Mutual responsibility for current and future generations

Robin Fieth, BSA CEO, talks about how leaders steward mutuals and how they can help their members now. First published in Society Matters magazine.

Robin Fieth, BSA CEO, talks about how leaders steward mutuals and how they can help their members now. First published in the winter edition of Society Matters magazine.

We have been talking about the resilience of the building society and mutual model for so long now, as we have faced into crisis after crisis since 2008. The hiatus in the swap markets caused by September’s maximum impact “mini-budget” and the resultant turmoil in the mortgage market is just the latest example. And with rampant inflation (at least by recent standards here in the UK), sky high energy prices and the prospect of a protracted recession, the outlook is not looking any less challenging, despite the latest government’s proper focus on restoring trust and stability.

Amid all of that, the sun made a rare appearance on Remembrance Sunday in our small local town as crowds gathered around the war memorial to pay renewed tribute to the 64 young men (including five from the same family) from a community of no more than 3,000 who gave their lives for our freedom in the two world wars of the last century. I am sure many of us were thinking too about the huge sacrifices being made by the people of Ukraine today, defending their country and, ultimately, our freedom.

Making the most of the sunshine later the same day with a ride through some of the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside, I got wondering what those 64 young men would have made of the world we live in today and whether, in the words of the Remembrance service, we are worthy of the sacrifice they made?

What has that got to do with the themes covered in this edition of Society Matters and how we face into the challenges that UK building societies and credit unions will have to deal with in the coming weeks, months and years? In a sense it’s the ultimate stewardship question. We are clear that the responsibility of mutual boards and executive teams is to pass their businesses on to future generations in a better state than they inherited them. We also talk about that responsibility for the endowment we inherited from previous generations. Perhaps the laying down of life for our freedom is the ultimate endowment and the fundamental point of our stewardship responsibility.

This may all sound a bit evangelical. It is. Evangelical about continually making the case for financial mutuals being at the heart of the future of UK financial services. Evangelical about mutuals as purpose driven businesses meeting the needs of their members and communities now and into the future.

So in the immediate term, doing all that we can to help our members though the tough months ahead, whether they are struggling to pay their mortgages or worried about their lack of savings. We have all been saying to borrowers for a number of years that, if they are worried about paying their mortgages, they should contact their lenders early, before they start missing payments. Making that call requires real courage. Responding quickly (no hour long waits with remote voices telling you how important your call is to us) is not enough. Thanking them for their call and saying goodbye is absolutely not sufficient. Our response must be compassionate, helpful and above all encouraging – we want those members going away knowing they have done the right thing, and unafraid to continue the conversation. From the data, we probably also know that a member who is concerned about their mortgage, is also likely to have other financial concerns, be that Council Tax or utility arrears, credit card debts, overdrafts or other loans. If our members need more general debt advice, how easy can we make it for them to access the support given by Step Change or National Debtline for example. Some of the great case studies I have come across involve the building society making an instant referral and booking the first appointment for them.

By all accounts, the first UK Savings week in September was a great success and we have laid a sound foundation for that campaign to grow substantially in the years to come. Right now, though, we have the problem that over a quarter of households have no savings to fall back on. In terms of societal purpose, we need to do all we can to encourage the savings habit among that large group, a fair proportion of whom will be able to put some funds aside, even in the current climate.

I am intrinsically attracted by the idea of workplace savings through payroll deduction, but the evidence to date suggests that getting cut-through at any scale outside the credit union sector is proving really difficult. Is it that employers just don’t get why it is in their interests? Is it that they are too busy fire-fighting to consider the positive impacts of financial well-being on employee mental health and productivity? Are we making it too complicated? Too difficult to implement? Or are we still so awash with liquidity that the prospect of hundreds or thousands of small value regular savings accounts is just seen as commercially unviable? The numbers have to add up, but are we being driven too much by the numbers and not enough by our purpose? What are we missing? Do we need government support? And if so what does that looks like?

And what of the longer term? With so much on the immediate board agenda, how do we keep our heads raised towards the more distant horizon? Many societies are well advanced with their systems transformation programmes. Many are rightly proud of their new branch and head office environments. And of their increasingly integrated community programmes. What of the Net Zero transition, where we are still critically waiting on the government to make some big decisions, such as the future of the natural gas grid? What of future generations of talented and diverse teams? And future generations of members in a world where the digital future looks increasingly likely to be driven by machine learning or even genuine artificial intelligence?

At a recent BSA team offsite session, one of our contributors quoted Google’s futurologist, Ray Kurzweil: “never in human history has the pace of change been so fast, and never will it be this slow again.” So as we turn the page towards another new year, let’s also reflect on the words of Apollo 13 astronaut, Jim Lovell, that to be real leaders, we need to be the people who make our futures happen, not sit back and regret the futures others might make for us.