Financial betimes

 

Dublin's docklands - for so long a derelict wasteland and interesting mainly as an eloquent witness to many chapters in Irish social history, particularly those concerning the rights of workers, has been revitalised on its way to becoming Ireland's equivalent of London's famous financial heart, the City. Where generations of dock-men once worked, yuppie bankers wheel and deal and talk in millions.

Smart, air-conditioned, tinted-glass and brick edifices are beginning to take over from beautiful, 19th-century stone buildings. A Victorian world has been transformed. This has become a place where a visitor dare not park unless a spot has been specifically reserved. "You'd better check, or you'll be clamped and there's nothing I can do about it," announces a security man.

It is a wet Monday morning with seagulls screaming at the grim sky, and the International Financial Services Centre appears temporarily deserted. Not a banker in sight. On driving down into the underground car park, figures emerge in the semi-darkness. More and more of these pale, ravaged creatures slowly become discernible: these are the smokers, banished from the main building. They stand around in small groups, harassed-looking captains of the universe. Many are high earners, but they work hard, and are usually at their desks by 7.15 a.m. Security is tight, every member of staff carries an ID card which also acts as a key to unlock the various doors along the way.

Even to the untrained eye, these people are well-dressed. "When you are dealing with other people's money, it is important to look like you know what you are about," a trader observes. Outside, back in the light, it becomes easier to identify the quality suits, the regulation floppy haircut favoured by many of the men . . . the women wear high heels. It is reassuring to note that Fridays are "dress down" days.

Ambition is a fact of life here. On entering the office of NCB, National City Broker, it is difficult not to notice the place smells like a hospital. But whatever it happens to remind you of, there's no disputing it is clean, new and impersonal in that unmistakably modern way.

It is also very quiet. Anyone hoping to witness a tantrum is out of luck. Sheila O'Flanagan, a fixed-income specialist at NCB Stockbrokers, is amused. "There's not that many mad, whizz-kid loonies about, most of us are fairly normal," she says. "No more obnoxious than barristers."

Normal she may be, but she is hardly ordinary. In the past two years, O'Flanagan has published three best-sellers, Dreaming of a Stranger, Caroline's Sister (which Poolbeg published in the UK following its successful publication in Ireland - it has sold more than 100,000 copies) and Isobel's Wedding which was published at Christmas. All were written in her spare time, each taking about nine months to complete. She also writes a weekly business column which appears in this newspaper.

Fiction was something O'Flanagan always wanted to do. The column was also her own idea. "I approached the economics editor because I want to make business accessible, I think there is this widespread feeling that unless you are working in the area, it is okay to know nothing about business. But that's wrong. Business is important. It affects all of us. We vote-in governments and allow them the right to spend our money. Surely it only makes sense for all of us to be interested in what happens?"

As readers of her column, the extremely practical View From the Third Floor of the IFSC, will know, common-sense and logic are central to her world-view. Her sense of humour also helps - she gives the impression of being concerned rather than indignant at the general public's lack of interest in financial trading. "I write it in about two hours, although I did do one in 45 minutes - and email them over. My intention is for them to be topical - and it's funny, you find yourself writing about what's in the news and people who think they have no interest do start reading them. There's always the same reaction, they are surprised to realise they can under- stand them and it's not some kind of foreign language after all."

Surprisingly un-intimidating herself, O'Flanagan lives in an environment dominated by flashing screens and computer technology. Admit you don't know how to send an email and her face registers a kindly look of "You're having me on". A tiny figure in a beige trouser-suit and mushroom-coloured suede shoes, she has calm, brown eyes, a soft Dublin accent and a girl's voice. She seems very relaxed, considering her high-powered career. "I'm not that easy-going. I could be very stressed, say, if I had to commute. Now that would drive me mad." Tell her you expected her to carry at least three mobile phones and to continue trading throughout the conversation, and she bursts out laughing.

She was born in Dublin in 1958 and grew up in Walkinstown. The eldest of three girls, O'Flanagan stresses that as a child she did not dream of the world of high finance. "My father had a business in the Liberties, a grocery shop, so I suppose I was always aware of the language of business." At St Paul's school she enjoyed English. "I always liked writing stories, I was never much interested in sport or science." She smiles nostalgically at the memory of having once "almost" blown up the school science lab. She was always interested in music and passed her piano exams up to grade seven. "Then I stopped. But I still love Beethoven, Strauss, Rossini." She was also, however, one of the girls in the school choir who was ordered "to move my mouth but on no account to sing".

On taking economics as a Leaving Cert option, O'Flanagan became addicted to commerce. After she left school, she completed one year of a business course in Tallaght. She remembers the situation of being offered two jobs, neither of which she wanted. When the third offer came, her mother took no chances. "She wrote back and accepted it on my behalf. I think she was worried I would never get a job."

