From Baghdad to Basra, this is a country full of potential
Moving to Iraq sounds like a risky business, but HSBC's James Hogan told John Reynolds he found hard-workers building a brighter future
"When I first landed in Baghdad, I remember thinking to myself that it was a very dangerous place and that I was risking my life," says UCD-educated Dubliner James Hogan, who has been running the Iraqi operations of UK banking giant HSBC for the past two years.
He arrived just two months after US troops formally withdrew from patrolling the hot, dusty streets of the war-battered Iraqi capital, which led to an initial frenzy of bombings, shootings, kidnappings and other crimes as gangs and former insurgent groups exploited the situation while Iraqi police and security forces struggled to get a grip on the daily violence.
Amid these surroundings and while investment from consumer, infrastructure, property and oil multinationals have poured billions of dollars into the reconstruction of the country that has seen annual GDP growth of 11%, something as relatively simple as arranging a meeting during his work involving the opening of 16 branches across the country required a lot of advanced planning and orchestration.
"Our security people would have to talk to our customers' security people before I went anywhere to find out about the location and its surroundings so they could assess any potential risks and decide how long it might be safe to conduct a meeting in one place.
"I never reached a point where I could walk around freely on the streets, but during my two years it has become easier to get around by car, and, while there was no room for complacency, we were able to blend in a bit more than we could at first.
"The constant security planning means you lose the spontaneity that you'd normally have walking around any other streets. It was unnatural, but I got used to it and it didn't detract from my work."
Customers and colleagues alike were welcoming, he adds. "Many older Iraqis knew a lot about Ireland, from having friends or relatives who studied at places like the Royal College of Surgeons. The fact that Ireland had no part in the two Gulf Wars meant that I and my colleagues were well regarded."
It's had a fortunate payoff. Although years of economic sanctions before the second Gulf War had left the country's banking system in a primitive state where people preferred to keep their savings in their mattresses, having formed a joint venture in 2005, HSBC and its partner Dar Es Salaam Bank, an African investment bank, have been able to tap into the confidence in banking and the economy that have gradually emerged.
"In terms of basic banking, we doubled our deposit base over the past two years. Very few people in Iraq have a bank account, so there has been a big education process, but people like depositing their funds with a foreign bank.
"I also had to help bring in regulators from outside the country to educate the regulators here, particularly about the infrastructure of banking and the commercial and investment banking side of things.
"We've tried to develop an investment banking capability so that Iraqi companies can access international capital and float on the local stock market or a foreign one.
"We were just awarded quite a large IPO mandate and that's the type of business opportunity that would have been rare before I arrived."
Leaving behind 500 staff who are keen to continue with providing a modern banking service and good customer service, Hogan is now moving to a different role with HSBC and will head its wholesale banking division in Sydney.
"Iraqis are very hard workers and that will bode well for the future. There's the potential for high productivity there for all kinds of businesses. While a lot still needs to be rebuilt and is being rebuilt, all the ingredients are there to build a very successful economy for its 30 million or so people.
"People are now beginning to cycle around Baghdad, and about 10 days ago, on my way back from work, I saw people jogging beside the Tigris River, which certainly wouldn't have happened a few years ago.
"Having travelled around the whole country, from Kurdistan in the north, to Baghdad, and its environs and to Basra and other commercial centres in the south, you become very aware of how much potential there is here and how much there is still to be done. I'll be very sorry to leave. Iraq is one of those places that gets under your skin a little bit," he says.