Guest blog: Overcoming the odds

By Alun Williams, Chief Executive, Swansea Building Society. This article first appears in Society Matters magazine.

By Alun Williams, Chief Executive, Swansea Building Society. This article first appears in Society Matters magazine.

Swansea Building Society’s Chief Executive Officer, Alun Williams, has recently been named the longest currently serving CEO of a building society, following 21 years at the helm of the successful South Wales-based mutual.

This landmark comes at a time that sees the Society hit several other milestones ahead of its centenary year, with increased investment and expansion of its staff, premises, IT infrastructure, online offering and product range. Alun Williams began his tenure as Chief Executive Officer with Swansea Building Society in May 2001, following roles as Director of Banking Business at Bank of Wales, and Head of Securities at Williams & Glyn Bank. At the time of his appointment, he was the youngest CEO in the building society sector, aged 36, and the third CEO at Swansea Building Society within 15 months.

When he first joined the mutual, its assets were only £34 million, and against a backdrop of increased regulation and costs, it was widely predicted that smaller building societies would struggle to succeed independently. However, within eight months of joining, the Society was the fastest growing building society in the UK. It grew by 35% in this first year and gross lending increased by 48%. Fast forward to August 2022 and the building society is more than ten times the size it was then, with total assets in excess of £500 million.

We caught up with Alun to ask him about the challenges he’s faced, the obstacles he’s overcome, and how the sector has developed during his 21 years as CEO of Swansea Building Society.

When you started at Swansea Building Society the odds were not in your favour; how did you cope with that initial challenge?

I still have a copy of the story, written by KPMG, that appeared in multiple local and national newspapers at the time, and named us as a society that wasn’t going to make it. However, only eight months later, KPMG had to change its tune and went from stating that the society was going to fail to recognising we had become the fastest growing building society in the UK.

Failure was never an option for Swansea Building Society, even though it looked like a possibility at the time, the only way for us to go was up. Happily, we’ve continued that trajectory.

How have you continued the momentum?

One of the key things for us was to increase the Society’s geographical footprint and community reach. We have expanded from one premises and 15 staff to four branch offices, plus a head office, and 69 staff— all during a time when much of the rest of the market has seen increased branch closures and reduced staff numbers. We now even have a presence in the border region and cover the whole of South Wales from the English border to the far West of Wales.

We have also continued to help people with financial products and mortgages which are tailored to their specific needs, and we judge each application on its own merit. We treat people as individuals and that is why we believe our face-to-face approach works so well and why opening and not closing branches has been so important to our success.

So, despite all the developments of the modern online world, tradition is still important to Swansea Building Society, is it?

Yes, we make sure we do our utmost to ensure customer’s needs are met. If savers still want to use their passbook, they can; if they want to come into a branch, they can. However, while traditions remain in place within our branches, we continue to evolve and offer more options for both savers and borrowers online.

It’s quite surprising just how important being able to speak to a real person in a branch still is to customers — despite it being a rarity in other areas of life these days. Footfall numbers continue to increase, and more accounts are being opened in our branches daily.

Even during the worst of the Covid pandemic, every branch stayed open every working day. All Covid safe protocols were followed, and staff were rotated to keep everyone as safe as possible, but we did this because we felt it was essential to serve our members’ needs.

What do you think the future holds for Swansea Building Society and the sector as a whole?

From our perspective, we still believe in the importance of the branch, and this is why we are actively looking to open more. We are, however, acutely aware of the importance of technology in people’s lives and that is why we are doing this in parallel with increasing our online options for savings and mortgages. Eventually, we are bound to have members saving with us that will never have set foot in a branch, and don’t plan to, as everything they need is online.

Speaking of the financial sector in general, it looks like there will be less access to cash over the next 10 years. This may ultimately change people’s perceptions of what money is—saving and borrowing— especially with the popularity of online/app-based challenger banks and crypto currencies. I believe regulation will be of increasing importance in this.

Whatever the future holds, the Society will continue to move with the times, and we aim to introduce online onboarding and our own phone app in the not-too-distant future, again increasing options to our members. However, we will retain certain traditions and still plan to open more branches, with more people, increasing the help we can give to the communities we serve and giving individuals and families support and advice to build for a financially secure future.

To find out more: Visit www.swansea-bs.co.uk 

The views, opinions and positions expressed within guest blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the BSA.