Subscriber OnlyBusiness

Seán FitzPatrick, the poster child turned whipping boy of Irish banking

Wicklow man turned a small Dublin lender into a €13bn bank that was toppled by excess

Seán FitzPatrick was not at first terribly keen to meet me in the autumn of 2007 in the weeks after I started as Finance Correspondent of The Irish Times but I managed to convince him to go for a coffee.

Dressed in casual golf gear for a round later in the day, FitzPatrick stated right away that David Drumm was chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank now and he had moved on to the role of chairman, keen not to be seen to be encroaching on his successor.

Given his central role in turning Anglo from a small Dublin lender into a €13 billion company and Ireland’s third largest bank, I explained that it would be useful to hear his insights on where Anglo stood in the Irish banking landscape.

Over coffee outside a Dublin city centre cafe, around the corner from Anglo’s St Stephen’s Green head office, FitzPatrick loosened up and was soon in full flow, describing Anglo’s business model and its “belt and braces” approach to lending.

Anglo had a successful formula that appeared to have broken the mould of Irish banking. In reality, it was banking too heavily on one specific asset: property

By way of illustration to support what was clearly a stock presentation for the Greystones man, he pointed to a building opposite, saying an Anglo loan was secured not just on the building but on the businesses inside it and so the loan's strength was based on the strength of the overall economy.

As FitzPatrick held forth, his friend Fintan Drury, then a board member of Anglo, walked past, noticing his pal in action. “I’d say there’s a lot of sh*te being talked here,” he said, drawing laughs.

The following years would prove that there was some truth in Drury’s jest.

By the time FitzPatrick moved up to the chairman’s office at Anglo in 2005 after two decades as chief executive, the bank had a successful formula that appeared to have broken the mould of Irish banking. In reality, it was banking too heavily on one specific asset: property.

As the economy boomed and land values and house prices skyrocketed, Anglo was always going to score bumper profits given its heavy concentration in construction and property development, close relationships with its clients and the ability to return a “quick yes” on a loan application. In the good times, Anglo, FitzPatrick and their customers prospered more than most.

He reaped the rewards of shaking up a somnolent Irish banking sector by offering customers an alternative to the AIB-Bank of Ireland duopoly. Some wealthy businessmen to this day still talk with pride at the start Anglo and "Seanie" gave them when others would not provide support.

Dismissed initially by competitors as an upstart doomed to fail, the two big banks were, in time, rattled by Anglo’s rise and ultimately tried to emulate its seemingly lucrative model. There were even fears in Bank of Ireland’s boardroom that investors might support a takeover by Anglo.

FitzPatrick's rising star brought him seats in some of corporate Ireland's storied boardrooms – Aer Lingus and Smurfit, among them – and made him richly remunerated every year at Anglo, on top of the multi-million euro shares he held in the bank he created.

As Anglo collapsed into nationalisation, FitzPatrick's personal fortunes were hit, too, forcing him into bankruptcy that year with debts of almost €150 million

But FitzPatrick’s model that supported the bank’s and his own vast wealth was built on sand. Where FitzPatrick lay the foundations and built Anglo up over time, Drumm quickly sent it skywards.

A once specialised niche as a business lender had turned Anglo into the go-to lender for Ireland’s rich class of builders and property developers. At times, Anglo would even go to the customers with deals. It became an unsteady structure.

When the crash eventually came in 2008 Anglo was inevitably going to be worst hit. Unfortunately for the other banks - and ultimately for the Irish taxpayer - years of bumper profits at Anglo blinded other lenders to the risks they were all taking. With a hands-off regulator, FitzPatrick’s bank was exposed, in the end, as a one-trick pony leading an unregulated race.

In the space of a few years, FitzPatrick - the gregarious banker who could work any room and sweet-talk investors at shareholder meetings - went from poster boy of Celtic Tiger Ireland to the whipping boy of the crash, the face of Ireland's bank-driven boom and bust.

The damage to his reputation was not helped by tone-deaf remarks he made in his infamous RTÉ radio interview with Marian Finucane after the State saved his bank with an extraordinary bank guarantee.

As Anglo collapsed into nationalisation, requiring a €29 billion bailout from the State and helping to push the Government into an international bailout in 2010, FitzPatrick’s personal fortunes were hit, too, forcing him into bankruptcy that year with debts of almost €150 million.

Tens of millions of loans that FitzPatrick concealed at Anglo led to his resignation in 2008 and later landed him in the criminal courts on charges of misleading the bank’s auditors.

He was unusual among his former senior colleagues charged with offences in that he avoided a conviction. In 2014, FitzPatrick was cleared on all counts by a jury of having any involvement in the bank’s extension of loans in 2008 to a group of developers to buy shares in Anglo Irish Bank, as the bank sought to unwind a leveraged clandestine stake in the lender held by the family of businessman Seán Quinn.

He was acquitted in 2017 over a botched investigation by the State’s white-collar crime agency.

Since then, he remained largely under the radar with occasional news stories appearing about his ambitions to build houses at the back of his Greystones home, a far cry from the vast housing estates, large office buildings and plush hotels his bank once financed.

During that time, FitzPatrick helped changed the face of Irish banking, in good ways and bad. Anglo’s role in the crash and its long-lasting economic damage will mean he will be largely remembered for the crash.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent