to lend into the economy and the need to tackle the mortgage crisis, he says.

The flow of credit and addressing home-owner arrears are major priorities for Government, and equally the best prospect of Bank of Ireland's long-term profitability, he says.

Irish Independent

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