Swinging success for Bank of Ireland business event

A swinging success: Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny looks on during Bank of Ireland's Building Business Momentum conference.

A swinging success: Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny looks on during Bank of Ireland’s Building Business Momentum conference.

It’s expected of journalists to be cynical, especially about a business event involving two stages, organised by a bank, with a line-up including the top man in Ireland, the top man at Ireland’s top bank and a man who shook Nelson Mandela’s hand on numerous occasions and who is not Bono.

After all, the banking industry is one of the most maligned entities in Ireland, if not worldwide. So positively praising an event organised by one of those terrible banks and worse, actually admitting to taking something from it can feel a little like selling out.

Yet it was hard to fault the Bank of Ireland’s Building Business Momentum Conference this morning, which closed the bank’s National Enterprise Week initiative. It was of course over-seasoned with upbeat messages about the current business climate, shimmering with the promises of billions in available loan funds and layered with covert admonishments of the media’s penchant for doom and gloom.

But beneath the layers of marketing spin clearly designed to support BOI CEO Richie Boucher’s rather vocal goal to become the number 1 business bank in Ireland, this event managed to feel energetic and upbeat.

As my very wise mother would say, the power of the mind over matter is a powerful thing and if that is what BOI was aiming for during National Enterprise Week, it certainly succeeded this morning with this clever mix of speakers.

Introduced as the man who may have to cycle up Croagh Patrick backwards with Angela Merkel on the crossbar to help her re-election, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny took to the stage to assure the audience that Ireland was no longer perceived as the problem child of Europe.

“We want to be seen as the best small country in the world to do business with by 2016 and aim to have created 100,000 new jobs by then”, he said. “You’ll never find a government more open to listening and promoting business.”

In a speech that often felt like a job interview sales pitch for lead government party Fine Gael, the Taoiseach praised initiatives like the National Enterprise Week. “Bank of Ireland assisted 12,000 small businesses last year, yet the perception is that this isn’t happening. We need to hear those success stories more on business radio programmes.”

He encouraged business owners to consider online trading as a way to boost business. “Don’t stand behind a counter on a quiet street, on a wet day, counting your visitors. Do business online! Most young people buy online, we must be more in tune with that.”

Next up was controversial BOI CEO Richie Boucher, whose speech belied recent ESRI reports that banks are not lending to SMEs and that one in nine small and medium firms were refused loans or did not apply in the first place for fear of rejection (The Irish Times, May 16th 2013, Barry O’Halloran).

“We have money to lend,” said Boucher who went through the numbers to prove this assertion was sustainable. “During this 8th National Enterprise Week, 1,500 small businesses were encouraged to present to BOI,” he said, adding that the bank had restructured and was well on the road to recovery.

He also said the bank was grateful for the State investment during the crisis and felt it was morally important to repay it. “The State is well in the money on its cash investment into BOI. Of the 4.8 million borrowed, we have returned 3.8 billion to the State.”

Boucher’s intervention was followed by reflections on the Irish economy by a panel of experts including NTMA chief economist Rossa White, CPL CEO Anne Heraty and Julie Sinnamon of Enterprise Ireland.

Break-out sessions then covered verticals like hospitality, healthcare, retail and the motor industry, followed by a rather brazen if not entertaining outlook on the future of the Irish property market delivered by Mark Fitzgerald, chief executive of the Sherry Fitzgerald group. None of the speakers succumbed to hard selling or boring the audience into submission.

The event concluded with a fascinating talk by Kingsley Aikins, CBE, principal of Diaspora Matters. His insightful intervention not only suggested new ways of thinking about the power of personal networks and of one’s social capital, but managed to achieve something rarely witnessed at the end of a four-hour conference: keep hungry attendees enthralled during the graveyard shift, home of the ghost of Breakfast Past, taunter of stomachs and glazer of minds.

“It’s nice to hear a bit of positive news for a change isn’t it,” commented an attendee from Navan over lunch.

Indeed. Though it was ultimately a sales pitch by BOI, though it was never going to deliver a fix to the issues of Ireland in the Eurozone or indeed a reliable barometer for the hardship faced by SMEs in Ireland, the Building Business Momentum Conference certainly delivered on other levels: information, networking, recognition, focus and a sense of pride in the Irish entrepreneurial spirit. Not bad for a day’s work.

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About monicaheck
Monica Heck is a bilingual freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

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