When Stephen White was tasked with modernising a 155-year-old UK institution, the Yorkshire Building Society, he didn't start with technology, he started with people. The Scot joined the member-owned mutual in February 2016 and as Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, his role was to change the culture surrounding technology. Stephen and his team stepped back from systems and focused entirely on their customers.
"The first stages did not involve technology at all", he explains. "It was all about understanding the customer journey, redesigning the processes to simplify them and deliver against customer expectation. It was training colleagues to understand the key things that customers want and then redesigning our policies, procedures, and products around that."
This approach isn't a fear of technology—quite the reverse. His philosophy has been shaped by his personal experience, particularly his five years in Australia, working with Clydesdale Bank's former parent company, NAB. He watched as his teams in Asia, including Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore, were at the forefront of tech advances, marvelling at their "focus and relentless drive for change and new ideas. Change has never been this fast", explains Stephen, "and it will never be this slow again".
In an age of digital currencies, blockchain, AI, and 'virtual' banks, Stephen wants his customers to see the company as something that can be relied on, wherever it is. So, while there may be a drive for change and new ideas, he knows that it has to be built on the solid foundations of customer trust.
I believe in branches and digital. It's not an 'either or', it's an 'and'.
He believes that the rate of change within the banking system over the past two decades overall has been revolutionary. The public largely embrace digital advances and online services, although there remains a wariness among customers of new products and a community resistance to branch closures and the loss of face-to-face, human services.
"When you're in our branches, the number of people who come in to ask for help on all manner of financial subjects is extraordinary. We get that all day, every day, and it's clear that there is still a role for that face-to-face service, and we want to provide that on an ongoing basis.
"I believe in branches and digital", he continues. "It's not an 'either or', it's an 'and'. One of the advantages of building societies over banks, apart from the fact that we don't pay dividends, is that we can reinvest that money into products for our members."
The culture shift within the organisation has been transformative. Stephen admits that the building society's size means that, when it comes to new advances, they are a 'fast follower' as opposed to leading change. But they are agile, quick to respond to customer needs, and they are fearless as they embrace new technologies.
And it's working. Last year, the company's Accord brand was named Best Mortgage Lender at the Mortgage Strategy Awards. Also last year, the company picked up the award for Most Innovative Approach to Driving Cultural Change at the Global Process Excellence Awards, and saw (for the Accord brand) its Net Promoter Score leapt from -11 in July 2015 to +84 in February 2019.
I will be absolutely honest, it was the friends I made...who got me through.
The confidence that Stephen brings to his role is something that wasn't always there.
He was the first person in his family to attend university, and came from a working-class community in Ayrshire in Scotland. Moving to Edinburgh to study, he admits that there were moments, particularly in the first two years, when he thought: "Do I deserve to be here? Am I really good enough to be here? It was hard.
"I will be absolutely honest, it was the friends I made—a group of 10 of us, from all different walks of life and backgrounds, who got me through. We still catch up and have caught up twice a year for the past 25 years."
Now though, as the powerhouse behind a significant financial organisation which has savings balances of over £30 billion and mortgage balances over £37 billion, employs over 3,000 people, and provides services for more than three million members, he is looking over the horizon for what comes next.
"I think there will continue to be a role for banks and building societies, in terms of what customers want and their trust in building societies especially. What I would say though is that more and more technology partners are coming into the banking ecosystem, like Apple.
"From a banking perspective, it's a case of how you work with those partners within that ecosystem to deliver the end-to-end customer experience. That's something I think we will see evolving over the next decade."