Thursday 12 December 2019

Man who bloomed in the spotlight learned to keep his head down

The former headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank
The former headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank
Former Anglo chairman Sean FitzPatrick greets the media and well-wishers yesterday after he was acquitted in a 43-day trial at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. Photo :Mark Condren
Sean FitzPatrick: pictured at bank meeting in 1999. Photo: Collins
Sean FitzPatrick speaking to members of the media outside court after he was cleared. Photo: Courtpix
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Seanie FitzPatrick was Ireland's most recognisable banker and bankers are not popular in Ireland of the hundred thousand cutbacks. But a famous face is not synonymous with guilt.

And yesterday the man once seen as the most talented banker of his generation, who transformed Anglo Irish Bank from a sleepy concern into the third largest bank in the State, was acquitted of all charges.

Every time he entered or left the courts complex, FitzPatrick ran the gauntlet of photographers. "Say cheese - give us a smile," some of them would urge. Almost goading. He looked strained at times – and no wonder.

FitzPatrick, along with Anglo colleagues Willie McAteer and Pat Whelan, was charged with breaching company law when Anglo gave loans to six members of former billionaire Sean Quinn's family and also 10 other clients of the bank known collectively as the 'Maple Ten' to finance their purchase of a huge shareholding that Quinn had secretly built up in the bank.

The Greystones-based banker always protested his innocence. And the jury believed him. Meanwhile, the other two men still await their verdict.

Anglo's chief executive David Drumm – regarded in some circles as FitzPatrick's protégé – was the absent figure at the heart of the case. Drumm moved to the US after the bank was taken into state ownership. His bankruptcy hearing is finally scheduled to take place in Boston on May 21, three-and-a-half-years after he first filed for bankruptcy over millions of euro in unpaid loans to him from Anglo Irish Bank.

FitzPatrick, by comparison, made it clear from the outset that he would not be leaving the country. Apart from on the occasional golf trip, that is. He intended fighting to clear his name.

In the five years since he resigned as Anglo's chairman, the father of three has been busy preparing his defence.

A talented public speaker and communicator, his life has been low-profile since the collapse. The man who bloomed under the spotlight learned to keep his head down.

From relatively humble beginnings, FitzPatrick worked hard and climbed high to become a byword for success. Post-boom, however, he had a more negative image as the banker perceived to be Mr Anglo Irish Bank.

When he stood aside as chief executive of Anglo in 2005, defying best practice by becoming chairman, he was Ireland's best-paid banker with a salary of €2.6m. In 2008, his personal wealth was estimated at €55m, according to the 'Sunday Times Rich List'.

During his career, FitzPatrick was hailed as a shining example of what people could achieve if they believed in themselves. He transformed Anglo from a tiny operation employing three people to a significant player with loans totalling almost €72bn.

Despite the wealth he had built up, he did not have an extravagant lifestyle and his office in Anglo's St Stephen's Green headquarters was spartan.

His civil-servant mother's influence was extensive (his father was a dairy farmer), and he often cited her strictures on honesty and economy in speeches and interviews.

When he handed over the reins to Drumm nine years ago, he was still an active man in his mid-fifties and seemed to want to be concentrate on becoming an entrepreneur.

It seemed attainable. Always dapper, he was effortlessly charming: a natural-born networker and salesman. But the man known to one and all as Seanie was also extremely competitive and full of self-belief.

That confidence powered through Anglo when he was at the helm. The bank concentrated on doing business with developers and during the Celtic Tiger its customers blossomed as the owners of businesses worth hundreds of millions of euro.

The bank expanded with them. The Anglo effect left shareholders in other banks dissatisfied with the returns on their investments and the established banks played catch-up.

September 29, 2008, was the day when they must have wished they had never tried to follow the Anglo model. Irish bank shares went into freefall, plummeting in value as fear gripped the markets and hoards of wealth – accumulated over decades – melted away.

The speed of the slump, as well as its ferocity, was unprecedented. Bank of Ireland was down by 17pc, AIB by 15pc, while Anglo suffered a loss of almost half its value, losing 46pc of its share price in one day. Depositors were removing their money in droves and the bank teetered towards collapse.

Overnight, the Government brought the banks under the State's umbrella and Anglo was spared thanks to the Government guarantee. It was a momentous decision, making the taxpayer liable for bad loans without knowing their extent.

Anglo's reprieve was short-lived. On December 18, FitzPatrick resigned as chairman. The following day, chief executive David Drumm went too. And on December 21, the Government recapitalised the banks, including Anglo, with €7.5bn – the tip of the iceberg, as it turned out. Anglo gobbled up almost €30bn in the end. In 2009, Anglo was nationalised.

FitzPatrick's emotions, watching what happened to Anglo, can only be guessed. He had a missionary zeal about all aspects of banking and spoke fervently, and often, about corporate values.

"My mother always brought me up with good ethics. You always have to be able to look people in the eye and sleep soundly at night," he said once during an interview.

No doubt, he slept soundly last night for the first time since the trial began.

Irish Independent

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