Wednesday 11 December 2019

The outsider who believed he was infallible

Blinded by his limitless ambition, Sean FitzPatrick transformed an also-ran bank into a swaggering financial giant. Now the empire he created -- just like the Celtic economy it fed -- is in tatters

Charisma is hard to define but we all know it when we encounter it. Sean FitzPatrick belongs to that lucky group of men and women who ooze this rare quality, which has allowed him to charm everybody from former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to the Financial Times columnist Mrs Moneypenny, who cooed recently that he was Ireland's best-looking businessman.

Small, with white curly hair, a permanent tan and a ready smile, the 62-year-old banker looks like a jolly hobbit as he pulls down his gold frame bifocal glasses to the tip of his nose and cracks a joke or opines about the state of the nation. His well-cut grey suits, perfectly ironed shirts and yellow silk ties made him stand out in a profession notorious for drabness, but FitzPatrick is no snob or Flash Harry.

His charm allows the former banker to work a room and maintain a large network of friends in Dublin and further afield.

While his circle has shrunk since his retirement, he remains friendly with Denis O'Brien, Louis Copeland and Gavin Duffy from Dragon's Den as well as many others -- who praise his foresight by lending to their businesses in the tough times or have reason to be thankful for his famous generosity.

This saw him support the Special Olympics when it came to Ireland, as well as NGO Concern and a host of local organisations in north Wicklow, where both FitzPatrick and his bank have been sponsors of many good causes.

Part of FitzPatrick's appeal is that, despite his ebullience, he remains a down-to-earth local boy who never turned his back on his roots or got too big for his shoes. He continues to live close to the Shankill farm where he grew up as the son of a dairy farmer called Michael and civil servant mother Johanna, who he often quoted in his speeches.

It was a competitive household. Many years later, FitzPatrick recalled in an interview with management consultant Ivor Kenny that when he would tell his mother he had come second in some sporting event, he'd be asked who came first. He has always wanted to impress her.

Years later, he could not resist ringing his mother on his first day at work at the Irish Bank of Commerce to tell her: "I've got this huge office and two newspapers and I've got a carpet with such a deep pile you can't hear anything."

FitzPatrick's home in Greystones is a large, comfortable ivy-covered period house with specimen trees and a decent-sized garden but it is modest compared with the massive and often gauche mansions that many Celtic-Tiger businessmen have built for themselves over the years. During the boom, perhaps his only visible extravagance was his black, fuel-guzzling Mercedes CL 500 -- the sort of car much favoured by government ministers and Third-World dictators.

FitzPatrick is very much the family man. He married a former secretary, Triona O'Toole, at the age of 26 and the couple have two sons and a daughter. Their younger son, David, works for Anglo Irish in the US while the other, Jonathan, works for Digicel in the South Pacific. Despite suffering from type 1 diabetes and defeating prostate cancer around two years ago, FitzPatrick still travels for fun regularly, playing golf in Spain or visiting David in New York and, more recently, Jonathan in Fiji.

His sports interests are also resolutely mainstream; he was a passionate rugby player in his youth, captaining the school's junior and senior teams and later playing for Bective and Greystones rugby clubs. Like so many other Irish businessmen, he later replaced rugby with golf -- a sport he has pursued with almost equal passion before and after his retirement.

FitzPatrick has also remained loyal to his old school, Presentation College in Bray, where he excelled in rugby but was less impressive academically -- managing to get just one honour in his Leaving Certificate.

Always a grafter with an uncanny ability to exploit a small advantage, FitzPatrick used his less-than-impressive academic qualifications to study commerce in UCD and later qualify as a chartered accountant, along with former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy, in a company which later became part of Ernst & Young. He choose accountancy for the most prosaic of reasons. "I had decided I was going to get a job that would pay me good money," he said back in 2001.

When the tiny Dublin bank where he was working was taken over in the 1970s and FitzPatrick's boss asked him to draw up a list of possible chief executives, FitzPatrick proposed himself. A suggestion that was acted upon and set him on the way to leading what was to become Ireland's third-largest bank before it was nationalised. This combination of charm, energy, competitiveness and graft brought FitzPatrick to the top of his profession but some see other, darker, forces at work as well. David McWilliams, in his book Follow the Money, quotes FitzPatrick as saying after a few beers that "no fucking Protestant is going to take my bank. No fucking Protestant is coming near us" shortly before FitzPatrick stepped down as chairman in 2008.

"We are the outsiders and this is our moment."

It is a revealing comment that places FitzPatrick in a long line of outsiders who sat at the pinnacle of Irish society but never felt part of it for reasons that will probably never be clear to any outsider, or even to the person themselves. It is easy to think of other successful outsiders who would appear to have arrived but somehow never settled in.

Former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey is a sinister member of this club while Ryanair's Michael O'Leary is a benign member. Stylish men who love Ireland, they seem driven by a strong dislike, verging on hatred, for the establishment, which they see as crooked, ineffective and decadent while viewing themselves as straight-talking, honest doers.

It is a mindset that can achieve great things but can also verge on the paranoid.

In June 2007, for example, FitzPatrick had said that entrepreneurs in Ireland were victims of a culture of "corporate McCarthyism", despite the country having one of the most pro-business governments in the world.

It was perhaps this worldview that also inspired FitzPatrick to refuse to apologise to the nation on Marian Finucane's chat show after Anglo's nationalisation at the beginning of last year and to lecture the Government, shortly afterwards, in a talk where he called on Finance Minister Brian Lenihan to tackle the "sacred cows" of child benefit and universal pensions in the Budget and to cut corporation tax.

While FitzPatrick's enemies saw the speech as tactless and heartless, others saw it as a sign of his free-thinking spirit and courage. They could also note that, two years on, the Government has followed FitzPatrick's advice almost to the letter.

For all his charm and legendary networking abilities, FitzPatrick was never part of Ireland's conservative banking establishment and never part of the country's political establishment. He seems instead to be a man who remained loyal to his roots but faltered as he came to believe his own publicity and believe that both he and the bank he ran for three decades were infallible.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss