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Using tech to improve financial wellbeing and security for people in the UK

Using tech to improve financial wellbeing and security for people in the UK

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For more than 170 years, Saffron Building Society has provided its members with a home for their money while also helping to make their dreams of building a home a reality. With the advent of technology, the business has been able to scale rapidly and reach its members in new ways. Colin Field, CEO, Saffron Building Society, tells us about the business’ future growth plans and the important role of technology for its enablement, as well as how the business aims to offer ‘more than money’ to its customer base.

As a building society, Saffron is a mutual business which does not have shareholders – the people who own the business are also its customers.

Formed in 1849 and based in the East of England, the business was set up to be a home for people’s money and to provide money for people’s homes. Largely it is still doing that today, 172 years on.

The business currently has around 5,000 borrowing members and 100,000 savings members. The business’ core objective is to help people plan for their future and provide advice to help them achieve their goals.

Colin Field, Chief Executive Officer, Saffron Building Society, tells us more…

How has the business grown since it started and how have you overseen and ensured that growth?

The business has existed for 172 years but we’re still an SME-sized entity with a balance sheet size of about 1.3 billion. The growth has been mixed and I think that’s partially because, until the last 20 years, the business was more of a social venture in terms of the desire to help local people achieve their goals.

We see now that growth is far more important to be able to develop both scale and capability to help people, and that’s been key for the success of the business. More recently, particularly over the last two years, we’ve seen about 12% growth in 2020 and around 10% in 2021. We need to be able to grow the business because customers’ needs are changing so quickly. We need to scale to ensure we can provide what people are demanding.

Give us some insight into what your own career has looked like so far.

I earned a degree in economics and then went on to become a chartered accountant in the UK. Shortly after qualification, I moved into the finance industry. I’ve worked in insurance, telecoms and over the last 20 years I’ve worked in banking.

And while I enjoyed that part of my career, working in those large corporates, I took the decision to move to Saffron where I’ve been for the last eight years – CEO for six of them – because I wanted to move into a smaller business where you could see how it worked end to end and be closer to the customers.

What advice would you offer other C-suite executives to ensure each voice is heard?

When you take that first step up into the C-suite, it’s crucial to really understand and develop your self-awareness because what will help you to be successful working at that level won’t necessarily be the same as what got you there in the first place.

Simple things to understand are – what works best for your colleagues around the table and the boardroom, and what turns them off? One of the challenges I see is that people have the same conversation they would have with somebody within their own function and don’t tailor the message to the person who’s listening to it.

What are some of the key challenges your customers have been experiencing over the last 18 months?

Everybody will likely have been impacted by COVID. For example, in the UK several businesses had to put their staff on furlough and, thankfully, because of the furlough scheme, they were supported.

But at the peak of the pandemic in the UK we had about 15% of our mortgage customers impacted and wanting to take payment holidays over that period. Fortunately, we now have very few people in that situation, which is great news, but I think it’s certainly the case that many people have seen their finances and savings impacted.

How is your company providing ‘more than money’ to improve financial wellbeing and security for people in the UK?

Our vision is around how we help people to have money happiness. The pandemic brought to a head that what we all need are two things. First, is physical and mental health and second, we need to have enough confidence in our finances today and into the future that we can enjoy ourselves and make good choices.

It’s not about being rich – it’s just being able to consider what it is that we need. It’s been a really rallying point for our staff and communities, and our members really like it as well when we’re doing more and more events to support money happiness.

One of the things we’ve done for some time is sit with members and talk to them about their future plans. Sometimes we’ll be able to help them directly and other times we can recommend other business, or other options for them which are better choices at that time.

In the future we will need to get more comfortable with providing what I call ‘small a’ advice – not regulated advice – and signposting choices to what people can do because there’s so much information in the world that it gets more and more complex to understand what to do with it.

How important is technology is for driving financial inclusion and how can the industry ensure that there’s representation across all demographics?

If you look at other territories, we’ve seen technology unlock financial inclusion for millions of people, such as through M-PESA in Kenya. In the UK, we come from a slightly different background and quite traditional provision but during the pandemic we’ve seen more and more people getting familiar and confident with using technology.

When talking about groups that don’t want to use technology, people often think this is elderly people but that’s not been our experience historically. It’s true that there are groups of people that don’t want to make the transition, but we’ve seen technology being used more by every single age group.

The role of the financial services industry is key on two fronts. First, how do we continue to make sure that we can push the security of technology so people feel very confident about that.

Secondly, we need to ensure simplicity of usage. As soon as access to banking went on to tablets and phones, more and more people were able to access services by using fingerprint or facial ID. I think it’s absolutely key that we continue to do that and support people.

How important is technology to Saffron Building Society for ensuring ability to scale and how do you plan to grow the business further?

In the two-year period since the pandemic started, we’ve had two of our strongest years – not just for lending, but also building savings, growth and customers in a period when people have been working from their living rooms.

That has been possible because of the technology which has allowed online submission and processing. We’ve also been able to remotely put regulatory compliance solutions in place. And we’ve worked on how we collaborate via means such as Teams.

In these two years, it’s probably moved us forward 10 years in terms of moving our expectations of what technology can do for us. If we look towards the world of hybrid work ahead of us, which is something that we are embracing, we found that we can now employ people throughout the UK and have access to far more talent than we have done historically.

In terms of further growth, we’ve already invested a lot of time and money in terms of our core banking platforms and that’s put us in good stead for the next couple of years. There are two factors which are becoming abundantly clear to us now that we need to be mindful of. First, customers love speed and simplicity. They want to be able to do things when they want to do them and they want it to be easy, which really shines a light on poor, clunky technology processes.

Every decision that we’re taking with our banking platform, which we’re upgrading now, is to make sure that we are open to do these things. It’s really clear that we cannot be shutting things off and with open architecture now, one of the things that we really want to have is the ability to choose who we work with next, in terms of micro services, or other provision as well.

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