Richie Boucher: ‘I’m just a boy from Africa who managed to run a bank’

No fanfare as Bank of Ireland chief executive prepares to step down

Bank of Ireland chief executive Richie Boucher at home in Dublin: “I was a crisis leader and we came through it with a strong bank.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Bank of Ireland chief executive Richie Boucher at home in Dublin: “I was a crisis leader and we came through it with a strong bank.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

In 23 days, Richie Boucher will take his leave of Bank of Ireland after 14 years, 8½ of them in the public eye as chief executive.

There has been no farewell tour, no fanfare, and there’ll be no selfies or high fives with colleagues on his way out the door.

Boucher didn’t even attend the bank’s press conference at the end of July to announce a solid set of half-year results, the last set of numbers on his watch.

“It’s not my job to bow out,” he says, leaning forward on a couch in the front living room of his Clontarf home. “It’s my job to make sure that the bank moves as smoothly as possible [to the new chief executive].”

Boucher’s self-effacement is genuine. There is no desire for accolades and he doesn’t worry about what people think of him. He accepted one of the toughest jobs in Ireland in February 2009 and worked his arse off to save the bank and repay its €4.7 billion taxpayer bailout.

In public, he might come across as gruff and blunt. In private, he’s a warm individual, with a ripe sense of humour.

Since becoming chief executive, he has battled bowel cancer and numerous critics, and put up with some disgusting hate mail. But he also earned the respect of staff, investors and politicians for his work ethic and his strategic focus in bringing Bank of Ireland back from the brink.

He’s also a decent skin. When my mother died in 2014, he sent me a mass card with a lovely handwritten note inside offering his condolences and remembering his own father, whose fifth anniversary had just passed. It was a human touch that demonstrated his soft side.

Time to move on

In January 2016, Boucher decided it was time to go. His contract allowed him to remain as chief executive of Bank of Ireland until his 60th birthday in August 2018 but he decided it was time to move on.

“I started discussing it with the board at that time, that we needed to work together on succession planning,” he says as we enjoy some coffee and scones.

“The bank was becoming too much about Richie and I felt it was necessary to separate the two. Also, personally, I wanted to do some different stuff with my life. I’d been sick [in 2014] and then I’d had to have further [medical] stuff in 2015 and I kinda thought somebody else needed to do the job.”

Was he tired after years of slog?

“Not really. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve always had very strong energy levels. I wasn’t feeling unhappy or dissatisfied. I really just felt that, for the company to continue to evolve, it had become too synonymous with me and it was time for me to do something different.”

Boucher was not involved in the selection of his successor, Francesca McDonagh, a Briton who arrives on October 2nd from HSBC, but he’s impressed by her appointment.

“She’s a very smart lady. Realistic, pragmatic. She’s got a good degree of quiet, understated confidence. She brings a lot of capability with her,” he says.

Boucher is also clear that his decision to leave the bank was not about freeing him up to earn more money as he moves towards retirement.

He earned €958,000 from the bank last year, including €690,000 in salary. He hasn’t been paid a bonus since the crash and waived a large chunk of his remuneration in previous years.

“Money isn’t a primary motivation. Obviously, I’d like to be paid for what I do but I don’t have some desire to amass more wealth. I mean . . . what would I do with it? I’m happy enough going down to Harry Byrne’s [pub in Clontarf] on a Wednesday night to have a few pints with my pals.

“We have nice holidays every now and then. We have the house we want to live in. It’s our house. My children are healthy, they’re educated, they’re confident, they’ll make their own way so I don’t need money for something else.”

His future will involve working for Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd, the Toronto-based investment group headed by Prem Watsa, one of the consortium of investors who ponied up €1.1 billion in 2011 to save Bank of Ireland from majority State ownership.

That investment paid off handsomely, as noted in Watsa’s letter to shareholders in March of this year.

“We purchased 2.8 billion shares of Bank of Ireland stock in late 2011 at 10 cent per share. As of today, we have sold 85 per cent of our position at 32 euro cents per share, for a total . . . gain of approximately $806 million.”

“I get on very well with Prem and the guys. I like their style and philosophy. They believe in capitalism, obviously, but they also have a strong cultural belief in making sure the investments are appropriate and that you behave in an ethical fashion. I’m lucky to have an opportunity to work with them.”

With the approval of the bank’s board, Boucher has already completed some work for Fairfax, using up some holiday leave. It won’t be a full-time role with Fairfax and he won’t have a title.

“To be honest, we haven’t really figured out what I’ll be called. I don’t really care. That’s why I like Fairfax . . . [they’ll just say] ‘This is Richie and he was the CEO of Bank of Ireland’ and they can Google me pretty quickly.

“Fairfax’s model is that they have a large number of insurance companies around the world,” he says. “ They are required to make a profit from their insurance activities and then the cash flow is all brought to the centre. It’s a classic pyramid-type cash flow where the float is quite conservatively invested in opportunities, slightly higher-risk opportunities.

“My role is to look at some of those for them and work with a team with Fairfax and say if it’s a good idea or bad idea, bring it to the investment committee, structure the deal.”

He will look at opportunities outside Ireland (Fairfax is invested in FBD insurance here) and they will be in the financial sector.

“And I won’t compete against the bank,” he says.

Boucher has a “loose structure” with Fairfax. “I haven’t agreed what I’m going to get paid.”

He also represents Fairfax on the board of Greek lender Eurobank, where he chairs the risk committee.

“It’s a very well-run bank,” he says. “They’re pursuing all the right strategies and tactics. The thing we can’t influence is the Greek economy. It’ll be a slow, slow recovery process.”

