Profile: Richard Fearon, Leeds Building Society chief executive

As only the eighth person to run Leeds Building Society, Richard Fearon is taking on a huge legacy. However, as Mark Casci reports, it is a role he has been preparing for his whole life.

Richard Fearon the CEO of Leeds Building Society Head office, Leeds..1st May 2019.Picture by Simon Hulme

A lifelong love of business and financial services has taken Richard Fearon to the top position with Leeds Building Society. Only the eighth person to run the society in its history, Mr Fearon officially took on the chief executive’s role earlier in the year having spent three years with the business as chief commercial officer and latterly deputy chief executive.

The son of a banker, he has the profession very much encoded in his DNA.

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However, the genesis of what took him into the sector was born much further away.

Richard Fearon the CEO of Leeds Building Society Head office, Leeds..1st May 2019.Picture by Simon Hulme

Mr Fearon spent most of his childhood in Africa. His father’s work took him there and as such he grew up accompanying his father to farms and businesses in the likes of Malawi and Zambia as he went about meeting with his clients.

As the man now in charge of an organisation for which prudent finances are at its core, it was an ideal training ground.

“There was always a bit of entrepreneurial streak in me,” he tells The Yorkshire Post.

“Savings was in our DNA in the family. It is something you get from growing up in Africa, where you can see such extreme poverty.

Richard Fearon the CEO of Leeds Building Society Head office, Leeds..1st May 2019.Picture by Simon Hulme

“It taught me the value of money.”

After concluding his studies at Cambridge, Mr Fearon cut his teeth in financial services as a consultant at London’s Oliver Wyman.

He would go on to work for what was then known as HBOS, working around a variety of departments including mortgages, savings and risk.

When the opportunity came to be based out of the Halifax base he and his family jumped at the chance. He put down the roots that would see him become an adoptive Yorkshireman and set him on course for his current role.

“When I look back you think ‘what do I need to run a building society?’, he said.

“It’s mortgages, savings, risk and treasury – I had all of those pieces. I love it up here. My kids have been born here and I have a really good network of friends.”

He was happy at HBOS but was, as he admits, keeping a lookout for any new opportunities which may present themselves. A conversation with his predecessor at Leeds, Peter Hill, was what it took to bring him away from Halifax and into Leeds.

“I met Peter over the road,” he remembers.

“We did not really go into specifics on work. We talked about culture and work-life balance. I really clicked with him.

“During the interview process I met all of the executive directors and culturally it really felt like coming home. There is a real family feel here.

“There were strong elements of this at Halifax too, you have people wanting to do the right things for members. It avoids conflicts, I really like that collaborative feeling.”

When asked whether he had ever coveted a CEO position he concedes it was always at the back of his mind.

“Secretly, hand on heart, I probably did harbour thoughts like that. I would not have shared it with anyone, but I did.”

Mr Fearon’s appointment to the COO role was done on the tacit understanding that he would be a potential successor to Mr Hill. He joined the business during a growth period and that continued during his tenure as COO.

However, he is clear that the road to the chief executive’s office was never a given.

“We had a discussion about succession. Three years came around very quickly.

“They were going to recruit someone who had the possibility to succeed but you absolutely had to perform and make sure it was the right fit for me and for the organisation.”

Mr Fearon enjoyed something that all bosses do not necessarily get the opportunity to experience in the form of a handover period with his predecessor.

During this time the pair were able to put into place a number of strategic pathways together, with Mr Fearon simultaneously taking on more of the operational procedures.

It meant that when he finally did assume the role he was able to hit the ground running.

He is clearly enjoying it and during our conversation Mr Fearon’s affection for both the business and the region is palpable.

He is as enthusiastic talking about technical upgrades to the brands digital infrastructure as he is when describing the society’s partnership with Leeds Rhinos.

“People want to be here because there is a purpose about this organisation,” Mr Fearon said.

“We have people here who have been here 30, 40, even 50 years. I have only been here three years and I really, really care about it. People sometimes say that the CEO job is a lonely one but I don’t feel like that. I have a great team around me.”

Given that Leeds Building Society has consistently grown its revenues and headcount in recent years, and that a move to brand new premises on Sovereign Street is being worked through, one would be forgiven for thinking Mr Fearon may view the current period as a relatively benign one. However, the opposite is true.

“A lot of it is making sure we are not resting on our laurels,” he said.

“You can see the environment is getting tougher. Mortgage market competition is intense, there are lots of new banks. You just have to keep moving ahead.

“People might possibly perceive building societies as traditional or sleepy but this is anything but. There is a fast pace to what we do.

“We are competing against all of these challengers for savings. But there are really strong things about our brand and heritage on trust that count in our favour.

“Our branch network is really important for people, lots of whom still want that face-to-face reassurance.

“The mortgage market is the tougher of the two, you have so many entrants trying to grab share and the housing market is relatively static. We do a lot of our business through intermediaries and they want somebody who is modern and digitally savvy. That is a good thing for us as you have to be at the forefront fighting it out with the likes of the digital banks.

“Then you overlay Brexit and the uncertainty that has created. Relatively we will do well.

“We have a very clear strategy and a team that wants to do well.”