Her first job was in an administrative capacity at the Central Bank. She was 18 by then and began sitting the banking exams. Her father died after a two-year illness. "It made me determined to get on with life. You never know what is going to happen." After three or four years, she moved on to ABN AMRO, a Dutch bank, and stayed there for eight years working in the credit department. Further moves included working as a dealer in Smurfit Parisbas, where she eventually became Ireland's first female chief dealer. By then she had decided to specialise in bonds and moved to Bloxhen Stockbrokers. In 1991 she was headhunted and arrived at NCB as a bonds trader and is part of the bond team.

Her colleagues seem fairly low-key. There is no temperament, no theatrics and not a pair of red braces in sight. Bonfire of the Vanities it is not. It is a bit disappointing, almost too civilised, but O'Flanagan remarks: "It can get very lively at times. You do hear people screaming or arguing about deals - we call it `intense discussion'. The slow time is between 11.30 in the morning and 2.30 in the afternoon - you see, the Europeans are an hour ahead and they go to lunch at 12.30 their time and the Americans only get started by our afternoon." Most of her business trips are to London of which she says "the atmosphere in a bond room there can get very aggressive".

But is it not a young person's world? There are a lot of raw-looking twenty-somethings about. Do many get burnt out? "Yes, it is tough. It is competitive. People get fired if they don't produce." Various traders arrive in groups for lunch, but there are few traces of crazed networking. It looks as if all mobile phones have been abandoned outside. The hum of conversation is muted. The age-profile gradually appears to rise and O'Flanagan, laughing at the observation, says: "Not all of us died off at 30."

How driven is she? "I've always believed that if you do something you should try to do it as well as you can. And I'm really interested, that helps." She reads the Financial Times as readily as many of us would read the sports pages." Both her sisters have children. "I like children but I have to admit I have never had an urge to have my own. I think there is a tyranny of motherhood," she says mildly. "In fact, that's what my next book is about, this pressure to have children and the way some people question a relationship if you don't have children." Suddenly Single will be published at the end of the year by the British publishers Headline, O'Flanagan now having completed her three-book deal with Poolbeg. She lives with her partner (who has three grown children) in Clontarf, a place she loves. It is an ordinary house - she agrees she could easily afford to move to something more expensive, but she doesn't want to.

O'Flanagan is not particularly extravagant, but is well attuned to what she wants. "I'm a real city person. I like noise, cars, streets, shops, people. The countryside has never interested me. I mean, it's fine for a weekend. All my relatives live in Dublin, aside from some in England. There's no relation down the country."

Her feel for the city was partly behind her desire to write fiction. "When I was growing up I was very conscious there was no fiction about the urban woman's experience. I remember reading Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls and I thought: `Great - but what does this mean to me?' She may as well have been writing about a different country." Her novels are hefty, doorstep-size objects. "They've all ended up longer than I thought." She makes no great claims for their literary merit. "They're about life situations, relationships. Balancing careers and relationships." Business does feature - how much is drawn from her life? "Well, I've been dumped and dumped on - you can't help writing about what you know."

She refers to the three novels by the names of the central characters; Jane, Caroline and Isobel. The first book is actually her second. "I had written what is a sort of prequel to Dreaming of A Stranger." That first novel was sent to the late Kate Cruise O'Brien at Poolbeg. "She thought the first book was too young, so she encouraged me to make the characters older, that bit further on in life, and I did." She and Kate formed a good relationship. "She gave me confidence as a writer." With Cruise O'Brien's sudden death, "a year ago next week", she not only lost an editor, she lost a good friend. "Kate was a very good, honourable person. She had a strong ethical sense. I took her death very badly. I still miss her."

Back at the NCB office, O'Flanagan leads the way to the bond desk she shares with 10 colleagues. It is a large room dominated by a long row of desks, each complete with a switchboard-like bank of phones and computers. A small globe sits on her desk, as does a Crunchie bar still in its wrapper. The computer screen has various displays including lists of bonds under separate country categories: Ireland, France, Germany, Finland and Spain, all filled with fluctuating figures. "European currencies are good for us," she says. "No exchange risk." She pushes a button. "Spreads German Jumbos," it reads. What does this mean? "It's about mortgage-backed bonds." As expected the "jumbo" means big.

By what time can a trader hope to "read" a day? "By about 8.30 a.m." Bond dealers sit, watch the market and deal. When not engaged in this, they read. Information is constantly on offer to them. Press a button and an article appears - The Japan View, with a sub-headline designed to draw the reader in: "The Yen looks Firm as the Nikkei Rallies."

Meanwhile, on another screen, the progress of the various international markets appears, illustrated by graphs. "You see that?" she asks. "That means it was in crisis for a couple of days and then calmed down."

Neither obsessive nor pedantic, she demythologises the language of international finance with disarming ease. She takes a call: "Mine," she says, which means she made the trade - in other words, bought some bonds. It is a small deal. "Just a couple of million." Writing is important to her and she spends about a hour a day working at her fiction, though being a writer is a sensation she has not yet fully experienced. "I don't know," she says resignedly, "everyone seems to think trading is a hotpot of aggression, intrigue and designer suits, but in my experience, it isn't anything as cut-throat as publishing."