Profile: the building society boss who believes in the benefits of mutuals

At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has made life even more challenging than usual for self-employed people across the region, many have turned to the big high-street banks for help, only to be turned away. Their financial history wasn’t long enough, their business profile not readily categorised, or their personal circumstances too complex to pass the binary online application process.

Karl Elliott, chief executive of Beverley Building Society.

But increasing numbers in the East Riding are finding the answers to their financial needs behind the door of a narrow shop on Saturday Market in Beverley.

Here, dwarfed by the Edinburgh Woollen Mill next door, the sole branch of East Yorkshire’s only independent building society has carved itself a much-valued niche by getting to know its customers – or rather “members”, under the mutual model – and lending to people who have slipped through the big lenders’ net.

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Last year, exactly half of Beverley Building Society’s lending – £9.9m – was to borrowers with some degree of self-employed status.

“We already have a very strong culture of customer care and forbearance that’s always been a part of the society’s values, and comes from being a member-based organisation, where your customers are your owners,” chief executive Karl Elliott told The Yorkshire Post.

“I’m a believer in the mutual model because I think it’s a really important alternative in the marketplace, and does a really important job for those people who need it. I’m also a big believer in having more than one big mutual. We don’t all want to just find ourselves bundled up into Nationwide which has to become a big bank in order to operate; we all bring something unique and diverse.”

Mr Elliott took the hot seat at Beverley Building Society in 2017, the year after it was named Best Local Building Society by the Mortgage Finance Gazette. The job was his reward for a long career devoted to the mutual model, which has seen him work in building societies from the North East to the south coast.

“I joined Darlington Building Society as a graduate trainee, and I got hooked on the values of the business and the kind of people that building societies attract both as colleagues and as customers,” he says.

“I was just really taken with the fact that, whilst being a financially sustainable business was absolutely paramount, it wasn’t the only thing that mattered – it was how you did it that mattered. It was the way you treated people, and the way you behaved, and the thought that you put into the customer and what they needed, that really grabbed me.

“The organisation is here entirely for its customers; there are no shareholders or other stakeholders – no ‘market interference’. We have been set up by our members to carry out a really important job on behalf of our members, now and in the future.”

That may sound unusual coming from someone in financial services – not a sector known for taking a moral stand – but then, Mr Elliott’s background is slightly unusual.

“My parents and my grandparents on my father’s side were all in the Salvation Army, and I used to go to Salvation Army Sunday school,” he says.

“The Salvation Army is as much a way of life as anything, and looking back, those values of caring for others in your community, and seeing the importance of working together for the greater good, and helping those more vulnerable where you can – I’ve taken that with me through the rest of my life.

“I’m not a practising Christian, but actually, I do live by those values daily. I do believe in the Christian-with-a-small-c values of helping each other, and looking out for those who need some help or support.”

That ethos came to the fore during the Covid lockdowns, when the large lenders restricted their mortgages to 75 per cent loan-to-value, leaving would-be first-time buyers out in the cold. Beverley Building Society stepped in to service local demand until the banks came back when the threat had passed.

“I guess we played our part when it needed to be played; we filled the gap in the local market when it was needed, and met the needs of the local market and the local community when others weren’t able to,” says Mr Elliott.

This is typical of the Society’s approach, which relies on human interaction to bring cold data to life, giving a more three-dimensional picture of its 13,000 members.

“Increasingly the market is a bit of a scone-cutter type of environment, where you either do fit or don’t fit – there’s a lot of simplifying,” says Mr Elliott.

“But in our view, increasingly life is just not as straightforward as that; there are many layers to people’s work and personal circumstances, which means that needs some time, thought, consideration and understanding, to be able to know whether someone is a ‘good credit risk’.

“What we’re really good at is getting past that stage, getting under the skin of it, and really understanding: what are your circumstances, and what might we be able to help you with?”

This flexibility, this willingness to “look under the bonnet”, is why so many self-employed people have found a sympathetic ear in the Beverley. Where the bigger lenders may see an unacceptable risk, Mr Elliott sees a sound investment.

“What we find is that people who are running their own business are really keen payers, because the last thing they want is for their business to not succeed,” he says.

“Sometimes they may be in a situation where they’ve talked to two or three of the more well-known high-street lenders, and found themselves frustrated.

“We don’t kid ourselves – we’re not the first port of call for everybody, but often they can come to us and find that actually we’re willing to help and listen when others haven’t been able to.”

As government support schemes come to an end in the autumn, Mr Elliott is fully expecting an upturn in demand and has just taken on five new members of staff, to add to the 26 currently on the payroll.

“We feel we’re going to see a very two-paced economy from a consumer point of view, in that we’re going to see the haves and the have-nots: those who have been able to get through the last 14-16 months and those less fortunate who find themselves out of work, or their business no longer functioning, and who have to start all over again.”

In the meantime, although the Society’s mortgages are now available nationally, there are no plans to open a second branch. Instead, he is looking at moving into community spaces, such as libraries and village halls, in places deserted by the banks.

“Our ongoing challenge is: how do we get our message through to as many people as possible that we can help them? We’ve got to get them to engage with us, and if we could do that, I think we could be much more impactful. I don’t yet know what the answer is, but that’s the ongoing puzzle really.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Karl Elliott was born in 1972 in Shotley Bridge, County Durham, and spent his childhood in Gateshead.
He moved to Yorkshire at the age of 11 and attended Ilkley Grammar School. After graduating from Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) in 1993 with a BA Hons in Economics, he became a graduate trainee at Darlington Building Society.
In 1997 he moved to Leeds and Holbeck Building Society, before heading to Harrogate to take up a post as product marketing manager withHomeowners’ Friendly Society, which later became Engage Mutual.
He stayed with the company for nearly 18 years, moving to Brighton when a merger saw it become OneFamily, and left as marketing director.
He came back up north to take the reins at Beverley Building Society in 2017.