Doing everything it possibly can to help make the Tees Valley a better place comes naturally to Darlington Building Society.
After all, the 165-year-old mutual society was formed with the express purpose of improving the lives of both its members and the communities it serves by supporting home ownership and encouraging saving.
“As a mutual, where we’re owned by our members, we can focus on the longer term rather than short-term profits for shareholders,” says chief executive Andrew Craddock.
But director of people and culture Niki Barker says that as well as going the extra mile to look after its 70,000 members and backing a wide variety of charities and good causes throughout the area, it’s equally important to ensure employees feel valued, cared for and enjoy coming to work each day.
“Our key asset is our open and honest culture where employees are encouraged to speak up,” she says.
“Whether that be on a one-to-one basis, through weekly society-wide communication briefings led by Andrew or our dedicated employee ambassadors, we constantly seek to shape the organisation to support and engage everyone.
“We’ve really progressed our people strategy in the last few years to focus on recognising and rewarding our people for the great work they do.
“Our performance management structure is underpinned by and rewards achievement. Our commitment to paying all employees fairly has led to us signing up to the Real Living Wage too.”
The more recent challenging times of the current pandemic have meant that open communication and support for employees has never been more important.
Andrew moved early in the pandemic to reassure staff that there would be no redundancies.
“That message was invaluable,” says Niki. “It meant staff didn’t have to worry about their jobs on top of everything else that was going on.
“Andrew’s open and sincere approach has been fantastic and we’ve followed those words through with actions. It’s about being honest and saying, ‘It is tough but we are here to support you and your families and we’ll get through this together’.”
Employee health and wellbeing has always been important to the society. A team of mental health first-aiders are available to support staff and a newly launched Be Kind To Yourself campaign encourages employees to look after their own health and wellbeing by accessing a variety of different benefits and tools.
“We recognise the importance of reassuring employees at this time around balancing their job with their home life,” says Andrew.
“Supporting people with time to dedicate to home schooling, changing hours to fit around childcare and having 90 per cent of head office staff working from home, we have tried to ease many of the added stresses that have come with this difficult period.
“Being a caring employer and looking after your staff is good business practice. You get much more out of people if you look after them and support them and pay them fairly.
“Niki and the team do a fantastic job providing support for all our branch staff, those working from home and the few who are still going into our head office, because all those groups have different concerns.”
Staff are also encouraged to get involved in volunteering and have continued throughout the pandemic by helping organisations such as Age UK and even assisting the NHS with “flu marshalling”, helping direct mainly elderly patients in the drive-in vaccine centre at Darlington Mowden Park’s stadium.
“Staff have loved helping out,” says Niki. “Even when it’s been raining all day, they come back on a high – one lady’s been back four times, including on her weekends!”
That’s just one of the ways Darlington Building Society helps the local community. Another is through the Five Per Cent Pledge – where five per cent of net profits are given to local charities and not-for-profit organisations.
“We do business throughout the UK but we bring back the profits to invest in our local community here in the Tees Valley,” says Andrew.
This year the society has backed The Bread and Butter Thing, which sells surplus food to those in need at very low cost. It contributed £20,000 to the charity’s startup costs and around 500 families now benefit from its services every week.
“It fits so well with our philosophy, because we’re a social enterprise as well as a business that wants to make money,” says Andrew. “It was something that touched me and it’s been very successful.”
The society was on the verge of funding a climbing wall at Daisy Chain’s Stockton centre, enabling children with autism to enjoy the sport in a calm environment, but the plan was shelved due to social distancing requirements.
“Instead, they came up with the idea of a polytunnel where they could grow fruit and vegetables that can then be sold in their shop, so we agreed to divert the funding there,” says Andrew. “We’re hoping our staff will volunteer to help clear the ground to enable the tunnel to be installed.”
The society’s chief operating officer Chris Hunter is the volunteer treasurer of another great charity, the 700 Club, which works with homeless people, and the society handed over £4,000 to refurbish a room in its new hostel in Darlington town centre.
“That’s another great fit because it helps the homeless and we’re all about encouraging people to own their own homes,” says Andrew.
These and many other initiatives all add up to a winning formula that has enabled the society to not only retain its existing staff but recruit 35 new staff during this toughest of years, including eight apprentices, adding to its growing headcount in more recent years which now sees it employing 179 employees.
“Demand for mortgages is huge, with lots of pent-up demand and right now our pipeline is busier than ever,” reveals Andrew. “Our employees are coping with a high workload, yet they are embracing the challenge.”
Niki adds: “They are so dedicated and want to support our members, the business and the community.”
Looking to the future, she continues: “We want to attract people in the local area to come to work for us, support the next generation and become a local employer of choice. We hope that people really see what we are all about and see Darlington as a great place to work.”