By Ed West on Thursday, 5 August 2010
Kieran Prior and I have been speaking for almost an hour when he points out something quite unusual: he can remember our entire conversation as well as the Dictaphone placed before us in the Barbican Centre’s mezzanine coffee shop.
“Everything we’ve said?” I ask.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he replies.
Prior has an IQ of 234, although it was once measured as 238 on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale at university. This was so high that they asked him to retake the test a couple of times.
And although, now aged 30, he’s lost four points (“We all decline,” he says ruefully) this still puts him in the top one per cent of the top one per cent.
It is this unusual intelligence that landed him a job at Goldman Sachs, the leading investment bank, in 2000. In the decade he worked in the City, an era of unprecedented profit-making in the financial services that mankind may not ever see again, he made staggering amounts of money for Sachs, and ran a £25m book of European equities and derivatives.
These are all extraordinary achievements in themselves, but all the more so because Kieran was born with a rare disability akin to cerebral palsy which impairs his motor skills and speech, makes talking sometimes difficult and causes his body to jerk involuntarily. He has never been able to walk.
Raised in Salford by a devout Catholic family whose origins lie in the west of Ireland he says his paternal grandfather was “very clever” although as a farmer from the age of 10 in Connemara, he did not quite have the opportunity to shine.
As a child Kieran depended on others to help him with his wheelchair, to pick him up and carry him around. After being picked up from his special needs primary school, he would go and watch his elder brother play football with neighbourhood kids. On one occasion everyone got so excited that nobody noticed that Kieran was missing, and the boys realised they had left him on the sidelines of the pitch. He was there for over an hour, and his father recalls seeing him sitting in the middle of the field in his chair, all alone and surrounded by growing darkness, but not crying.
Terry Prior recalls: “I asked him why he hadn’t called out to anyone and he said he knew someone would come for him
Everything changed at the age of eight, when he received his first wheelchair. How did it change his life?
“It gave me my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had it otherwise.”
Growing up with disabled friends gives one a different perspective on life and death. In his last year of primary school four of his classmates died suddenly, including twin boys who he had been friends with. Although Kieran was not at risk – his classmates had degenerative muscular dystrophy – he feared that he would never grow up. And so he worked with the sort of drive that only someone aware of their own mortality can muster.
He went to a normal secondary school, his parents having to make him the first for their Local Educational Authority, and he shone there.
But he became aware just how much his parents were sacrificing for him. His father, a butcher, had taken a second job as a baggage handler at Manchester Airport and his mother gave up her job as a bookkeeper to care for him from birth.
He realised that, unless he were to make enough money to look after himself, his family would spend their every minute and every penny doing so. And so, after reading economics at Manchester University, he was recruited by the famous investment bank, having twice taken trains to London without telling his parents, who would have been worried sick.
Was he the first disabled person in this line of work? The first disabled-born, he believes, although people have kept their jobs after being paralysed.
The City is a hard place to work. It is mentally and physically exhausting, and Kieran used to arrive at the office at 6.30am and leave at 8pm. Those hours, and the stress involved in handling such large sums of money, placed enormous strains on his health, as they do even on that of the healthiest traders.
“My boss made a point of not treating me differently,” he says. He pauses, and I expect him to commend this approach, but he then says, deadpan: “Which in hindsight was a bit ludicrous, because obviously I couldn’t do that. I just put my hand up and said: ‘You’re going to have a death on your hands’.”
Kieran calls the City a “hard environment”, one that is “a mixture of A-type aggressives who are able to separate life, who inside the office do the job and do what they feel they need to, but outside the office are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
One of his best friends at Goldman Sachs was John Yeatts, a young American with whom he struck up a close friendship. Kieran, although only a year older, took the 22-year-old under his wing. Kieran would take him out for drinks and dispense advice, while John would help picks things up when his friend accidentally knocked something over or run off to get a straw for his coffee.
It was Yeatts who showed him how much of an effect he could have on people, for he inspired the American to return to North Carolina and attend medical school.
In an email to his friend Yeatts, now married and a doctor, wrote: “Our time together at Goldman was the essential inspiration and catalyst for my decision to go into medicine. In my small attempts at helping you, you helped me more than I could imagine. I wouldn’t be doing this without you.”
