By Padraic Halpin and Laura Noonan
DUBLIN (Reuters) - In March 2011 Bank of Ireland had four months to find 4.2 billion euros or the government would seize control. The country's central bank was issued powers to fire senior financiers. The outlook seemed bleak for Richie Boucher.
While analysts and commentators sharpened their knives, Boucher - the bank's burly chief executive, described by one MP as "a hard bastard with a hide like a rhino" - started setting up meetings.
One was with Bill McMorrow, head of US real estate investment firm Kennedy Wilson. As he went to talk to Boucher, Ireland was still reeling from its capitulation to an international bailout, bond yields were rising and bank depositors fleeing.
Nonetheless, Boucher coolly suggested McMorrow gather some friends and invest 1.1 billion euros ($1.5 billion).
"Within half an hour, I had a big conviction that he had the skills to lead the bank to where it needed to go," recalls McMorrow, who discreetly contacted billionaire investors Prem Watsa and Wilbur Ross to join him in accepting Boucher's deal.
Bank of Ireland had its investment thanks to the billionaire investors' input and their participation in a rights issue, that ran alongside a debt-for-equity swap. The state's stake fell to 15 percent from 36 percent and Boucher's bank gained the status of being the only Irish lender to stay out of state control.
Now, thanks to Zambian-born Boucher, Bank of Ireland is on the verge of becoming the first in the country to return fully to private hands after repaying 1.9 billion euros to the state earlier this month ahead of the government's exit from the EU/IMF bailout program on Sunday.
"He's one of those really great leaders," McMorrow told Reuters. "There are only a handful of bank CEOs in the world that could have pulled off what he did... I don't think the longevity of his employment ever crossed his mind."
Despite his feat, 55 year-old Boucher still attracts more brickbats than bouquets. Along the road to making Bank of Ireland the country's "least-worst bank" - as he puts it - its CEO has been mauled in parliament, pilloried by a TV sketch show and had an egg flung at him by an irate shareholder.
Schooled in Zimbabwe before moving to Ireland in his late teens, father-of-two and rugby fanatic Boucher keeps a low profile. He is rarely seen on the conference circuit and is uncomfortable in the media spotlight.
This matter-of-fact manner has won him few friends in parliament however: Boucher's rehearsed, terse answers before a finance committee last year drew heckles and derision from MPs and accusations that he was treating the process with contempt.
One of Ireland's top satirical TV shows promptly christened him "Richie Banker".
"It's like he's doing us a favor instead of us having the right to question him as CEO of a bank which wouldn't be in existence if it wasn't for Irish taxpayers," said Pearse Doherty, a senior member of the finance committee from the Sinn Fein opposition party.
"He has been nothing but disrespectful to the committee which in turn is showing disrespect to the Irish people."
Colleagues say Boucher's abrasiveness stems from determination and clarity of vision and that he does himself a disservice in the way he comes across.
"Richie has got a wonderful sense of humor," said Prem Watsa, head of Canadian investment firm Fairfax Financial who invested in BoI alongside McMorrow.
"He's in the press very often... and he has to be very statesman-like. Behind it is a man with a great sense of humor and a great loyalty to the Bank of Ireland."
His resilience is also highly respected. While other banking bosses quit during the crisis to retire on large pensions, Boucher has held on to the top job amid intense scrutiny and his performance has won grudging respect.
The central bank's intensive review of the directors that made it through the crisis - less than a handful - gave Boucher the all clear last year. Finance Minister Michael Noonan, who in April 2011 had threatened to fire any survivors, said earlier this year that it was difficult to argue that Bank of Ireland were not doing a good job.
McMorrow added that of all his friends working "at very high levels", he's never seen anyone work as hard as Boucher, who, when asked in an interview to name his favorite film, had to apologize and admit he hadn't seen one in a long, long time.
That may be about to change. Boucher plans to take a Christmas holiday this month for the first time since becoming chief executive in 2009. As the critics subside, it would appear that both the bank and Boucher have survived.
"If you didn't have Richie Boucher there, I know we, our consortium, would not have been there," Watsa told Reuters. "Richie Boucher, in my mind is the reason that Bank of Ireland is a free standing bank."
(Editing by Sophie Walker)