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Illustration: Chris Burke for the National
Illustration: Chris Burke for the National

Carrying a big stick for HSBC

Declan Hegarty is a keen player of hurling and a gifted talker, as one might expect of a boy from Blarney.

Declan Hegarty is a keen player of hurling and a gifted talker, as one might expect of a boy from Blarney. But even with St Patrick's Day nearing, the banker will not take his eye off the ball when it comes to creating the trust he sees as key to business. Seamus Buckley writes Declan Hegarty lifts a sizeable volume from the coffee table in his Airport Road office and holds it up. "You only have to look at that and you realise that this is a good place to do business," he says.

The book details project developments, current and future, for the emirate of Abu Dhabi. "They [Abu Dhabi's business leaders] have a clear vision, they know exactly where they are going and we at HSBC can work with that." Mr Hegarty, the managing director and head of business at HSBC Abu Dhabi, has come along way in his relatively short career. At 37 years of age, after 12 years in the Middle East, he has risen through the ranks of the world's largest bank to become its frontman in the capital.

Mr Hegarty grew up in the village of Blarney, famed for its Blarney Stone, on the outskirts of Cork City, Ireland. He finished his secondary schooling at St Finbarr's Farranferris, an acclaimed hurling nursery in the north side of Cork City. It was there that he developed his passion for the sport, which resembles hockey and is Ireland's national game. From Farranferris it was a natural progression to University College Cork where he took a degree in commerce, majoring in accountancy and economics.

Like many Irishmen before him, Mr Hegarty got his break in London, beginning his banking career in 1994 with the bank Samuel Montagu, an acquisition of Midland Bank which in turn was bought by HSBC in 1992. After four years of learning the trade in London, he was sent on a two-year secondment to Dubai in 1998. He enjoyed the work and lifestyle so much he has been in the region ever since. "When I came here oil was a mere US$9 a barrel but you could already see the potential for development," Mr Hegarty says.

As the price of oil steadily rose and regional governments directed the increased revenues into a variety of developments, he began to work on the financing of these projects. He liked the work and enjoyed seeing the projects come to fruition. One such project was the financing of Oman LNG. The project was financed in the early 1990s and refinanced in 2001. Oman LNG was such a success that it was at one point contributing almost 10 per cent of Oman's GDP.

Before returning to Dubai and then taking up his appointment in Abu Dhabi, Mr Hegarty had a three-year stint in Saudi Arabia with HSBC's constituent, which was then known as the Saudi British Bank and is now called SABB, as part of the team that went on to set up HSBC Saudi Arabia, a new investment banking joint venture in the kingdom. He found a similar theme to conducting business in both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. "What you find is that, with the vast majority of customers, their word is their bond. If they say they are going to do something, then they deliver on it."

A big part of Mr Hegarty's brief as the head of HSBC in the capital is dealing with the financing needs of Abu Dhabi's conglomerates. "The leadership of the government companies is very strong, very well-educated and would stand up with the best you would find anywhere in the world," he says. In its earlier incarnation as The British Bank of the Middle East, HSBC pioneered banking in the region, a tradition of which Mr Hegarty is well aware. "The bank was one of the first on the ground in the Emirates," he says. "We have a long tradition of working with the ruling families and the merchant families, so the trust is there."

Asked if there was a memorable project for which he worked on financing, Mr Hegarty replies without hesitation: "It would have to be Shuweihat International Power Company's Independent Water and Power Plant (IWPP) for Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA), where we joined the financing in late 2001 after September 11, when support was important. "We went on after that deal to lead the financing on Umm al Nar IWPP for ADWEA and International Power, and then became ADWEA adviser on future projects; a role we have to this day."

And the big project of the hour? "We are in the market with a financing for the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) to refinance some acquisitions they made last year," Mr Hegarty says. With an investment portfolio of more than US$14 billion (Dh51.41bn) and major stakes in 14 world-leading hydrocarbons companies, IPIC is clearly a significant customer for HSBC. As well as being a prominent member of the UAE's Irish business community, Mr Hegarty is also a member of the recently launched Global Irish Network, a group of influential Irish people worldwide from a variety of disciplines who advise the Irish government on matters relevant to their expertise.

Mr Hegarty welcomes the presence of the new Irish embassy in Abu Dhabi and looks forward to liaising with fellow Corkman and the first Irish ambassador to the UAE, Ciaran Madden. Previously, the Irish embassy in Riyadh catered for Irish citizens living across the Gulf. But it had long been acknowledged that because of the increasing number of Irish living in the UAE and the growing business links between the two countries, an Irish diplomatic presence was called for and it arrived last year.

The UAE reciprocated by establishing an embassy in Dublin. Mr Hegarty says it is interesting to see the interaction between new arrivals to the UAE from Ireland and the residents who have been here for 20 or 30 years, and how the veterans take time to advise the newcomers on adjusting to the life. It is all part of the strong sense of community that the Irish take abroad with them. Although Mr Hegarty has been working abroad for 16 years, he retains a keen sense of Irishness and more than a hint of the Cork brogue. "I was very involved with the Dubai Celts [Gaelic football and hurling club] during my time in Dubai. Now it will be interesting to be attached to Na Fianna here in Abu Dhabi."

Asked whether he preferred hurling or football, he replies with a hearty laugh: "As an old teacher of mine used to say in Farranferris, football is for hurlers who can't see well. Hurling is more my thing. I played for the Dubai Celts for many years. Coming from Blarney, you know, it is more of a hurling village." He also likes golf but admits his game needs a bit of fine-tuning. That is one of his sporting priorities for the coming year, but work takes precedence and at the moment he is a very busy man. As well as being head of global banking, he is also head of retail and commercial banking for HSBC in Abu Dhabi, overseeing operations from his first floor office in the bank's busy Airport Road branch.

And how does he find living in Abu Dhabi compared with Dubai and Riyadh, with his wife Stephanie and two sons? "Abu Dhabi is not exactly new to me because when I was based in Dubai, Stephanie was based in Al Ain and then Abu Dhabi when we met, so I was down here quite a bit. We enjoy it here. There is a strong sense of community. It reminds me of Dubai when I first moved there in the late '90s." Stephanie hails from County Down and the family likes to get home to Ireland when possible. The trip is made easier by Etihad's direct flight to Dublin, which he calls "a halfway house" between Cork and Down.

Kissing the Blarney Stone to be granted great powers of communication is one of the more popular legends associated with Ireland. Mr Hegarty kissed the Blarney Stone in his words "a few times" and it seems to have worked its magic. But the word that popped up frequently when we touched on the world of high finance was "trust". It is a small word but big on meaning in banking circles in the region.

Mr Hegarty trusts the Emirati business leadership because he has seen that they deliver on their word. After meeting with HSBC's frontman in Abu Dhabi, you are left with a sense that the trust is mutual. @Email:sbuckley@thenational.ae

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