Saturday 21 April 2018

The Punt: Big Phil needs to tackle our county councils

Environment Minister Phil Hogan
Environment Minister Phil Hogan
Prem Watsa

BUSINESS people questioning why their commercial rates are so high, and consumers wondering why their concerns and submissions are dealt with so slowly, now have an answer.

Information published by Government shows that local authority workers take an average of almost 12 sick days a year, at a cost of €64m to taxpayers.

The rates of absenteeism are twice those in the private sector. Some of the highest number of sick days taken by council staff are in the city and urban local authorities.

And the Punt can't help recalling that in recent days it emerged that Sligo's most prominent local government official has walked away with a pension lump sum payment of over €250,000.

And this at a time immediately after the disastrous Lissadell House court saga.

Hubert Kearns served as county manager of Sligo County Council from 1996 until his retirement earlier last month at the age of 57.

Mr Kearns is one of two county managers to have received golden lump sum payments in recent weeks, with retired Fingal county manager David O'Connor receiving just under €300,000.

All of this gives ammunition to those who argue that communities and businesses are coming a poor second relation to local authority staff. It is to be hoped that the bad practices of high absenteeism and generous payoffs for retiring bosses are not replicated with the creation of Irish Water, a body that will likely be staffed by many who previously worked in councils.

There is a sickness in the county councils alright. Big Phil Hogan needs to tackle it.

BlackBerry investor sees humorous side of BOI

WE'D never have guessed that Bank of Ireland places any great value on having a sense of humour. This is an institution that seems to pride itself on stuffiness – a press release on the repayment of government shares was sent from "the Governor and company of the Bank of Ireland", and the group still insists on referring to its directors as a "court" while the rest of the modern world makes do with a "board."

You can imagine our surprise, then, to hear that Canadian billionaire Prem Watsa, who ploughed €300m into the bank in 2011, thinks of bank headquarters on Mespil Road as great fun. Watsa, who's only experience in Ireland prior to the bank deal was serving as best man at a friend's wedding at the K Club, joined the bank's board shortly after investing in the stock.

Though he recently stepped down, he said he enjoyed the jokes. "The Irish people never lose a moment to have a good laugh. Even if it's on their own account."

Readers may also know Mr Watsa from his $4.7bn (€3.5bn) bid for BlackBerry, perhaps the most audacious play of 2013, which fell apart after he failed to raise enough finance. Instead he ended up leading a consortium that funded a $1bn (€736m) loan aimed at turning them around. "We think BlackBerry is an iconic company, an iconic brand, it's known worldwide ... it's a company that deserves to exist" he said.

But he has yet to persuade some Irish colleagues. It seems Bank of Ireland chief executive Richie Boucher, for one, is a devoted iPhone user. "I guess the Bank of Ireland are not perfect," Watsa conceded.

Candidates line-up for vacant Origin CFO post

SO Origin is bidding goodbye to its chief financial officer, Brendan Fitzgerald. The company announced yesterday that Mr Fitzgerald has decided to depart after seven years at the agri-services company, "to pursue other interests".

The news comes in the midst of a challenging time for the company. Sales in its most recent quarter were down 12.5pc on the same period last year, and the group revealed it generated just a tenth of its revenue in the first half of the year. The company's results were one of the only weak spots for Irish-Swiss parent Aryzta, which in contrast saw quarterly sales rise by 6.5pc.

Casting aside the latest complicated statistics on oil seed plantings and crop drilling patterns, which make up the company's bread and butter, the real question now is – who will step in to fill Mr Fitzgerald's boots? The company has a great pool of talent in its board, with lots of corporate finance veterans on hand. Members include Rose McHugh, the head of corporate finance at Merrion who is also the chairperson of Bord Iascaigh Mhara, and Hugh McCutcheon, the former head of corporate finance at Davy.

Irish Independent

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