Despite the many challenges presented by the coronavirus crisis, Darlington Building Society (DBS) took the key decision to remain open for business, while  protecting staff, supporting its members, and backing local communities. PETER BARRON talks to the Society’s chief executive

AS he looks back to the beginning of the lockdown at the end of March, Andrew Craddock admits he had doubts about whether his staff would be able to cope with the huge logistical challenges presented by the biggest public health crisis in a generation.

Three months on, he is justifiably proud of the way Darlington Building Society has managed to remain open for business while many other financial institutions withdrew services.

And what gives him the greatest satisfaction is that is has been done while protecting staff, supporting members, maintaining the Society’s commitment to local communities – and without relying on the Government’s furlough scheme.

“I’ll be honest – I did wonder whether we would be able to do it, but we took the fundamental decision to remain open for business, and what has been achieved is amazing,” says Mr Craddock.

Businessiq: Maxine Wylie and Pam Jones outside the Yarm branchMaxine Wylie and Pam Jones outside the Yarm branch

“To transform the business so quickly, and to keep all services going – particularly on behalf of vulnerable people – has been a tremendous effort, and I could not be more proud of every member of staff.”

Due to the importance of maintaining financial services, employees at banks and building societies were included in the Government’s list of key workers at the start of the pandemic. Although there were variations in the approaches adopted by different financial institutions, DBS went further than most with a range of measures under three main headings: staff, members, and the community.

LOOKING AFTER STAFF – KEY POINTS

  • All staff in high risk categories, or with caring responsibilities, have either been working from home, or shielding from home on full pay
  • All staff were informed they would remain on full pay, with no redundancies, for at least the remainder of 2020
  • 95% of head office staff, and 100% of the mortgage team, have been working from home
  • All branches remained open, with social distancing, the provision of protective screens, PPE, hand sanitiser, and increased cleaning
  • The Society decided not to participate in the government’s furlough scheme
  • Job offers that had been made before the lockdown have been honoured, with virtual inductions

“We are a strong, resilient business, with reserves that have been built up over more than 160 years, and we felt it would be wrong to take the Government’s cash when we were able to stand on our own two feet,” said Mr Craddock.

Businessiq: Expect a friendly smile when you visit the Tubwell Row branch of DBSExpect a friendly smile when you visit the Tubwell Row branch of DBS

“Many of our staff have family and friends who’ve taken pay cuts or lost their jobs, and it was vital to provide reassurance early on about their jobs and salaries. We want to be seen as a good corporate citizen and, while we were determined to keep the branches open, it had to be done in a way that staff felt safe and secure.”

At the start of the crisis, Darlington Building Society went further than the Government guidance in ensuring staff were as safe as possible. Conversely, as the lockdown has been eased, its strategy has been to be more cautious, and lag behind the official guidance to retain the emphasis on maximum safety.

Although branches have had reduced opening hours, all have remained open every day, apart from a two-day closure of the Northallerton branch when a staff member tested positive for coronavirus.

“That record is a remarkable achievement by the staff,” said Mr Craddock. “We had to react quickly, with IT staff moving heaven and earth, and others having to juggle childcare and the support of elderly relatives, but the way people have pulled together is tremendous.”

Health and safety assessments have been taking place ahead of a further easing of national restrictions, but Mr Craddock believes that DBS – like all businesses – will see lasting changes in the way it operates.

“We won’t be going back to the way it was at Head Office, and there’s no doubt that some form of flexible, agile working arrangements will be necessary, but decisions will be taken in the best interests of staff and customers,” he says.

Businessiq: DBS staff have been on hand to help customers throughout the lockdownDBS staff have been on hand to help customers throughout the lockdown

 SUPPORTING MEMBERS – KEY POINTS

  • DBS has agreed over 800 payment deferrals for residential mortgage borrowers, alongside 23 for their commercial borrowers
  • It went on to announce that three-month mortgage payment deferrals for members who haven’t yet take one would remain available up to October 31, 2020.
  • For those who have already taken a payment deferral, a range of flexible options were made available, including extending deferrals for a further three months
  • DBS has pledged not to start any action to repossess a member’s home before May 30, 2021, if they are in arrears due to Covid-19, as long as they continue to work with the Society to get the mortgage back on track
  • The full reduction in the base rate was passed on to the Society’s standard variable rate for mortgage borrowers as soon as possible
  • However, the Society has only passed on some of the reduction in the base rate to savers, and delayed this for as long as possible
  • Where members have had an urgent need to access their savings from fixed rate savings, penalty fees were waived
  • It was made easier for members to authorise family members to pick up cash on their behalf while they were self-isolating
  • DBS introduced a revised bereavement process to support members during the epidemic. Details can be found at www.darlington.co.uk/help/bereavement/
  • Desktop valuations have been introduced so mortgage applications could continue to be processed

The Society’s pledge is to help every borrower keep their home by announcing a package of support to help them through the Covid-19 crisis.

