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Nick Leeson: I sat my sons down this week to pass on the hard lessons I have learned

In an exclusive piece for TheJournal.ie, the former ‘rogue’ trader writes of his panic and embarrassment on this week 20 years ago as he collapsed a 232-year-old bank.

nickleeson Nick Leeson on his arrival from Germany in Singapore in 1995; on the day of his release from jail in 1999; this week. Source: Press Association/AP images

THE 23 February 1995 and the ensuing days are not ones that I am likely to forget. Not least because the 25 February marks the date of my birthday but, by some strange twist of fate, these are the same days that mark the collapse of Barings bank.

So in my world, my birthday is always inextricably linked with the most embarrassing period of my life. It’s a tough one: Do you celebrate, commiserate or lower your head in shame and hide away?

The fact is, it’s been 20 years now since the judge handed down my sentence. I don’t believe that there is a minimum length of remorse that I was told to serve.

However, life moves on and it’s important that we all remember that.

On the 23 February 1995, I left Singapore for the last time. Finally, I’d been asked an intelligent question about the illegal trading position that I was holding on the Singaporean International Money Exchange and there was no longer any way to continue the deception.

My number was metaphorically and literally up.

Planes, trains and automobiles comes to mind. I needed the quickest route out of Singapore.

Paranoia was my constant companion; everyone was looking at me. As I approached the immigration desk, it seemed that my passport grew to twice the size of everyone else’s and that every conversation in the departure lounge concerned me. Every nod of the head was directed at me and there was no way out.

Somehow, I managed to stumble aboard the plane and start – what for this period of my life – was the beginning of the end. My simple apology note when I hit mainland in Malaysia escalated the problem that the bank was facing.

Early on the morning of 24 February, the Barings’ desks on the trading floor were vacant. The more astute vultures on the trading floor were already collecting memorabilia. By the close of business, Barings had informed the Bank of England of its insolvency and the message was conveyed to parliament.

The weekend of 25 and 26 February 1995 saw intense discussions taking place in the City of London. Was there a way to rescue Barings for the second time in its history or were the losses too big to quantify, or more importantly, to accurately calculate?

Unfortunately, the latter was the case and on the evening of 26 February, all 232 years of history of Barings bank was placed into administration. In the early morning of 2 March, I was arrested leaving a flight at Frankfurt airport and handed over to the border police.

It is impossible to distance myself from the embarrassment that still is the over­riding memory of that period. I wanted to be successful but will always be remembered for my biggest failure.

That still rankles to this day but whilst it was a livid open wound in the beginning, as you read and heard things about yourself, it does become easier to live with.

No longer do the words disgraced banker, fraud, criminal feel like fingers digging deeper into that open laceration, they simply brush off the scar tissue that now remains.

As much as that period serves to remind the financial world of how badly things can go wrong, it also serves as a reminder that you can recover and move on. I suppose that has been the most empowering part of my journey; at least to me. Prison was quickly followed by divorce and the onset of cancer, chemotherapy and a very bleak outlook.

Somehow though, you garner the strength to overcome. I firmly believe that it is innate within all of us and that we are only ever confronted by problems that we are able to work through.

I sat down with my two sons earlier this week to discuss in more detail than they’ve previously heard about the collapse of the bank and the messages that I would like them to take from my experiences.

I was never a great communicator but thankfully I have had to become one through the circumstances that I have had to face. It’s not always easy and I started by keeping a diary. Confronting my thoughts and problems on paper was an easier way to start.

The lessons I gave my sons are all quite simple but I think they need to be regularly enforced.

  • All action has consequence. Before you take any action, make sure that you are aware of the consequences and properly appraise them. It is always important to be responsible and accountable for you actions.
  • There is no mistake/problem that cannot be overcome. I have had to face into the abyss many times but there is always a way to work through your problems. It’s not always readily apparent what that route is, but you have to communicate and explain the problems that are facing you, at work, at home, at school. I explain that I am always there to help and whilst I’ll give advice, I will not judge.
  • Always ask for help and advice. I was surrounded by people that could have helped and steered me in a different direction but I thought I was able to deal with the situation and, as we now know, I wasn’t. Asking for help and advice early in my time in Singapore would have seen a very different outcome.
  • Everyone makes mistakes. Don’t ever be afraid of making mistakes but if you do make a mistake, never hide them. Hiding a problem only ever compounds the issues.
  • There are things in your life you can influence and things in your life that you can’t. Focus on the things that you can influence and don’t let the things that you can’t influence worry you.

Nick Leeson now lives in Barna, Galway.

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