‘Personally, once you say you’re from Ireland, I think there’s a huge level of acceptability right around the world’
Brian McEnery is a man with a lot of irons in the fire, from overseeing Nama to evangelising for accountancy in Pakistan and nursing home investment in Limerick, writes Donal O’Donovan
“I wouldn’t even try to say that there weren’t days that were bad because there were ... but on balance, I think they’re, you know, if they’re there in terms of size, they’re important, and process and procedures are important, particularly where you’re dealing with sensitive financial matters of parties, but I have to say in terms of the bigger picture, has Nama been doing a good job? I absolutely believe it has.”
Some of Nama’s critics are those whose loans ended up with the agency, he points out.
The agency, he says, didn’t sell to the “bottom feeders” who came in early, but needed to balance that by meeting Troika targets for debt repayment.
“These funds were coming in in 2010 and 2011 and going into government and saying isn’t it terrible Nama won’t deal with us. But we wouldn’t deal with them, we were right not to deal with.”
Later, Nama started to accelerate sales partially out of fear that Spain and Italy would hoover up the capital if Irish deals weren’t available.
If it hadn’t, and opted to hold loans long term as some critics now say it should, Ireland and the banks here, would be in a different position today, he says.
“I think they’d be in real trouble. Because I think there’ll be a requirement for more capital into banks generally around the world, in the coming 12 months. And many regulators and governments realise. If we had that allied to a big huge property overhang, if Nama hadn’t deleveraged ... so there’s a lot of complex factors to be considered when you’re saying should Nama have held on.”
Nama has been a big, contentious, commitment, but the board isn’t involved in day-to-day operations, which has saved him from getting ensnared in the minutia of deals – or from being lobbied by debtors or buyers, he says.
“Part of my role was around strategy around the governance, around the oversight of Nama and I genuinely, if there was a field down the road from me, my home, that was in Nama, I wouldn’t know it. That’s the truth. On one or two occasions, I was approached by community groups, or not community but maybe public bodies, and in those instances, I would have said to them there’s a process around which Nama deals with public bodies, but again I wouldn’t have got involved in it myself but I would have put them in the direction of somebody within Nama maybe.”
Didn’t he ever have anyone sidle up to him at an event, I ask?
“No, I didn’t, because in actual fact there was a huge amount of coverage in the early days about the act and there was an awful lot of coverage where it was not just an offence to lobby but it was an offence for the person who was lobbied not to report it.”
Nama has never been McEnery’s day job. He’s a chartered accountant, and a partner at accountancy firm BDO Ireland.
As well as dealing with bad debt cases, McEnery built much of his career advising investors in the health sector. If he talks about Nama in broad strokes, on health policy and funding of care, his gears shift to something much more intense and detailed, even joyful – the pen and paper come out when he talks me through the old capital model for nursing homes. Tax breaks in place before the crash became politically indefensible afterwards, but they built badly needed nursing homes and too few are being built now, he says.
He appears to know every trick in the book, and a few besides, when it comes to getting the best tax deal for investors buying into Irish healthcare. He’s intensely interested in policy, funding and the investment side.
Right now, declining margins are putting international investors off Ireland despite the growing need for nursing homes beds, while many Irish operators must wait for old tax schemes to expire before they can go out an raise fresh capital.
Surprisingly, for a man I assume has a direct line to Government, McEnery says his ideas to unlock health investment, including unlocking tax-based investors early from old schemes, are falling on deaf ears.
“As a firm, we’ve made a number of submissions to Government. I’ve put in, BDO have put in I’d say two on my behalf, not on behalf of anybody (client) but just saying this is a problem. And, you know, government have decided not to do it. That’s their prerogative of course but I see this as a funding constraint now.”
Trying to juggle a role in the looming health crisis with Nama and BDO doesn’t seem to phase McEnery, who comes across as a ball of energy.
Much of his energy at the moment is in fact focused outside Ireland, in his capacity as ACCA president.
He’s been involved in the organisation at all levels since he joined the local chapter in Limerick two decades ago. He was elected Irish president in 2009 and is now coming to the end of a stint as global president, an elected, unpaid role that makes him essentially an ambassador for professionalization – especially in emerging markets.
The ACCA, he says, was founded in 1904 by accountants, who like himself didn’t necessarily have a university degree or have served a (then) expensive articled apprenticeship.
ACCA’s exam-based structures opened up the profession. The exams are rigorous, but anyone can sit them, he explains.
“The real growth is in China, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, I’ve been to Pakistan a few times. Huge growth, huge need in their economies. I used this figure when I was out in Pakistan recently. There’s 200 million people in Pakistan and they have about 15,000 qualified accountants. We have six million people in Ireland and about 50,000 accountants.”
Training young accountants for work in those developing economies is a huge opportunity and failing to do so will have dire consequences, he reckons.
“When I go there I can see that, you know. People with very high levels of youth unemployment, what are they going to do? You know we always used to say the devil makes work for idle hands. Well, they’re idle, you know.” As he travels around being Irish helps, he says. “Once you say you’re from Ireland, I think there’s a huge level of acceptability right around the world. The Irish personal resonates much more broadly than we think. I genuinely think we have great currency around the world, it’s fantastic.”
‘It was originally suggested this (Nama) would be a f***-up of all proportions,’ he recalls