Without Michael Fingleton, I wouldn't be living where I do
Liam Collins says he still likes the former Irish Nationwide boss, and could have told the Central Bank how 'Fingers' did business
Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30
Long before he was ever known as 'Fingers', Michael Fingleton gave great parties and I, along with many other reporters in Dublin, was an enthusiastic participant.
The annual shindig was held in the upstairs rooms of the Irish Nationwide Building Society on the corner of O'Connell Street and Eden Quay. It was a legendary booze-up interrupted occasionally by finger food and the odd brawl as hacks settled old scores and slights.
At the time, the mortgage market was dominated by the Irish Permanent Building Society and the Educational Building Society - and the old-boy network who ran them would not demean themselves by talking to reporters on a regular basis.
Seeing this gap in the market, Michael Fingleton not only provided comments on the frequent interest rate rises of that era, but he also got to know most of the so-called 'Fourth Estate' - and provided them with mortgages.
I was one of them.
Back in those heady days of 12pc interest rates, in the early 1980s, you had to have a savings record with a building society to get a mortgage. And they were choosy about who got these loans, and feckless journalists were not flavour of the month with such lenders. But Fingleton was different. He had all but taken over a small building society founded in 1873, and was rapidly moving in on the big boys.
Marketing was his main tool. With the distinctive sailor hat and goatee beard, he was the 'go-to' guy for journalists. While the other building societies spent a fortune on advertising, Fingleton was a one-man storyline, with a ready quote and photographs with sports stars, mainly those of the GAA persuasion who had no idea of their own worth and so came cheap.
At the time, I was doing my bit to get on the famed property ladder and had a half-hearted idea of buying an old dump in Blackrock, Co Dublin, which was falling down with damp, dry-rot and general neglect.
My savings, which because I was free and easy at the time, were sizeable - in my eyes at least - were held in the EBS branch in Stillorgan, Co Dublin. Anyway I agreed to buy the wreck and applied for the loan, thinking it was a done deal.
The manager of the EBS took one look at the property and refused to give me the required loan because of the state of the house.
So I rang Michael Fingleton.
"Come up and see me," he replied to my request, and that is how I found myself standing before his desk in a large office of the new Irish Nationwide corporate headquarters in unfashionable Camden Street.
"Well," he said, and I pleaded my case.
Fingleton looked up from his desk and asked one question. "Do you think it's a good buy?"
I said I did, although I admitted it was in lousy condition.
Then he looked at me with gimlet eyes and said: "You don't have any savings with us…so where is your money?" I told him I had savings in the EBS, and he smiled, possibly at my honesty or naivety.
"OK, it's your lucky day, you can have the loan," he answered.
I remember many years later telling this story during a dinner in the Berkeley Court Hotel at which Michael Fingleton was the guest of honour. A developer, who would go on to grace Nama with his business and whom I also knew through mutual friends, looked over the table after I had finished and asked: "How much did you get."
"£25,000," I answered.
"I got £10m exactly the same way," he said, "You should have looked for more."
It has taken the Central Bank five years of investigating the affairs of the Irish Nationwide Building Society to come to the conclusion that there were "situations where (loan) applications were only prepared after the funds had been drawn down by the borrowers."
If they'd only asked me, I could have saved them a lot of bother.
And by the way, I still like Michael Fingleton, even if he did charge me 13pc interest on the loan he granted me with the wave of a hand. Without him, I wouldn't be living where I am today.