Cormac McCarthy obituary: business leader and generous mentor

Banker steered Ulster Bank through financial crisis, one role in stellar career

Cormac McCarthy in 2015 when he was CFO at  Paddy Power. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Cormac McCarthy in 2015 when he was CFO at Paddy Power. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Born: September 20th, 1962

Died: July 5th, 2021

Cormac McCarthy, who has died aged 58, was a former chief executive of Ulster Bank. During a stellar career spent mainly in the financial sector, he saw success in abundance but was tested sorely during the banking crisis of 2008-2009.

Unlike many other senior figures, when the crisis exploded, McCarthy determined he would stay on, clean up the mess and protect the employees. While a number of Irish financial institutions received taxpayer bailouts from the government, Ulster did not, relying instead on a £15 billion (€17.5 billion) injection from its parent, the Royal Bank of Scotland, itself bailed out by the UK government.

“He was only ever interested in doing the right thing,” says long-time friend and former Arthur Cox partner Conor McDonnell. “He shunned the limelight but never shirked a problem.”

PR consultant Ita Gibney, another close friend who benefitted from McCarthy’s advice, says his conduct during the banking crisis was exemplary.

“He stayed on and steadied the ship,” she says. “He was involved in the restructuring after the crisis and when that was done, he resigned and left without a package.”

RBS, she added, had wanted him to stay in a senior role in the main UK operation, where he had been appointed deputy chief executive of retail banking, but he ultimately left, after a year and a half, preferring to remain in Ireland.

Cormac McCarthy was born in September 1962 and grew up in Terenure, Dublin. His parents were Bernard McCarthy, a teacher at Templeogue College, and Marie (nee Lucey), a home economics teacher.

He attended Terenure College, where he took a keen interest in rugby, and afterwards studied commerce at University College Dublin. Following this, he studied accountancy through Stokes Kennedy Crowley (SKC), now KPMG, and embarked on a career that saw steady upward progress, save for a brief sojourn in Australia.

“Of all of us,” says a close friend from his time in Sydney, “Cormac landed at the top very quickly. He was one of the smartest people I ever met; really smart and incredibly principled.”

After a number of years auditing for KPMG, in 1990 McCarthy became finance director at Woodchester Bank, and subsequently group financial controller at Woodchester Investments, a position he held until 1998.

He then moved to First Active as head of finance, taking over as chief executive two years later, aged just 37. A mooted merger with Anglo Irish Bank failed to materialise but McCarthy oversaw a successful merger with Ulster Bank, of which he was simultaneously appointed chief executive.

The €887 million paid by RBS for First Active is said by industry insiders to have reflected the value placed on McCarthy by the Scottish parent.

Leaving banking in 2011, he worked for a time as an adviser to Oaktree Capital Management, a California-based investment fund, and was appointed a non-executive director of BWG Foods, the Irish-based retailer behind chains including Spar, Eurospar, Mace and Londis.

Further non-executive directorships followed, including at Paddy Power, of which he later also took on the role of chief financial officer until 2016; DCC, the support services group, and H+K International, the kitchen equipment company, of which he was chairman at the time of his death.

For the past 10 years he was also deeply involved with the UCD Foundation, of which he was chairman, and chairman also of Aspire, the university’s mentoring programme.

Described by Orla Gallagher, its director of development, as “a brilliant leader, a smart thinker, a deep empathiser, a great mentor, an extraordinary colleague and a wonderful, wonderful friend”, working at the foundation played to McCarthy’s instinct to pass on his experience and knowledge, which he did mainly in a low key, under the radar manner.

A flood of messages to the foundation after his death, of a suspected heart attack, spoke of the legacy of the help he gave to others.

Typical among them, was Fergal Mulchrone of Hugh Jordan and Company who wrote that McCarthy was “one of a kind, caring (especially for the underdog), empathetic, understanding, smart yet humble, generous in his time, fun & fascinating in conversation, loyal to his friends, true to his word, challenging especially when he thought someone could do better/more, passionate in all things and adoring of his family”.

Cormac McCarthy met his wife Laura Roche, a law graduate and accountant, while both worked at SKC. They married in 1991 and had four children, Fiona, Andrew, Jean and David.

He enjoyed golf as well as swimming, rugby, and cycling with the Willow Wheelers. His favourite cycle, according to fellow cyclist Norma Nolke, was from Booterstown to Howth/Malahide. He cycled for fun and fitness, and helped organise cycling trips to Italy and France and raise money for charity.

He had a great love of classic rock music, of going to gigs and would enthusiastically share Spotify finds with friends. He taught himself how to play the guitar and among his favourites were the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Leonard Cohen.

“He had an incredible intelligence and was a fast thinker,” says Ita Gibney. “He would drive his team very hard but he also had a very strong humanity. He was proud of his family, of the achievements of his children. He was grounded. There was great decency to him.”

His wife and their children survive him, as well as his parents, sister Órla, aunts, uncles, extended family, friends and colleagues.