Principality is Wales’s largest building society and the sixth largest building society in the UK. Steve Hughes was appointed CEO in March of this year having had a varied career in senior finance roles across multiple sectors. He was previously CFO of the Lloyds Banking Group General Insurance Business and Group FD of Principality. Here, we gain some insight into how he approached his first 100 days in his new role.
“Do you know it’s the first time in my career I haven’t had a boss,” I commented to one of my colleagues on one of my early branch visits.
The response was immediate: “Oh but you do, you now have 550,000 bosses, our members”.
Less than a week in to my role as CEO of Principality Building Society I developed a real sense of the responsibility of running a mutual business, owned by its members. It was my job alongside the board to ensure that the long term interests of our members were served. I felt humbled, proud and determined to do this to the best of my ability.
I was an experienced CFO but the transition to CEO would be different and I spent time planning my first 100 days and what I wanted to achieve. This centred around visiting all 71 of our branches, spending time in all customer facing areas and meeting with all support functions. I wanted to meet as many members as I could, and planned to speak with nearly all 1,100 colleagues.
I decided to lock my door from the outside and go on tour to truly understand how the business operated and to hear what was important for members and colleagues. I would ask all colleagues the same questions:
• What do you love about Principality and what do you think we are great at?
• What are your greatest frustrations and what do you see as our greatest challenge going forward?
• How would you describe our purpose and strategy?
I was thrilled by the level of engagement, honesty and trust evident in the responses. It was very clear that my colleagues love our business, our brand, our mutual status and the fact we are Welsh. The level of personal service we provide is a true differentiator. Colleagues were honest with me that our technology needed significant investment and that we had an ageing member demographic, which over the medium term needed to be addressed. They described our purpose with passion and articulated our strategy better than any consultancy firm I have worked with.
It was a real lesson for me that no one understands a business better than the loyal colleagues who serve our members and customers on a daily basis. I had learned so much about the business and this would be so valuable in helping me shape our future strategic direction. I saw bank branches closing in every high street I visited. Members told me they want and value personal service. I visited many communities all with different economic and social challenges.
The purpose of mutuals, Principality specifically, is so important when it comes to helping the communities in which we operate to prosper. I think the best way of describing my findings and my learnings is through means of stories that cover a broad series of strategic issues for our sector.
I met a member in our Cwmbran branch who kept his entire life savings with us: “I only trust you with my money” he said, “keep it safe...and a bit more on my savings rate would be nice!”
I had many conversations similar to this that reinforced to me the responsibility that we have towards our members, who trust us to protect their life savings. The trust in the mutual sector is strong and we need to build on that and hold true to our values. Of course we need to be competitive in terms of the products and services we offer, but I was truly amazed at the level of trust between our members and our organisation.
I had a great conversation with a member at our Mold branch in North Wales. I introduced myself to her and she completed her transaction and left the branch only to immediately return. She approached me and with a wry smile said: “I can’t let the opportunity to talk to the CEO go! The service your colleagues provide here is exceptional and I have a simple message for you – don’t shut your branches!” This is a very clear message from a member about the value of personal service and the void being left on the high street with a lot of branch closures.
We have to run our businesses as mutuals effectively and efficiently, it is member money after all, but conversations like this have left me with a real sense and desire to maximise the value from our branch network.
My final story is of a meeting I had with a 19-year-old member in Llandrindod Wells. Whilst we were talking, he took out three passbooks from his inside pocket; one an instant access account, one a regular saver account and the other an ISA account. His goal was to own his own home and he had developed a savings habit and strategy to achieve this. I asked why he was visiting a branch and using passbooks as opposed to an online proposition. He replied: “I like the discipline and control it gives me, if I had a card or an app to access my money I’d be more likely to spend it”. It is clear for me consumers want choice and flexibility and a successful strategy will need to satisfy the demands of all demographics to transact with us as they see fit, not as we dictate.
These are simple stories, but I feel they contain really strong messages in terms of the trust in the mutual sector, the desire for personal service and the need to offer consumers choice: Messages that I’m sure hold true with all mutual organisations.
So now that the tour is over, I’ve had to unlock the door and get on with the job of running the business. As CEO I’m focused on defining purpose and culture (walking the talk is key), shaping our strategy and ensuring the business is organised effectively. My aim is for us to consistently deliver whilst always ensuring strong business performance, and to protect our members’ interests.
My first 100 days taught me a lot. One colleague observed, “It is as if you are seeing the business through a totally different lens”. She was right and my advice to anybody transitioning into senior roles in an organisation is ‘lock your doors and walk the floors’. Get close to the voice of your colleagues, members and customers and see first-hand how your business runs – the benefit in terms of shaping your strategic thinking will be invaluable and will have a long-lasting impact on your leadership approach.
This article was originally published in Society Matters magazine, the BSA's quarterly industry publication. Amend your preferences to receive your free copy.