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Francesca McDonagh: 'We are ready with an all-weather Brexit plan come what may at the end of negotiations'

The Big Interview: Francesca McDonagh


Bank of Ireland group chief executive Francesca McDonagh

Bank of Ireland group chief executive Francesca McDonagh

Bank of Ireland group chief executive Francesca McDonagh

Bank of Ireland group chief executive Francesca McDonagh

Dalkey, Co Dublin, where she has made her home

Dalkey, Co Dublin, where she has made her home

Francesca was appointed to her current role in 2017

Francesca was appointed to her current role in 2017

Bank of Ireland group chief executive Francesca McDonagh

While it's the Republic of Ireland's biggest corporate lender, in Northern Ireland, Bank of Ireland's market share is a very different proposition.

And with Brexit on the horizon, Bank of Ireland Group's chief executive Francesca McDonagh has been spending time talking to the bank's clients in the province about their Brexit readiness.

When I speak to her, she's fresh from a session of speaking to its corporate clients from Northern Ireland. "We've been talking about their growth plans and their investment plans.

"And despite some of the uncertainty Brexit has created we are having conversations about how we can support clients with their growth.

"I have been speaking to a customer today about tourists from China coming to Northern Ireland and about making sure all of the Northern Ireland attractions - Titanic Belfast, Giant's Causeway, Game of Thrones - are part of their tourist trail."

Francesca, who is originally from Croydon in London, has been living in the seaside village of Dalkey, Co Dublin, with her husband of nine years since she was appointed chief executive of Bank of Ireland in 2017. Her husband is French and owns a patisserie business.

Francesca (44) succeeded Richie Boucher and has the dual claim to fame of being a bank chief executive who's both female and younger than most.

And she feels her Irish family history has helped her in the role. "My father's family is from Carraroe in Co Galway so there was an Irish link there that was important to me. I never lived or worked in Ireland before now but it was a country that I visited a lot growing up. There's been an affinity for me with the island of Ireland."

Francesca has one brother, who works as a lawyer, and her parents are now retired. But as a student at a comprehensive, she defied expectations by getting into Oxford University where she studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), a course beloved of many high-achieving establishment figures in Westminster and once described as "the Oxford degree that runs Britain".

Going to Oxford was a shock to the system. "When you've come from a background where university wasn't necessarily an opportunity my parents would have had, or when you start out as immigrants, the emphasis was on education when I was growing up.

"I had the opportunity to go to Oxford University, which was rare and quite an exciting thing. That was relatively rare for anyone from my school in Croydon and certainly for my family."

Coming from a state-school background to Oxford, she did feel like the odd one out. "It was quite an interesting first experience. Diversity comes in many shapes and sizes.

"Certainly, to go to a university like that when you come from a background where your parents didn't go to university or when you'd gone to a state school, that was quite an interesting part of my journey."

Did she feel different from others? "Very different. It's good to go outside your comfort zone and I've had that all throughout my career, trying things where you feel a bit like the odd one out makes you grow. And I also think that most people feel like the odd one out at different stages in their lives, whether it's at university or in their social lives or professionally, and that's why it's so important to have environments where that doesn't become an obstacle to people getting on and bringing their true selves to work and feeling comfortable.

"That for me was a great leveller and an opportunity to step outside my own comfort zone and challenge myself to do things I hadn't done before and to embrace being different."

The bank doesn't give exact market share details for its Northern Ireland operation but is estimated to be in third place among the so-called 'big four' of Ulster Bank, Danske Bank, Bank of Ireland and First Trust.

It has around 300,000 customers in Northern Ireland and big plans to increase market share across the island. "We set out our multi-year strategy last year and talked about increasing our loan book by 20% to €90bn.

"We weren't explicit in terms of which geography but we would expect to see that across all our geographies in UK and Republic of Ireland. We're very keen to support SMEs across the island of Ireland, especially in home-building and home-buying.

"We see Northern Ireland and the Republic as bringing more opportunities to support business and personal customers, and also there's a societal demand for new housing, particularly in the Republic.

"I think that in Northern Ireland we are now financing 25% of new builds, and we see that as a very important part of our business growth."

And Brexit is of course a major factor.

"Whatever the outcome of Brexit, we need to make sure that we are prepared for any eventual deal or transition arrangement and we are ready as an organisation to be able to serve our customers.

"We feel we have taken all appropriate steps to have what I would call an all-weather Brexit internal plan so we can continue to serve our customers in all markets we operate in."

There has been an increase in uncertainty and frustration at the lack of progress, she says. "I would think that this time last year many people would have anticipated that the Brexit issue would have been addressed or resolved by now.

"Whether they liked the final resolution or final outcome is independent, but people thought that, from a time perspective, they would have had an element of certainty by now."

Instead, "what we would see is some Irish SMEs maybe at times deferring decisions around when to invest, when to replace assets, machinery, invest in buildings or expand, because they want to know the final outcome of Brexit".

But she adds: "I think also many of our businesses across the island have weathered far more extreme scenarios and experiences during the financial crisis so they would have an element of having metabolised some of the uncertainty in the market because of Brexit."

And while business confidence has fallen year-on-year, she thinks there are some positive signs.

"Companies are realising that they can't wait until the final Brexit situation is resolved for them to keep on running and investing."

The bank has set up a €2bn Brexit fund to support companies in their contingency plans and to help them expand where they do see opportunity.

"We have seen interest from agricultural, manufacturing, retail, and tourism. We are also speaking to any customers who are exposed to any fluctuation in euro and sterling."

The bank has launched a €50m unsecured foreign exchange fund to help companies reduce their currency risk.

Francesca has worked in banking since university, spending around 20 years with HSBC where her final post was head of retail banking and wealth management, UK and Europe. Asked if she had a target of reaching CEO level by a certain age - she was 42 when she took the Bank of Ireland job - she says: "To be honest, no. I always encourage people to have a development plan, as in, the experiences you want to have. I wanted international experience and I wanted investment but I also did a lot of retail banking as well. I had a plan to develop and I would encourage all my colleagues to but I never had a plan to be x level at x age or x year. Careers don't work out that way because some times being open-minded and open to opportunities that aren't necessarily part of the plan can be very fulfilling and rewarding."

She also came to the post with a vow to overhaul the "culture" at the bank. Customer expectations had changed, she says - with customers expecting more from their lenders yet also trusting them less following the financial crisis.

And she's frank about the need to improve the bank's technology. "Our investment in our technology was behind which is why we are announcing a total €1.4m investment in our total transformation across culture, business model and systems to improve our technology for our customers. We are seeking to replace our mobile app.

And she is a champion of branch banking. "I know that many people talk about branchless banking and new entrants where it's all online but I believe there's still a very important role for branches.

"We have 267 in the Republic of Ireland and 28 branches and six business centres in NI. What we've been doing more recently is investing in bringing more people back to the front line. You can reduce costs in a business but not at the price of good customer service."

She restored lunchtime opening. "It's quite basic but having your branches open at lunchtime is an example of putting more resources back into the front line."

She voted Remain in the EU referendum but when asked the best way out for the UK, if leaving is the only option, she says: "I will leave politics to the politicians... I've said that I'm a firm Remainer and that's my only personal voice on this and that was my decision. But we will respond to whatever the outcome of the political process is."

Belfast Telegraph