“At Darlington Building Society, our members come first, and we want to ensure the right support is available during any period of personal disruption, ill health or financial difficulty arising from coronavirus,” says Mr Craddock.

“We have supported our members throughout the coronavirus outbreak, speaking to everyone who has requested a payment deferral to help them understand if that is the right decision for them. It is worth remembering that whilst payment deferrals can help cash flow in the short-term, it does increase costs in the long-term.”

Businessiq: Mr and Mrs HollandMr and Mrs Holland

Despite the vast majority of staff working from home, DBS has been determined to maintain as much personal contact with members as possible.

As well as all branches being kept open, a commitment was made to speak to everyone who was on a mortgage deferral about their individual circumstances. While other financial institutions relied on an online form, DBS staff were seconded or reassigned to making personal calls and reassuring members.

“We know how much our members appreciate that personal connection, and it was really important that we maintained it,” says Mr Craddock. “Although online banking is available, we also recognised that some of our members want to physically come into our branches,” says Mr Craddock.

In addition, the Society also considered the needs of customers who were too frail or ill to travel to branches, so rules around third party withdrawals were relaxed, to make it easier for loved ones to make transactions on their behalf.

Bereavement is a particularly sensitive area, so DBS liaised with other building societies across the country, to make it as easy as possible for loved ones to make financial arrangements, including increasing the amount of funds families can access without probate.

In the first two months of the lockdown, the Bank of England base rate was reduced twice, but the decision by DBS to pass on the full reduction to mortgage borrowers, while holding it back for savers for as long as possible, and then only passing on two-thirds of the drop, was a significant financial move.

Retaining the Society’s range of products and keeping faith with its personal underwriting strategy has also been key. “Lots of banks and building societies use credit scoring, but we have continued to look at every application on an individual basis,” says Mr Craddock. “For example, even if people are on furlough, we can look at their income and, if it’s sustainable, we can still help them.”

BACKING LOCAL COMMUNITIES – KEY POINTS

  • A pledge to donate 5 per cent of profits to local good causes is not only being maintained but extended
  • The Society is continuing to encourage staff to volunteer with local good causes
  • Branch staff are making phone calls to some of their most vulnerable members just to keep in touch
  • DBS has kept all branches open, albeit on reduced hours, to maintain access to cash for some of the most vulnerable members of society
  • Policies and procedures to support those recently bereaved, and other vulnerable members, have been updated

Since 2017, DBS has donated five per cent of its profits to local good causes, and an exciting announcement was due to be made about that pledge at this year’s annual general meeting.

Mr Craddock was looking forward to informing members that the five per cent pledge would be renewed, not just for this year, but until 2025, to tie in with the 200th anniversary of the world’s first public railway between Stockton and Darlington.

Businessiq: Guisborough branchGuisborough branch

Despite the AGM having to be a virtual event, that five-year commitment was still made, and the board are now exploring ways to top up the amount given to local communities during that period. In the meantime, a minimum of £100,000 will be set aside for good causes this year, with the Tees Valley and County Durham Community Foundations providing additional financial support.

“The five per cent pledge is close to our hearts, so we want it to continue despite all the challenges. Our communities still need our help so that financial support will remain in place, not just annually, but for the next five years,” says Mr Craddock.

“Staff volunteering is also a big part of that commitment. We are paying some staff full-time salaries for working part-time, so we’ve urged them to use that time to help in their local communities, and a lot of have signed up to volunteer for the NHS.”

As a southerner, being born and raised in Buckinghamshire, Mr Craddock has been impressed by the strength of community spirit in the North-East – and the response of the staff at Darlington Building Society is typical of that sense of togetherness.

“We are all going through difficult times, but it is the acts of kindness, and the way people are looking out for each other, that have been so inspiring,” he says. “That is particularly evident in the North-East – and I’m proud that Darlington Building Society is playing its full part.”