Keeping the community at heart

July 20, 2019

Standing as the North East’s largest mutual, Newcastle Building Society has supported its members for more than 150 years. Originally formed from a merger between The Newcastle Permanent Building Society and The Grainger Permanent Building Society, the organisation today complements nearly 30 high street branches with a burgeoning digital presence. Chief executive Andrew Haigh talks to Steven Hugill about its continued growth and how its blueprint for further success is underpinned by an unwavering community spirit

Being part of the community is the essence of everything we do.

“That could just be corporate speak, but we really take it seriously.”

Andrew Haigh’s point is a sincere one. Indeed, no sooner have the words left his mouth, he is chatting cordially to a member in the society’s Yarm branch.

This is a company rooted in its community, an organisation that twines saving and mortgages with a social and moral conscience.

The Yarm branch, based on the town’s bustling high street, is a perfect case in point.

When it opened in 2016, this was the UK’s first building society branch to be based inside a library. Set among murder mysteries and romantic novels, it quite literally symbolised a new chapter for Newcastle Building Society.

It is, says Andrew, a perfect summation of the organisation’s community commitment.

“The Yarm branch is what we think about when we talk about being in a real community hub, where we have members come in who know the people and the organisation, and who have got involved with our engagement events,” he says.

Against a backdrop of bank closures, Newcastle Building Society has remained cognisant of members’ needs and the service elements they cherish, notably a presence on the high street.

It has had an effect. According to society statistics, it has welcomed thousands of new customers this year, with its average satisfaction rating standing at 96 per cent.

Its Yarm library setting, the result of a partnership with Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, is one in a near 30-strong branch portfolio currently being enhanced through a multi-million-pound refurbishment programme.

A new branch opened in Carlisle at the end of last year and upgrades have been completed in Ashington, Berwick, Gosforth, Morpeth and Whickham, with previous branch relocations taking place in Darlington and Durham City.

A similar switch in Stokesley, North Yorkshire, is also under way, with a new branch in Barnard Castle, County Durham, set to welcome customers in the autumn. Community branches have also recently been revealed for Wooler and Hawes, North Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, further refurbishments in Whitley Bay, Hexham, Hartlepool, Ponteland, West Denton, Middlesbrough, Consett and South Shields are earmarked for completion by the end of 2019.

In a changing world dominated by ever- increasing technological usage, the mutual, which

saw operating profit rise to £14.7 million in 2018, hasn’t lost sight of tradition.

“We have committed to the branches. It’s not what you are seeing everyone doing, but we can’t be part of the community if we’re not in the community,” says Andrew.

“It’s really important we spend time with customers and build lasting relationships.

“The new branches are open-plan and customers are not hit with a barrage of technology to stop them speaking to people. They are greeted by people, and the technology – used for things like transactions – is there to make it easier to have conversations.

“It’s not about reinventing the idea of a regional building society; it is about re-presenting it in a modern context. Everything we are doing is driven out of a purpose – we use the phrase ‘connecting communities in the North East with a better financial future’.”

However, Andrew says it would be remiss to assume the bricks and mortar renovations mean the mutual is foregoing its digital presence.

It is, in fact, marrying technology with tradition across its whole operational footprint.

The building society’s website already allows members to access its mortgage, savings, financial  advice, estate planning and home insurance services, and Andrew says work is unrelenting to strengthen that offering.

Furthermore, it is using software to pick up members’ feedback in real-time to improve service.

“Every morning I get feedback from customers from the previous day,” says Andrew, showing an email digest of the information on his mobile phone.

“We are using really sophisticated technology that picks up on the language used.

“The responses are mostly unbelievably positive, but there are times when customers will say things like ‘this form doesn’t work’ or ‘this step in the process could be better’.

“We have to be very technologically aware and digitally engaged,” continues Andrew, shifting to the society’s mixing of traditional services with modern methods.

“It would be wrong to believe people in the North East are not going to want to engage with us online.

“We have world-class capability in managing accounts online and we are doing work now to think about what our digital experience looks like.

“We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘how do we bring the essence of what we do so well on the high street and make the digital experience feel the same?’

“It needs to be an easy-to-use service and we want the warmth of the North East to come through too.”

The geniality Andrew alludes to is the watermark of the business and is nowhere better highlighted than through its support for local groups and individuals, which last year saw staff devote more than 4500 volunteer hours.

The mutual has run Dementia Friends awareness sessions, led by customer support manager Sheila Hodgson for the past year, with in excess of 1500 staff, customers, local people and neighbouring businesses benefitting from its events.

It is also a staunch supporter of the Slow Shopping programme, which was founded by Gosforth resident Katherine Vero following her mother’s dementia diagnosis.

Running every Tuesday on Gosforth’s high street, Slow Shopping, which is also backed by IKEA, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, provides a safe, welcoming and calm environment for those who need a little more time to shop and conduct financial affairs.

“These things are right in the DNA of our organisation,” says Andrew, adding the society recently took on two apprentices through its relationship with the Prince’s Trust.

The mutual’s community focus extends further, however, through financial support.

A quick look at its 2018 results shows it donated £797,000, the equivalent of six per cent of pre-tax profits, in its last financial year, while it also recently confirmed its participation in the Reclaim Fund, a Government-approved body that helps turn dormant assets into charitable donations.

A key element of the mutual’s backing is its Community Fund, which is managed in association with the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland and makes grants available to charities and local groups.

Additionally, its Building Improvement Grants scheme supports voluntary organisations to improve premises.

The society has doubled the value of grants available from the latter to £100,000 for 2019, with grants of between £10,000 and £50,000 allocated to a range of worthy community building repair and renovation projects.

“There is a real issue with space for communities to get together,” says Andrew.

“Church halls, Scout huts, these things are disappearing and there is a real need to help fund them. We can give a grant to extend or refurbish space and the idea is we are creating something that can be a catalyst for more things happening in the community. It’s not just a one-off hit.”

To further enhance such commitment, Andrew reveals the society has turned empty space in some of its branches, including Ashington, Gosforth, Carlisle and Whickham, into areas for community groups to use free of charge.

“If you’re a society member, and a member of a local club, you can come and meet here,” he says.

“There is everything from knitting clubs, to gardening clubs and French lessons.

“Being a building society isn’t being like every other bank. A lot of the work we are doing is at the root of what a building society is all about.

“There’s a real responsibility to the community.”

Newcastle Building Society