'Leading First Trust has been one great opportunity to get the bank back on track after a very difficult time'
Wexford man Des Moore tells John Mulgrew how the business is poised to return to ‘meaningful’ profit but confesses that the fight to regain the public’s trust in bankers still goes on
First Trust boss Des Moore doesn’t see the sell-off of parent company AIB as a threat to his business in Northern Ireland. And after four decades working in banking, the Wexford man has seen his fair share of peaks and troughs in the industry.
The 53-year-old said First Trust is now set to return to a “meaningful” profit for the last year, three years after he took over at the helm.
When he joined the bank, it had a workforce on 1,200 people. Now, that number is down to 700 — a 40% reduction in headcount.
It’s also cut its branch network by more than a third, down to 30 outlets across Northern Ireland.
And he’s not ruling out cutting further branches in future.
“You couldn’t (rule it out). The business model would always be under review. The Northern Ireland banking market is extremely competitive. You have to make sure all facets of your operation are done on an optimum cost basis.”
He says the bank is forecast to post profits for the next financial year.
“Within that, we wouldn’t be giving away any secrets to say that certainly during the crash we would have lost significant sums of money.
“We were back in profit in 2014, a small profit. We are on track to make a meaningful profit.”
The UK division of AIB, which contains First Trust, made a profit of £87m in 2014, compared to a loss of £68m in 2013.
That was buoyed by so-called write-backs, where money is set aside to deal with bad debts.
But it doesn’t break down First Trust’s own results separately. The bank makes up between a quarter, and a third of the total UK figure.
Now, owner AIB is going through one of the biggest changes in its make-up, with the Irish government preparing to sell a 25% stake in the bank.
“Overall, the IPO (initial public offering) will happen at some point after the general election. I think the Minister for Finance in the Republic, Michael Noonan, has said it will be some time in the window June to September. It clearly depends on who gets into government.
“The real question is, Northern Ireland and the UK is an important part of the overall AIB strategy, and is regarded as an area for growth.
“I would be very confident in our own ability to continue that trajectory in the future, and an IPO isn’t going to make any difference to that — I certainly don’t see it as a threat.”
And banking, and bankers, still have a long way to go to getting trust back from the public, Mr Moore said.
“I think one of the things the banking industry, never mind Northern Ireland, but the UK and the world, have to deal with, is the lack of trust in banking.
“How much we contributed, speaking frankly, I think that’s going to take a long time to recover. I think it’s improving. Reputational image, in the Republic, banks are still nine or 10 on a list out of 100 (based on trust).
“There’s a lot more that the banking industry needs to do.”
While he now heads one of Northern Ireland biggest banks, he began his first foray into the sector as a teller in Drogheda in 1982.
“I’m what you call a career banker. I worked in banking all my working life. I’ve worked in a wide variety of areas,” he said.
He began his career with Bank of Ireland, before moving on to Permanent TSB and National Australia Bank Group.
But the father-of-three said his role as head of First Trust is his “most significant role to date”.
“It was a fantastic opportunity to take a business that was clearly struggling, and to reshape it, turn it round, and get it back on track,” he said.
“We had gone through a very difficult time. It wouldn’t be a secret to say that the bank was for sale. We didn’t really have a clear strategy, and our costs were completely out-of-line with our income.
“Part of the job I was brought in to do was to change that dynamic. We came up with our five-year strategic plans, and the first stage was to address the cost issue.
“That meant, unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to some colleagues.”
He said business lending is now up 120% on last year.
“We would have approved £600m in business loans in 2015. Demand is strong. Our clients, talking to them, they are taking a feed from the modest growth in the Northern Ireland economy, and taking big investment decisions that they weren’t taking a few years ago,” he said.
And having had to deal with the ups and downs in the world of finance over the last 34 years, he said the bank had “done as much as we can” in order to assist customers struggling with debt.
