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BSA blog: Some unanswered questions

Robin Fieth, BSA CEO, tackles some of the unanswered delegate questions from the Building Societies Conference 2023. This article was first published in Society Matters magazine.

By Robin Fieth, Chief Executive, Building Societies Association. This article was first published in Society Matters magazine.

There never seems to be enough time at the Building Societies Conference to discuss all the delegates' excellent questions.

One of the beauties of having a conference app is that we can capture those questions and reflect on them in the weeks and months after the  Conference itself is all over. From the many questions asked during the opening plenary session this year, four stood out to me as being capable of sparking whole debates in their own right. So perhaps we can treat this article as a starter for ten, and then run each of the questions as an online discussion. Please do contribute to those debates.

1. Avoiding group think is clearly good in some ways, as it means we are not all wrong in the same way. But sometimes the majority view is a good one.  We all believe in votes for women nowadays for example. How can we tell the difference between the two situations?

Here’s a real cracker to start with. We (Society Matters readers and Building Societies Conference delegates) I am sure all do believe in votes for women. Sadly, that is still not a universal  view across the globe. The wider issues of women’s right, education, freedom and safety remain matters of concern in many countries and communities. As do the rights of minorities, migrants and refugees. The  freedoms and privileges we all enjoy are not inalienable rights, but need to be continually nurtured and  safeguarded. 

And that is where the danger of groupthink comes in. A strong voice or a dominant personality can all too easily build a personal following. Friends and colleagues from similar backgrounds, with similar education and life  experiences, tend to see things in similar ways.

Who sees both sides of the story? Who raises the red flag? Who protects us from the complacency that all is  well? This is as true around boardrooms as it is among regulators. And it is one of the reasons why we are so concerned, for example, that the early proposals for regulation of diversity and inclusion in the UK financial  services sector risk creating a narrow, tick-box approach unless very carefully nuanced. I was struck at a recent Women in Finance Charter event by the comments from one of our colleagues from the PLC world. Having  been successful in materially improving the gender diversity of their leadership team, they then realised that what they had actually achieved, was “to recruit the sisters of the brothers we already employed.”

2. What’s the one thing we are not currently talking about as leadership teams across the building society and credit union sector that we really should be?

Would that there were only one! When putting  together the programme for the Building Societies Conference,  we are deliberately looking ahead to some of the themes that we think are likely to be important for building society and credit union boards in the months and years ahead. Some are more closely policy related, such as  our panel discussions both last year and this on the PRA’s Strong and Simple programme; some are more  people oriented (diversity, equity and inclusion; engaging with Gen-Z); some again more technology focused – quantum computing last year, AI this year.

But if there is one overarching theme that has concerned me for at least five years, and I still don’t think is  getting enough board and executive attention, it is how we continue to develop and demonstrate what it really  means to be a member of a mutual organisation in the 21st century. Many will recognise the sentiment that the  mortgage market is already largely disintermediated by the sector and  industry’s reliance on brokers. So who  is your relationship really with? And who do your borrowers think their relationship is really with? What about  savings members now and in the future? If branch becomes internet, becomes platform, become algorithm or  AI driven, where is the member relationship? For me, perhaps the greatest threat to the mutual business model  is that we lose any connection with our members. That should be sparking a far more lively debate and  perhaps causing quite a few sleepless nights.

3. Do you think that building societies and credit unions select the members that we want to serve rather than the ones that need us?

In a world that seems increasingly disillusioned with the “greedonimics” of big corporates, their lack of social  responsibility – be it prioritising shareholder dividends over preventing river pollution or accelerating the transition to sustainable fuels, for example, – I have heard quite a few calls recently from within and around the  sector that this really is our time. The time for truly purpose driven businesses to stand out for their positive contribution to society, while making fair surpluses to invest in the future. And we have seen some great  examples of that in practice in savings rates, branch strategies, Fairer Share payments, mortgage products and commitments to our communities.

Can we and should we do more? Yes! I have argued for a long time that building societies and credit unions  have a real opportunity to help improve household financial resilience and wellbeing by promoting workplace  and other regular savings schemes far more strongly. There are challenges to getting employers and individuals on board; and with opening and maintaining large numbers of small value savings accounts. Let’s overcome these challenges, with government support if necessary, using the second UK Savings Week this September  as a great opportunity.

We have spoken in the past about using our history as the inspiration for our future. Our sector came into being from a few workers putting a few coins into a new savings scheme. They were then able to buy land and  build houses. That is inspirational.

4. How do you make a virtue of mutuality?

And I think that is how we continue to make a virtue of mutuality today – asking serious questions around all of  our board tables about how we can maximise our positive impact on our members and communities by  teaching out to those who most need to save. And what more we can do to help people fulfil their dreams of  home ownership – from firsttime buyers, to movers-up, to self-builders, to down sizers.

There are always some great initiatives across the building society and credit union sector. Let’s continue to  innovate; to think and act differently, to put members and future members genuinely at the heart of all our  businesses, and play our part in building a better society today as our founders set out to do in 1775 – nearly a quarter of a millennium ago.

Join the debate

How would you like to move forward to have these debates – contact robin.fieth@bsa.org.uk or on LinkedIn

  

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