Wednesday 13 December 2017

Gillian is bowled out

IL&P chairman's decision to quit marks departure of last of bank bosses who presided over system's collapse

Gillian Bowler's decision to step down as chairman of Irish Life & Permanent marks the departure of the last of the bank bosses who presided over the virtual destruction of the Irish banking system.

Ever since the Government was forced to unconditionally guarantee the deposits and senior bonds of the Irish-owned banks in September 2008 their chairmen and chief executives have been living on borrowed time.

First to go in December 2008 were Anglo chairman Sean FitzPatrick and his chief executive David Drumm. Their positions became untenable when it was discovered that FitzPatrick had deliberately concealed loans of up to €129m from Anglo.

Next out the door was Bank of Ireland boss Brian Goggin, who announced that he was quitting in January 2009. The following month it was the turn of Irish Life & Permanent chief executive Denis Casey and Irish Nationwide chairman Michael Walsh to reveal that they were spending more time with their families.

Then in March 2009 EBS chairman Marc Moran walked the plank after the building society announced that it was writing off most of its €1bn of development loans.

Cruellest month

However, for Irish bank bosses April 2009 was the cruellest month with Michael Fingleton exiting Irish Nationwide, where he had reigned unchallenged as chief executive since 1972, while over at AIB, chairman Dermot Gleeson and chief executive Eugene Sheehy both bowed to the inevitable.

Then in May 2009, Bank of Ireland chairman Richard Burrows apologised to shareholders for wiping out their investment and announced that he too was quitting.

Burrows' resignation meant that 10 of the 12 chairmen and chief executives of the Irish-owned banks at the end of September 2008 were gone eight months later while the eleventh, EBS chief executive Fergus Murphy, had only started his job in January 2008 and thus bore no responsibility for the mess.

The only survivor of this cull of bank bosses was Irish Life & Permanent chairman Gillian Bowler. While all around her were losing their heads, the English-born former tour operator somehow kept hers.

This was despite her mishandling of the crisis which forced the eventual resignation of IL&P chief executive Denis Casey in February 2009.

Casey was forced out when it was discovered that IL&P had deposited €7.5bn with Anglo just before Anglo's September 30, 2008, year-end. This allowed Anglo to pretty up its balance sheet, making it look as if it was in a far stronger financial position than it actually was.

When word of the Anglo deposits caper emerged, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan read IL&P the riot act. He told the Dail that it was up to the IL&P board to decide if they had confidence in the company's management. However, in what could only be interpreted as a broad hint that he wanted Casey to go, Lenihan said that he "expects them [the board] to live up to their responsibilities".

Unfortunately Bowler failed to take the hint, and after an all-night meeting, the IL&P board refused to accept Casey's offer to resign. Instead it was finance director Peter Fitzpatrick and head of treasury David Gantly who cleared their desks.

Lenihan was having none of it. Clearly furious he summoned the IL&P board to a meeting at the Department of Finance to lay down the law. With the Minister for Finance determined to see change at the top in IL&P Casey was finally forced to quit.

Given the complete pig's ear she had made of the events surrounding the discovery of the phoney deposits with Anglo and Casey's departure, it was widely expected that Bowler would quickly follow him out the door at IL&P.

Her cause wasn't helped by the fact that two of the directors appointed to the IL&P board by the Minister for Finance under the terms of the September 2008 deposit guarantee, Ray MacSharry and Margaret Hayes, were known to have argued for accepting Casey's resignation offer at the all-night board meeting.

However, in what can only be described as a feat of escapology on a par with the late Harry Houdini at his best, Bowler somehow managed to cling on to her position, for which she was paid €200,000 in 2009.

In this she was almost certainly helped by the fact that, alone of the six Irish-owned banks, IL&P did not have to receive any fresh capital from the State. With more than enough on his plate keeping the other five Irish-owned banks more or less solvent, Lenihan could perhaps be forgiven for leaving well enough alone at IL&P.

Bowler's path to the chairmanship of IL&P was an unusual one. Born on the Isle of Wight 57 years ago, she first came to Ireland in the early 1970s.

In 1975 she founded Budget Travel with Harry Snyder, who would later become her husband. Over the following 12 years they grew Budget into Ireland's largest tour operator.

While Snyder stayed in the background Bowler was very much the public face of Budget, never missing an opportunity to generate free publicity for the company. In 1987 the pair sold 90pc of Budget to UK firm Granada for Stg£4.5m and sold the remaining 10pc for Stg£3m in 1996. After the sale Bowler stayed on as Budget non-executive chairman until 2007.

With the internet and the huge increase in scheduled flights to traditional sun holiday destinations shredding the tour operators' business model, Bowler timed her departure from Budget Travel to perfection.

After passing through several owners, the firm went into liquidation in November 2009 with the brand name eventually being sold to rival tour operator Club Travel.

Even before she cut her last ties to Budget Travel, Bowler had been busy building an extensive portfolio of outside directorships.

She served as chairman of the Irish Museum of Modern Art between 1990 and 1995 and also chaired Failte Ireland between 2003 and 2008. She has been a director of the VHI since 2002.

In the private sector she joined the board of builders merchanting group Grafton in 1995 and remains a director to this day.

She also joined the board of Irish Life in 1998 and, when it merged with Irish Permanent the following year, secured a seat on the board of the new company, Irish Life & Permanent.

She became chairman -- she has always declined to use either of the more politically-correct terms of chairperson or chairwoman -- of IL&P when her predecessor Roy Douglas was forced to resign following the disclosure that a number of former senior AIB executives, including Douglas, had used an offshore company to evade taxes.

While Douglas' resignation was unexpected, the appointment of Bowler as his successor came as something of a surprise. Most IL&P-watchers would have expected the job to have gone to Philip Lynch, the then chief executive of IAWS, now Aryzta, instead.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Lynch resigned from the IL&P board in May 2005 after just over two years as a director.

Now it is Bowler's turn to depart IL&P. While the statement announcing her retirement in the New Year spoke of the need to bring a "fresh perspective" to the role of chairman, the reality was that, as the only surviving member of the pre-September 2008 class of bank bosses and with IL&P needing to raise a further €100m of fresh capital to meet the Central Bank's new capital adequacy requirements, Bowler had become something of an anachronism.

Irish Independent

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