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Guest blog: Reflections on the US Tour

Guest article by Rebecca Newman, Chief Operating Officer, Suffolk Building Society. This article appeared in the Autumn edition of Society Matters magazine.

Guest article by Rebecca Newman, Chief Operating Officer, Suffolk Building Society. This article appeared in the Autumn edition of Society Matters magazine and the US tour took place in June 2022.

We know that mutuals experience differences and similarities alike across the US and UK markets, but what better way to gain an in-depth insight than visiting for yourself.

I was pleased to be invited to attend the US tour to Boston, Massachusetts, in conjunction with K & L Gates, organised by the Building Societies Association to encourage the examination of external influences and to achieve a wider perspective of mutuals across the globe.

I was invited to attend, as COO of Suffolk Building Society, to discuss mutuals in the UK and Suffolk Building Society in particular. I was joined by Robin Fieth, Chief Executive of the BSA, Caroline Domanski, CEO of No1
Copperpot Credit Union, and Steven Phillips, Community Bank Programme Director at Monmouthshire Building Society.
 
Whilst in Boston, we sought to capture the key differences and similarities faced by mutuals in our different countries. Time was spent visiting other credit unions and community banks, mostly in meetings with experienced CEOs and regulators.
 
The initial round the table talk instantly revealed strikingly familiar challenges. For example, we’re all learning how to face into evolving customer behaviour, wants and needs, and how best to define mutuality and local community in a way that engages our members.
 
Following the last few challenging years and various world events, such as the pandemic, we are all facing issues related to the cost of living and inflation. In an uncertain world, we need to ensure the dependability that our members seek from us. It is a mutual concern that we all continue to deliver this key attribute.
 
Attracting and retaining talent is another big challenge faced by most modern mutuals, and in fact almost any company across the US and UK. Globally, working from home and hybrid working opportunities have influenced a movement often referred to as the ‘great resignation’ and, although mutuals have not yet been massively
affected by this, we are not immune. Although the competitor pool inevitably broadens, we must ensure that our time is invested in qualities that will positively impact our staff, and our members. At Suffolk Building Society, our ESG programme plays a vital role in this, and is also important to our staff.
 
In conversation, it became apparent to me that the US firms appeared willing to trial technological advances: drive-through ATMs are a standard customer offering and a number of organisations are starting to trial interactive tellers. In fact, ‘ the latest’ technology appeared to be a fundamental part of their business plan,
with US personnel strongly believing that they would lose members to more technologically advanced competitors if they did not ‘keep up’.
 
In the US, merger and consolidation within the sector is happening all the time! This phenomenon is not so common in the UK and this appears to be the model that the US is working towards. The US governance
structure has its differences too, with contrasting regulatory governance oversight.
 
So how can we learn from each other? Although there are similar challenges faced in both the US and the UK, it’s apparent that despite challenges such as cost and implementation, a modern mutual with advanced technology could be vital in retaining both members and employees. This is true across both countries, and from what I saw we can definitely learn something from the US when it comes to technological advances.