Monday 11 December 2017

Important lessons in life from a voice of experience

The late minister Brian Lenihan is among those who inspired Tony Spollen, accountant turned author, writes Tom Lyons

Tom Lyons

TONY Spollen takes his seat under an umbrella on a rainy Thursday morning in the back patio of the St Stephen's Green club.

A few weeks earlier I'd met him for the first time one evening at the same table. Spollen had been with his friend Tony O'Reilly Jnr, the chief executive of Providence Resources.

The conversation then had been casual about Ireland's oil and gas reserves and whether fracking would ever take off in Ireland.

Spollen mentioned he'd written a new book, 50 Great Lessons from Life (published by Oak Tree Press). O'Reilly Jnr had written the forward to the book, Spollen told me.

After O'Reilly Jnr left, Spollen explained that he knew the O'Reilly family reasonably well.

He had gotten to know Tony Snr, the former rugby ace and chief executive of Independent News & Media, through their mutual friendship with Brendan Gilmore, a financial adviser.

There were other interesting connections too, Spollen mentioned, as he outlined a career spent working beside Irish business luminaries as well as serving on five state boards.

His life experience also included a spell as head of internal audit at AIB from 1986 to 1991.

In the early Nineties, Spollen produced a report that warned the bank of a potential Deposit Interest Retention Tax liability of £100m. This was a stunningly big exposure for the bank at the time, although it seems much smaller today.

The scandal, when it broke in 1998 in the Sunday Independent, led to the establishment of a parliamentary DIRT inquiry and an in-depth investigation by the Revenue Commissioners.

Spollen, however, perhaps understandably, deftly steered the conversation away from this topic, towards his book.

The decision to write a book of life lessons, Spollen explained, had originally been to capture his life experience to help his four children. "Over time, many ideas came to mind and the number of lessons grew and the book came out of that," he said.

We agreed to meet again a few weeks later to discuss the book in more detail.

At our second meeting, Spollen is initially wary. We had gotten on well previously but his experience of the media glare around the DIRT inquiry had not been an enjoyable one.

"This isn't going to be all about AIB is it?" Spollen asks. As internal auditor, Spollen had done his job by pointing out the risks of what the bank was doing wrong internally.

Somehow, over the years, the media later described Spollen as being a "whistleblower" – a description the accountant explained was undeserved.

"I did not leak the report," Spollen says. "I don't want to talk about something that is long ago in the past."

Spollen's book is what he is here to talk about. The book is erudite and insightful. It zips along and is accurately described by broadcaster Pat Kenny, in a review, as a "little gem".

In 50 short chapters, the book includes lessons inspired by the people whom Spollen has come across in his career.

These include Brian Lenihan, the former Minister for Finance, and Martin Rafferty, a veteran AIB banker who later chaired United Drug. Two former managing directors of KPMG, Alex Spain (later DCC chair) and Niall Crowley (an ex-AIB chairman), inspire chapters.

According to Spollen, Alex Spain is the force behind chapter 16 of his book, subtitled 'Be big and generous'. "Alex knew about how to put aside your ego and get the best from people," Spollen says. "I learned so much working beside him. He gave me the opportunity to work in America as a young man, which was life-changing."

Crowley, he says, had a similar disposition as a leader. "After each audit committee meeting in AIB, he would send me a handwritten note, thanking me for my work," Spollen recalls in another chapter.

"It is surprising that something that takes such little time and is so appreciated is so rare," Spollen concludes.

The late Brian Lenihan also features in a chapter. Spollen, who was appointed by the State as a public interest director to the EBS, remembers Lenihan's bravery in staying at his post even was he was suffering from cancer.

"Brian cared hugely about Ireland," Spollen says. "We spoke several times during the crisis. Everybody was trying to figure out the situation, everyone underestimated the magnitude of the drop in asset values. The Central Bank suggestion was that there'd be a soft landing. Nobody believed property prices were going to fall by 50 per cent."

Lenihan was an intelligent man who tried hard to get to grips with what was happening. The mistakes had already been made by the time he became minister.

"People argue whether he was right to guarantee the banks," Spollen says. "But what would have happened if he hadn't done it?" He adds that Lenihan had no choice that late in the game.

Spollen was in touch with Lenihan both before and after his diagnosis with cancer. "Brian would not have been human if he had not felt under huge pressure," he says.

"The biggest lesson in the book is about your health," Spollen explains. "As long as you have it and can get up in the morning, no matter how bad things are, they can change. I feel this is a lesson that is really important for Irish people at the moment. With good health, you have almost everything. With poor health, life is tough."

'50 Great Lessons from Life' by Tony Spollen is published by Oak Tree Press

Sunday Independent

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