WILD GEESE:Conor McEnroy is the owner of a thriving South American bank, writes TOM HENNIGANin São Paulo
NOT ALL Irish bankers are living through the worst of times.
In fact, for Conor McEnroy (48), this might just be the best moment in a career that has seen the TCD dropout rise through the ranks of high finance in London, Milan and New York on the way to his current role as the owner of a thriving South American bank.
An Irish banker in Asunción? McEnroy has seen eyebrows rise when he tells people back home that he is the owner and president of Sudameris Bank in Paraguay.
“Probably the only thing most Irish people know about Paraguay is based on the films The Mission and Miami Vice. They think it is a Mickey Mouse country, but that is just prejudice based on ignorance,” says McEnroy.
He predicts his bank will, in the future, recruit from among the growing numbers of young Irish people looking to South America for work while developed economies rebuild from the wreckage of the global financial crisis.
“There are two parts of the world where wealth is being created: they are South America and Asia. There are two parts of the world where wealth is being consumed: they are Europe and the United States,” says McEnroy.
“Yes, China is great, India is great, but South America is much closer to your culture. I would unashamedly say to young Irish people: hit South America. Go to São Paulo, go to Lima, go to Santiago.”
The Wicklow man’s own journey started when, like so many of his contemporaries, he abandoned Ireland during the recession of the mid-1980s. He quit a job with a small oil scouting firm in Dublin for greater opportunities abroad.
“The country was pretty much bust. I decided it wasn’t worth it. So I left and went to London.”
He took a job with stockbroker Savory Milln, which was in the process of being swallowed up by Swiss Bank Corp.
There he learnt the ropes as an equity analyst, then in equity sales, then on the bank’s proprietary trading book and finally in corporate finance. “Great training ground. Really classic training,” he recalls. “Swiss banking was my alma mater.”
A successful stint in Milan followed before a fateful trip to Argentina. Sent to sell off a company, McEnroy came back with an internal memo advising the bank that it had to get into Latin America. In 1994 he was transferred to New York to set up the firm’s Latin American investment banking division.
The continent was suffering a hangover from the hyperinflation that had wrecked its economies during the 1980s and early 1990s and was littered with bust and distressed banks.
“I became a specialist in broken banks. I was inside over 50 between 1994 and 2002,” says McEnroy. “My job would be to go in with a sharp knife, a sharp pencil and basic calculator and figure it out. How much are the assets worth? The liabilities are always 100 cents on the dollar. So, is there positive or negative equity?”
McEnroy was essentially the leader of a Swat team brought in to rescue banks in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, spending one night a week in New York with his wife and the rest on the road.
His team rebuilt the banks and put in new management: “You would never give it back to the same person because he didn’t see the problem coming, so he’s not a banker.”
It was a punishing lifestyle but, for McEnroy, part of the Irish emigrant experience. “Irish people work much harder abroad than Irish people back home. I think emigrants are much more driven. You don’t have the same family safety net that you have if you are at home.”
Punishing but rewarding – McEnroy recharges at his condo in New York’s landmark Olympic Tower. “I did well,” is how he modestly puts it.
Stints in Lehman Brothers and ABN Amro followed his time in Swiss Bank Corp before he decided to strike out on his own in 2003. He formed the Abbeyfield Group which, in 2004, took control of Sudameris Bank in Paraguay. At the time it ranked last of Paraguay’s 10 biggest banks.
Since then McEnroy has lifted it to fifth place, repositioning it to cater for the growing middle class that has ever-increasing access to credit – thanks to the macrostability that has so far seen the region ride out the global financial meltdown.
“The returns on the investment have been 33 per cent compound in the last five years,” he says.
The next step will be to expand into Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
“People know nothing about Paraguay” he continues. “Its electricity lights up São Paolo, it is the fourth exporter in the world for soy beans, it’s a major exporter of wheat, corn, sesame seeds, sugar and meat.”
On Paraguay’s reputation for corruption, McEnroy says “the legend is bigger than reality”.
He also warns against Irish people throwing stones: “As an expat banker, every time I would get off the plane in Dublin I could smell the corruption.”
His advice is to come and see the reality on the ground. “I think the opportunities for Irish guys are enormous if you come with what you know, with your first-world knowledge and a little bit of humility. But don’t be the caricature aggressive gringo. And you must have the language.”
McEnroy says bureaucracy is the biggest challenge but adds that “foreigners are extremely welcome if they are well-intentioned”.
“The one piece of advice I’d give,” he says, “is don’t be arrogant, be humble . . . They are doing very well, thank you very much.”