Resilient

By his own admission, Boucher is a resilient guy, shaped in large part by his experiences growing up in southern Africa.

His father, a Dubliner, travelled to Africa in the early 1950s and took up a career as a mining consultant.

“He was a good sportsman; he was quite attracted to playing sports out there.”

Having met on holiday, Boucher’s mother, who hails from Co Cavan, followed his father to Africa in 1957 and they later married there.

“She got a boat for 11 days and a train for five days to Kitwe, a mining town in [what was then] northern Rhodesia. She’d never been outside Ireland. It took her five days on a train from Cape Town to the middle of nowhere.”

Boucher was the eldest of four boys and was sent to private school in Harare at an early age.

“A lot of schooling was in Afrikaans at that time and my mother wanted us to have an English-speaking and Catholic education. It was quite tough on her because we went off at an early age. She made her own life. Mining towns are not perfect places.

“It was quite an outdoor life. I was lucky in boarding school. I liked sport and got on with people and I knew how to fight. I quite enjoyed school.”

Boucher later went to Rockwell in Tipperary and graduated from Trinity. Ireland has long since become his “home” but the African influences still run deep. His home in Clontarf is named after Kitwe and his house is full of African knick-knacks.

“Africa is a bigger part of me than I realised. It shaped me more than I thought. But if anyone asks me where I’m from, I’m Irish.”

Growing up in Rhodesia, which later became Zimbabwe, although Kitwe is now in Zambia, race was an issue bubbling in the background.

“It was, yeah. I’d love to say I thought about it a lot when I was there but I didn’t think about it as much as I should have. Our school was a Catholic school and black guys were allowed in our school.

“If we played a government school or one of the Afrikaans schools, they weren’t allowed to play in away matches. You realise afterwards how wrong it was. I was just a kid growing up. I played sport. I had my friends. I noticed apartheid, I noticed discrimination, I didn’t agree with it but I didn’t do much about it.”

Bowel cancer

In May 2014, Boucher received a devastating diagnosis following a routine medical check-up: he had early-stage bowel cancer. The surgeon told him that they needed to operate.

“I said I’ve got a set of results coming up . . . they’re five to seven weeks away. He was looking at me.”

With his son preparing to sit his Leaving Certificate at the time, Boucher decided he would keep the news from his family, including his wife. They knew nothing for about six weeks.

“In hindsight, it was a stupid thing to do but I just got it into my head that I didn’t want to complicate other people’s lives.”

How did he cope with the news?

“Typical me, crassness. I told Sandra [his wife], ‘Right, here’s the bank accounts, etc’ and I was wondering why she was crying. Jeez, I think back on it. I could have planned it better.”

He continued to work from his hospital bed until a nurse finally parted him from his phone and tablet. “I’d be lying in bed looking for something to do. There’s only so much Home and Away you can watch.”

The operation to cure the cancer was a success but infections and other complications meant that Boucher was required to have more surgeries. He’s still dealing with the complications today.

“I have some pain but I’ve been extremely well looked after. It causes elements of discomfort. There’s just issues with my stomach.”

Emotional

Boucher comes across as the tough guy but leaving Bank of Ireland will be hugely emotional. “Yeah. There’s no point pretending. It’s been a huge part of my life, probably too much in some ways.

“It’s the people I’ve met or who work with me on a day-to-day basis. They’ve all worked incredibly hard for me and I will miss them all. Over 8½ years in the job, the number of people who have disappointed me I could count on one hand. I’ve also seen people blossom and grow. It’s very satisfying.”

His legacy?

“I was a crisis leader and we came through it with a strong bank. It’s a better bank than it was. We’re the largest lender into the economy. But I don’t see Bank of Ireland and my job as defining me as a person. My friends are my friends not because of the job I have.

“I’m just a boy from Africa who managed to run a bank. I’d like my transition to Francesca to be very smooth so that in six months’ time people will be talking about Bank of Ireland and Francesca, and saying: ‘What was your man’s name? Robbie Bolger?’ Ha, ha. ‘We’ll never forget you, Robbie Bolger.’ That’s what I would like.”

Richie Boucher in February 2015, following surgery for bowel cancer. “I have some pain but I’ve been extremely well looked after.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Richie Boucher in February 2015, following surgery for bowel cancer. “I have some pain but I’ve been extremely well looked after.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Name: Richie Boucher

Why in the news: He’s preparing to step down as Bank of Ireland chief executive

Age: 59

Family: Married with two adult children

Lives: Clontarf

Hobbies: Walking and reading about history

Richie Boucher on . . .

. . . his leadership style.

“I set clear plans and objectives. I expect people to meet those objectives but I also expect people to challenge. I would have quite a tough, uncompromising style but I would really expect a challenge.”

. . . AIB beating Bank of Ireland to the punch on restoring dividend payments to shareholders this year.

“Look, that’s just a round-trip with taxpayers’ money. It’s just a joke. They had €21 billion of taxpayers’ money that they were never going to be able to repay. I always made it very clear to my colleagues that repaying that taxpayer money was financial but it was also a moral obligation for us.”

. . . the housing crisis.

“We have to look at the planning laws. It is strange that you can have Apple wanting to build in Athenry and some guy in Wicklow who can object. We also have to look at the costs. House-building is not as profitable as people might think it is and the risks are quite high because you have constant changes of policy.

“They need more height in Dublin [for apartments]. And we need to look at the transport infrastructure. It’s just a co-ordination of all these things.”

. . . Brexit.

“It’s far and away the single biggest threat to Irish business. It leads to uncertainty, which gets people to delay investment decisions. That means the investment is slowed and jobs aren’t created. I can’t see a scenario where Brexit is positive for Ireland and the economy.”