“Having been in banking for 34 years, I’ve been through a number of economic cycles. You need to really understand what your customers are going through, so that the solutions you come up with are appropriate.
“As a bank, we have taken a very understanding line. I’d like to think we have done as much as we can to protect jobs, keep families in their homes, and that would be an ethos which would have served us well in this period of time.”
First Trust has set up several funds and loan schemes to boost certain areas of business.
That includes a programme to help young farmers inherit their businesses from their parents, and a green, or environmentally-friendly, loan.
Asked whether there will be a day when the high-street branch is a thing of the past, Mr Moore said they had been “written off as a distribution channel many times before, always prematurely”.
“What we will see is the continued evolution of a branch model.
“Where the market is getting to at the moment, branches are more like sales and service centres to an extent,” he says.
But he doesn’t shy away from talking about the rise and rise of bitcoin — a cryptocurrency which doesn’t relay on banks or traditional financial institutions.
He said it is “feasible” that one day it could take banks out of the equation altogether.
“Is it feasible? It absolutely is. We sometimes joke that we could be making the best and most efficient bank in the world, and find out that banking isn’t the answer.
“I think as an industry we need to be much more tuned in and actually collaborate with those people.”
Looking at 2016 on the whole, Mr Moore says the bank has examined whether “customers are able to sustain an interest rates increase”.
“I think it’s safe to say interest rates will rise modestly in 2016 ... in my blood, I feel we’ll have a modest increase.
“I think the positives will outweigh — we have seen wage increases for the first time over the last couple of years in Northern Ireland. There’s been an unexpected boost to disposable income because of reduced oil prices.”
Mr Moore now splits his time between Belfast during the week, before travelling to the picturesque backdrop of Galway at the weekend.
When not heading one of the ‘big four’ banks here, Mr Moore spends time with his wife Brenda, and children, Rachel (20) Andrew (18) — a competitive swimmer who has represented Ireland — and Owen (15).
He also enjoys mountain-biking, and blockbuster movies. But like others who don’t follow their father’s path, his children have no aspirations to follow him into the banking world.
This time it's personal...
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. In one of my first roles, one of my managers advised me to never look back on your life and regret the things you didn’t try — I still think of this. For me, the true test of a person’s character is not how often they win, but how often they get back up after losing. Resilience is probably the characteristic that I most admire in people.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Work hard, believe in yourself, figure out your niche and go for it. Fail often if necessary, but learn from your mistakes.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A Taking on my current role as head of First Trust Bank has undoubtedly been my best decision so far. While it was challenging to lead the bank’s turnaround through a difficult economic climate, it’s also provided fantastic opportunities and I’ve never been in a more rewarding role.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A I think if I wasn’t in banking, I’d quite like to be a teacher.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. I enjoy mountain-biking, spinning and trips to the cinema.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Rugby and the Irish rugby team.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I played rugby, tennis and squash, all quite a long time ago. I competed in some sprint triathlons during my mid-life crisis — thankfully a few years ago now and definitely not to be repeated.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. The family spent two weeks in Bordeaux last summer and I am looking forward to a weekend in Lisbon next month with my wife Brenda.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. With the demands on my time, I do not get to read as often as I would like to but I am currently reading Legacy by James Kerr. It goes deep into the mindset of the All Blacks and has some interesting thoughts on leadership and business.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. Happy and character building. I grew up with my brother and sister in Wexford just down the east coast.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. I see the Northern Ireland economy continuing to grow at a steady rate and I think the UK will remain in the EU. In the run-up to reduced corporation tax in April 2018, Northern Ireland will see its pipeline of foreign direct investment (FDI) grow. I also think that the Bank of England with raise interest rates moderately before the end of the year.
Q. How would you assess your time at First Trust?
A. It’s been the most challenging and rewarding three years of my career to date. I am privileged to lead an excellent team and we have worked really hard together to re-establish First Trust Bank in the marketplace. We have exciting future growth plans.