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Obituary: Sean Boylan - It’s all in the detail

By Mark Baker
10 Jun 2011

Imagine you wanted to know something about top flight English football. Perhaps the name of every team’s home ground? Number of away wins? Captains since the 1960s?

But what about something closer to home? The third biggest European syndicated loan of the last 10 years? Pricing on some obscure revolver from 1994? Or maybe you’re at the end of an exhausting four-day negotiation with a client, and you need to remind yourself of a clause thrashed out on day one?

At times like this, you’d want a go-to man. And whether it was football or loans, there were few better than Sean Boylan, loans execution head at Barclays and then, for the last 11 years, at BNP Paribas.

Detail was Boylan’s thing. And no wonder: his early days as a branch banker at Barclays in Hull, the town of his birth, taught him its importance. Counting coins, bundling up notes, lending money — it all needed careful execution, careful recording.

Of course, it wasn’t the grubby world of loans back then. Advances were what men like Boylan issued, the term capturing more neatly the expectation of repayment on schedule, when the investment had come good.

He rose through the regional ranks at Barclays, the bank he joined in 1972. He moved to the central advances division in London in the late 1970s, in time to work in the tricky business of corporate recoveries at a painful period of the UK’s economic history.

His landmark move was as one of the founding members of the Barclays loans syndication team in 1984 — a franchise that was set to dominate the landscape for years. That meant he was there in the days of intense innovation in the loans business, with the development of structures such as note issuance facilities and tender panels. He then headed distribution and execution at the bank from 1989 until 1998, before moving to focus on the transaction management side.

When he left Barclays after 29 years, he was snapped up by BNP Paribas, and he poured his efforts into competing with the UK firm and others. That BNPP is now among the top loans banks in the world is a testament to his passion.

Almost as passionate was his love of Hull’s football team, for so long languishing in the lower leagues before promotion to the Premiership in 2008. He could barely suppress his excitement. For the next two seasons, colleagues at BNPP knew not to attempt to corner the bank’s box at Arsenal when Hull was visiting: Boylan would be there. And no one celebrated more than him on that day in September 2008, when Hull beat the Gunners at home.

An unassuming man despite his imposing physical presence, image mattered little to him. Worrying about it would mean less time to think about loans. But when he made his point, quietly, colleagues would listen. Less was more with Boylan. Execution was the perfect role for him, enabling those running more glamorous areas like origination and distribution to succeed.

He didn’t parade his knowledge, but he knew when to use it. Woe betide the careless data operative (or journalist) who might have overlooked a structural quirk, failing to recognise precisely the role of first Barclays and then BNP Paribas.

Because it wasn’t just those league tables that featured the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and his beloved Hull City that Boylan studied. Every syndicated loans table was scrutinised, before the inevitable phone call to a hapless compiler explaining the error of their ways. Resistance was futile.

It wasn’t that he liked causing trouble. But he wanted things to be right. When he read, it was more likely to be non-fiction than anything else — facts were what he wanted. And he had a passionate, almost evangelical, zeal for them.

For someone who liked spreading the word, his first telephone headset was a joy. Now it was even easier for him to spend time talking about loans to colleagues, lawyers and other contacts — even journalists. It was no coincidence that he often found himself as the one taking calls from novice reporters. The press knew he could not resist the temptation of bringing another into the fold.

If he saw himself as a sage, he also saw the responsibility that this carried with it. And so he trained them carefully, just as he did the lawyers who worked on his deals.

He accepted nothing at face value, would let nothing pass without examination. It was much the same when, in 2004, he was diagnosed with the cancer that he would carry for seven years — a ghastly rare form of myeloma that would give him a deceptive period of remission allowing him to return to BNPP in July 2007. Instead of data providers, it was the doctors at King’s College Hospital that he now interrogated. Had this new treatment been considered? Had that development been properly investigated?

And with colleagues too, he showed an indomitable spirit. With research behind him, he would talk of the trial drug just around the corner. This was no denial, said colleagues, just a bloody good fight.

His work helped him with that fight. When he finally had to take a step back from his day job at the end of 2009, there was no question of him giving up his phone and BlackBerry. How else could he nudge colleagues about market developments? An email here and there to keep them on their toes — and to give his wife and three children some precious moments of relief as he kept himself busy.

In the times when his work couldn’t distract him, he had his faith to turn to. He was no bible-basher — many colleagues were unaware of this side to him — but now it helped him to be philosophical about his condition.

He was treasurer at St John the Baptist church in the Sussex village of Tidebrook where he had settled with his family about 16 years ago. It wasn’t just his financial nous that he brought to bear. A keen pianist, he could regularly be found playing the organ at Sunday services.

The piano and organ could only go so far, of course. It was the showtunes of the big West End musicals that he loved. Had he seen Phantom more often than Les Mis? No one could be quite sure. And perhaps, just for once, even he wasn’t counting.

Mark Baker

Sean Boylan’s funeral will be held at 11:00 on June 14, at the church of St John the Baptist, Tidebrook, East Sussex

By Mark Baker
10 Jun 2011