Kieran seems genuinely touched when I mention his friend’s name. “He’s doing really, really well,” Kieran says now. “I’m as pleased as I could be with the way it turned out. That was the best thing that came out of my time in Goldman Sachs.”
Among the other friends he made is Mark Borland, a former fund manager who has now joined up with Kieran to launch a new project. When we meet, at the Barbican Centre, Mark comes along. He worked 17 years in the City, but since 2003 has worked for charities, first with Whizz-Kidz, a charity that offered mobility to children.
“I used to work in the City and I believe capitalism works but I think it could work better,” he says. “I enjoyed my time and made some good friends but I found out a few years ago that I could do more good than just chasing profits and increasing the value of the pension fund.
“I started to work in the charity sector after a friend had a back injury. I like doing a lot of outdoor things, such as cycling and skiing, and I just felt that disabled should have the opportunity to do more. That’s how I got involved. Then I bumped into him [Kieran]. Can’t shake him off.”
The two men laugh.
Goldman Sachs ran a community team, and Mark was bringing in a group of teenagers to learn what Goldman Sachs was about.
“Kieran was there. I didn’t know they had a trader in a wheelchair, and we got in touch a bit, and then a year later he almost ran me over on my bike.”
Together they established the Priority Trust and have funded mobility equipment for 32 disabled children between two and 18. The children should get about five year’s use from this equipment. Officially 70,000 children in Britain need mobility equipment to give them independence, although Mark estimates that the number is nearer 100,000. Whether a child gets help is, as with most things in life, a bit of a postcode lottery.
That, essentially, is why Kieran is speaking to me, putting his head above the parapet despite his natural shyness. In an article a couple of years ago, the first about Kieran, he mentioned he put himself forward quite reluctantly.
“Every movement needs a focus,” he says. “If I can help people become figureheads, or be one, that can only be a good thing. I do not want it to look like I’m here to promote myself, but one person’s story can do so much more than just facts.”
That’s also why they signed up Daniel Day-Lewis a patron, who played the disabled artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot. That film made a huge impression on the general public and did more for awareness of disabilities than a thousand dry statistical surveys. Kieran is slightly sceptical about presenting himself, as someone with a high IQ, as the face of disability.
He calls this the “Hawking effect”, a comforting idea that “disabled people have an ability other people don’t see” – they might not be able to walk, but at least they can get quantum physics. The vast majority don’t. They’re no smarter or stupider than everyone else, they just can’t walk or move as well. Kieran’s intelligence, incidentally, is peculiar: he doesn’t have especially strong reading skills. “I don’t think I’ve ever read a book cover to cover in my life.”
Kieran left Goldman Sachs in April and is now setting up an ethically based fund with a team of like-minded people.
“I’m hoping to do a new type of ethical fund where you’re not looking to give money to the fund to feel good, you’re looking for performance by doing the right thing. I’m hoping to be acting as adviser.”
Is the City immoral? I ask him. “I’m not sure morality is the right word,” he replies. “Is being a lawyer immoral, or a doctor in America, considering what they charge?
“The media always vilifies people in the world, and they choose bankers. I personally believe there is very little morally wrong with capitalism apart from the fact that there are binary outcomes – ie for every winner you have to have a loser. Unfortunately I don’t believe there is a better system we can use.”
In fact, the City is quite a religious place, says Kieran. “Most of the people I met were quite religious, whether Jewish or Catholic.”
He looks surprised at my surprise. “Why are you shocked that religion and working in the City can’t go hand in hand? I think people find balance in their life through what they may or may not do.”
Perhaps this is why he does not have the sense of guilt that drives many bankers towards religion. Many feel bad they didn’t do something more altruistic, he says. “In my case I didn’t feel that because I knew the realities of life. I knew from the early age of 13. Otherwise I would have been at home, depending on parents, with no carer in an underfunded system and an ageing wheelchair.”
It’s a heartbreaking prospect which he avoided, but others do not have his unique gifts. That’s why, good Catholic Salford boy that he is, he’s trying to help those less fortunate than himself.
Kieran and Mark are now working with a group of disabled young people to develop the Priority Blog into a voice for disabled ambition, focused on showing and telling what disabled people can achieve and sharing this with a wider audience. For more information, visit Prioritytrust.org