Building Societies Conference Day 1

Opening Day one of the BSA’s first fully virtual BSA annual conference under the theme returning to growth, BSA Chair, Mike Regnier made a number of observations: 

About the huge amount that the sector – building societies and credit unions alike – has achieved since March last year. 

And, in line with the uniting theme of today’s sessions – Returning to Growth - just how much of an opportunity we have, right here, right now, as we consider the many ways in which society in Britain has evolved in recent months.

Some of you may already know that one of my favourite enabling mantras for life, and business was captured perfectly by then US presidential hopeful Barack Obama back in 2008 with his campaign slogan “Yes we can”.

Looking back over the past year plus, which has been rather more than challenging! I would add another three words to this lexicon - “Yes we did”.  Let me pick out some examples, which I’m sure will resonate with many of us.  

We can and we did move fifty per cent or more of our staff to home working almost overnight.  We sourced and delivered new equipment; handled health and safety issues; learned how to manage remotely and worked hard to safeguard the mental and physical wellbeing of our people.

I don’t think I am alone in thinking that the idea and pace of such a massive change would have been unimaginable in a normal business environment – and if it had been considered would have taken months to deliver, with more than a little ‘death by PowerPoint’ along the way.  Sometimes revolution not evolution is the way to get things done, and what a brilliant test of real life operational resilience that was.

At the same time BSA members increased their productivity and service levels to their members – very necessary at a time when the levels of human hardship and vulnerability were on the increase. 

We can and we did keep the majority of our branches open, albeit with reduced opening hours.  By doing this we remained visible and present in our local communities and there to support our members when they needed us most. 

We were able to reach out to those particular members we knew were vulnerable, some of whom had no other access to cash beyond their building society or credit union savings account. 

And all of this was delivered with an immensely caring and positive attitude from staff – from those on the front line and from those supporting them.  We should be immensely proud of our people and recognise and celebrate that this is not just an attitude borne of adversity, it is simply how they do business.     

Back in April last year, John Glen wrote to BSA members recognising and thanking their staff for the work they were doing.  That work has continued day in day out ever since, putting members first and just plain caring. 

Our people and their attitude, values and human touch are at the heart of who we are as building societies and credit unions, something we must continue to cherish. We’ve seen some lovely touches of kindness – branch staff delivering cash to members’ homes, as I’ve mentioned, and even in some cases doing essential shopping for regular members too.

We can and we did arrange over 465,000 mortgage payment deferrals for borrowers experiencing financial hardship because of Covid-19 to help them stay in their homes.  We dealt with rapidly changing policy and regulation and ensured that borrowers got, and continue to get, the tailored support they need.

We can and we did handle the famine and feast of the mortgage market of 2020 and into 2021, from the period when everything came to a shuddering halt during the first lockdown, to the more recent times handling huge demand and at various points a looming stamp duty deadline – thankfully now pushed out to September with a level of taper in place.

We can and we did our best to maintain member engagement when it was not possible to have a face to face AGM – twice for many of us.

At times from my perspective it felt as though we were hurtling down the outside lane of the motorway whilst changing the tyres at the same time.  But BSA member results speak for themselves – yes profit may be down – largely because of the drop in Bank Rate – but financial results from the sector are robust and many members have continued their development programmes including digital enhancements like broker connectivity, mobile apps and the increased use of robotics to improve efficiency.   

Beyond this, if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is the importance of financial resilience at a household level. We used to be a nation of savers. If we are going to Build Back Better, supporting a savings safety net for every household has to be a priority.

Covid-19 will be endemic across the world. But we must and are learning how to live with it.  Lives and livelihoods have changed, as have the views that society at large has of business and businesses.

Some of this was already evident before March last year – but existing trends have accelerated – for example the growth of digital and the expectations of customers that have enjoyed the speed and convenience that it offers.

There has also been a clear shift towards support for local and regional businesses and also for those which form part of our local communities.  This clearly includes building societies and credit unions with branches on high streets in towns across the UK.

Under the banner of mutuality, social purpose has always been core to what we do and how we do it.  But let’s be honest, the word mutuality itself is not well understood – or at least not in a way that makes a difference to consumer decisions. 

Our values, objectives and outcomes are really well aligned with that increasing focus on social purpose in society and we can see that this really resonates with younger people in particular, so what a fabulous platform this has created for our sector to thrive from.

The other stars that are aligning relate to how the pandemic has impacted the way people see ‘Home’ and where and what they want them to be. We have the ability to be nimble, to hunt out parts of the market that are not well served and provide more bespoke solutions for buyers that don’t fit the standard mould.

After the shift to home working, some form of hybrid home and office working is likely to be here to stay.  This is also relevant to homes and housing.  With the caveat that one piece of research does not make a trend, I was struck by a recent survey from Romal Capital which found that a third of the UK adults were planning to change their living arrangements as a result of Covid-19.  This compares to a more normal 4 or 5 per cent a year who move.

During all of this our competitors, particularly the big lenders may well face the simple economic necessity to protect their capital as they grapple with businesses that are far more complex than ours. 

So while the country (and we) get to grips with some critical societal questions around social inequality; homes, housing and affordability; climate change; workplace diversity and many more – our sector, with its unique ownership structure, should have all the following wind we need to thrive as we do our bit to support the economic reset that our country needs.

Mike also thanked this year’s headline sponsors DXC & Temenos, nCino, Salesforce and Target Group. I’d also like to thank our sponsors Sopra Banking Software and TCS Bancs as well as all our virtual exhibitors.