West Cork woman Máire Ahern McCarthy is due take up the position of Branch Manager for Bank of Ireland Clonakilty, Skibbereen and Bantry at the beginning of April.
A Qualified Financial Advisor and the current Financial Manager of FBD in Bandon, Máire hails from a farming background – when she’s not talking figures, she’s out milking cows in her wellies – and is looking forward to bringing her passion for agriculture to the table at Bank of Ireland.
“At present, the competition has a stronger presence on the ground with the agricultural sector in West Cork,” says the straight talker. “My role is to develop Bank of Ireland as a choice bank for people interested in developing their farm or business and looking for good value and good service.”
She’s well aware that it won’t be an easy job. “Farmers tend to be very loyal. We don’t like change as a rule, but I would say that price, value for money and knowing that the person you’re dealing with understands your business is very important,” she says.
Immersed in farming all her life – she grew up on a farm in Kilbrittain and today operates a dairy enterprise with her husband Brian in Crossbarry, Innishannon, supplying Bandon Co-op, of which she’s been a serving member of the Board for the past 10 years – Máire is well-positioned to know exactly what farmers in West Cork need.
“My passion is agriculture,” she says simply. “I farm every day, I’m at the coalface of it, I’m involved in the co-op, I understand the challenges that face farming and I’d like to think that if Bank of Ireland can offer value for money and perhaps a loan structure that will work in the farmer’s favour.”
“People need to be valued and we really do realise that agriculture is a very, very valuable asset in West Cork. It is keeping rural Ireland alive and we need to manage it and mind it. We need to make it possible for people to be able to afford to expand and maintain a valuable industry, whether that’s the part-time farmer or the large commercial one.”
Máire passionately believes the bank needs to put its arms around people. “I think it’s really important that the bank is there to support people, to say we know you’re exposed, we know you have a lot of borrowing: Do you need help? Do you need to take interest only in the spring when you don’t have cash flow? Do you want us to look at perhaps doing seasonal payments over the summer months when you have cash flow?” It’s common sense but you’d be amazed by how many people don’t have that structure in place.”
Growing up, Máire always wanted to be a farmer. The eldest of seven, she won a scholarship to attend Gurteen Agricultural College in Co Tipperary, however at the time farming was a difficult path for a woman, so instead she spent a year in Dublin studying hotel management. In 1988, she applied and was accepted to AIB, where she stayed for the next 21 years, starting out as a junior bank official and finishing as Financial Planning Manager for West Cork. In 2008, she left AIB for CMOR, the financial services arm of McCarthy Accountants, where she worked for four years.
In 2011, she joined the board of Bandon Co-op.
After successfully battling a bout of ill health in 2013, that same year, through ICOS, she completed a Food Business Diploma at UCC, which she says was life-changing. She applied for and was appointed to the position of managing the Bord Bia contract in Capita Customer Solutions in Clonakilty. While working there, she was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, which enabled her to travel around the world studying farming practices in France, Japan, Israel, Australia, Malaysia, Netherlands and the US. “I saw what compliance systems other countries had in place and how they differed from ours. It gave me great confidence in how high the standard in Ireland is,” she explains.
In 2018, Máire moved to FBD. “I think the older I get, the less afraid of change I am,” says the 52-year-old honestly. Although she loves a challenge and is excited to take up her new position, Máire admits that she’s also nervous. “It’s a huge responsibility,” she emphasises. “The farmer/business owner needs to feel that he or she can pick up the phone and talk to someone who lives locally, understands their industry and can sort them out.”
Máire’s approach will be hands-on. “If someone comes to me for a loan, I’d love to go out to meet them and see their business and how their operation runs in order to get an understanding of their needs.”
Recently, the future bank manager was feeding calves every morning before coming into the office. She also milks the cows every Saturday and Sunday. “I think that if you enjoy what you do…if your work is your farm and that’s also your passion, then your life and your work are very closely interlinked,” she says. She’s hoping to put a new parlour into the farm in Innishannon this year. “For me it’s about improving quality and the welfare of the farmer and the animal through technology and modernisation.”
Máire believes that the biggest challenge for farmers is the isolation of the profession and the difficulty in finding labour. As chairperson of her local IFA branch, in April 2018, after a very difficult spring for farmers, she arranged a talk on mental health, which was very well attended. “I was surprised by how many people put up their hand and said they did find it very lonely and difficult to get up in the morning knowing how much there was to be done and with only one person to do it.
“I’m meeting people very day who don’t have a natural successor so we will end up with a lot of change in rural Ireland. Therefore I think we need to support farmers and business owners to maintain their business.”
She sees her position at Bank of Ireland as being about community, being local and being a friendly face that’s recognised by local farmers and businesses.
“I know what it’s like to calve a cow in the snow, to give a cow a bottle because she has milk fever; I know what it’s like to have your priority being to keep the animal alive and look after it. It’s about the welfare of the animal and the welfare of the farmer – the money is secondary.”
She’s looking forward to being involved in the launch of Bank of Ireland’s Begin Together fund – a fund of €500k in 2020 to support local clubs and organisations.
Máire stresses the need for the farming industry to protect Ireland’s green reputation and worldwide recognition for producing a welfare-driven and quality product, above anything else.
“Farmers are custodians of the land and we have a very valuable reputation worldwide as having green nutritious grass-based dairy and meat products.”
Máire was involved in the set up of the West Cork Farm Tours, which sells the farm experience in West Cork. “If we can get our tourists to taste our product, as part of their holiday, they’ll want it when they go home. There is so much opportunity once there is joined up thinking,” she explains.
She stresses that “just one bad story, especially in this age of social media, could take the shoes off the industry, which is so wrong, as the majority of farmers would put their own lives on the line to save their animals.”
The climate change issue and derogation is a train that’s coming fast down the track. “We’re going to have to have slurry storage for the closed period, adequate housing for our calves,” says Máire. “This is an opportunity for the bank but it’s also an opportunity for the farmer. Working together we can achieve market share and get good value loans out there. In the same breath, the farmer will get value for money, a loan that’s affordable and is designed to suit their system.”
Máire explains that there are SBCI loan schemes available at Bank of Ireland that have been earmarked for the farming industry. These offer a very low rate. “Our number one priority is to make sure that you can afford that loan,” she says.
“We’ve seen huge expansion in the industry. There are lots of opportunities for sustainable farming, so I’m very optimistic for the industry.”
Máire is married to Brian and they have three children, two in college and one in fifth year at Hamilton High School in Bandon.
Where does she see herself in ten years time? “I’d like to drive on this job for the next eight years and then I’d like to go out to grass when I turn 60,” she says smiling.
More seriously, she answers, “I believe in living for today.”