Changing with the times

Pinchinthorpe Hall

Darlington Building Society has skilfully negotiated the pandemic and emerged in robust shape, but it refuses to stand still. Chief operating officer Chris Hunter talks to Peter Barron about a year of change ahead…

By all accounts, Darlington Building Society has had one of the proudest years in its history.

Despite global economic turmoil, the 165-year-old society not only emerged from the pandemic with robust financial results, but was named by Best Companies as one of the UK’s top 100 mid-sized businesses to work for.

And yet, as the senior executive charged with driving through a “change agenda” over the next 12 months, chief operating officer Chris Hunter insists there can be no resting on laurels.

“This will be the springboard for Darlington Building Society securing its future for the next 165 years,” he says.

The agenda features a host of investments in new technology and systems aimed at improving the member experience and, as someone with a wealth of experience in financial services, Chris is excited about what lies ahead for the society.

“We have just surpassed the size of the balance sheet we had before the financial crash in 2007, and we have shown great resilience throughout the Covid crisis, and now this is a real statement of intent,” he says.

Chris joined Darlington Building Society as chief risk officer but moved over to become chief operating officer in 2019. His remit is to drive the transformation of the business under the society’s five “pillars” strategy, which are:

• Staff: The recognition that employees are the society’s biggest asset.
• Members: Providing the best possible service for the society’s members and brokers.
• Community: Reinvesting a proportion of profits into local good causes.
• Simplicity: Investing in the business to ensure the focus is always on members’ needs and improving efficiency.
• Financial resilience: Optimising profit, rather than maximising profit, for the benefit of members and local communities.

Those key principles remain at the heart of the “change agenda” as the society prepares for a more digitally focused future, while also continuing to invest in the branch network and maintaining a reputation for friendly, personal service.

“It’s about remaining relevant and giving our members the options they need,” says Chris.

“Most of our members have told us they prefer to access the society by mobile, so we have to adapt. There will always be the branches but people will also be able to go online to open an account or check their balance.”

The change agenda

Mortgage sales and origination system (MSO): Designed to make it quicker and easier for brokers to make mortgage applications. It is a fully integrated system that streamlines the process, with a series of automated actions –including solicitors, surveyors, and credit search – with the information held by expert underwriters making the lending decision. It is for new cases only and will be launched in early July. “It is all about a quicker, more efficient decision-making process, giving members the security of it all coming together sooner,” says Chris.

New member experience platform: A significant investment in the Darlingtonline proposition. At present, customers can only view transactions online, but this new platform will enable them to open accounts online and have access to online banking via their mobile phones.

Phase 1: Will allow existing members to open new accounts and have mobile functionality.
Phase 2: Allows existing mortgage members to switch quickly and seamlessly to a new deal digitally.
Phase 3: Enables new members to open accounts online.

“By the middle of 2022, MSO will be working for brokers, and the new online journey will be available to members, enabling the society to grow the balance sheet on savings and mortgages,” says Chris. “That means greater financial resilience, so we can invest more back into the business, with better profitability to feed back to local communities.”

New telephony system: Launched in June, a web-based system, meaning staff can be logged on via their personal computers whether they are working in branch, head office, or from home.

Designed in response to member feedback, and involving extensive staff consultation, it has enhanced functionality and unlimited lines, ensuring callers can be directed to the right person.

“The previous system didn’t have enough lines and that led to some frustration for members and staff, so this represents an important investment in the customer experience,” says Chris. “It will make it quicker and easier to meet the needs of members and minimise queueing.”

A new, modern, member-focused website: Designed to make member interaction much more accessible, including a customer chat facility, video guides (VLOGS), and the capacity to increase font size for partially sighted members.

“The society went out to tender for the development of a new website and the contract was won by Darlington-based Hush Digital. They were not just local, they were also the best, and that makes this one of the proudest and most positive elements of The Change Agenda,” says Chris.

For Andrew Craddock, who took over as chief executive three years ago, The Change Agenda represents the pieces of a jigsaw that will take an already successful organisation to the next level.

“It all adds up to a major investment in our future, with every element focused on improving member experience,” he says.

The recent relocation of the Redcar branch into a more modern, spacious High Street building is the latest example of that commitment.

“The pandemic has underlined the need for businesses to be resilient and flexible in the ways they engage members, and meet the needs of staff,” says Andrew.

“Our aim is to be as member-focused as possible, as well as growing our reputation as somewhere talented people want to work.”

One hundred and sixty five years since it was formed, Darlington Building Society is equipped for one of the most important – and exciting – periods in its illustrious history.