Building societies must be pro-active to avoid reputation plunge

The media are increasingly training their sights on the country's building societies, meaning the mutuals must fight increasingly negative headlines if they are to keep their reputation for solidity intact.

For Sale: Building societies remain reliant on retail diposits to fund lending
For Sale: Building societies remain reliant on retail diposits to fund lending

Last Friday, the West Bromwich Building Society averted potential collapse by reaching an agreement with debt-holders by converting £182.5m of debt into capital.

As the firm's future was in the balance, The Daily Mail last Friday said the 'building society movement is not quite as immune to problems as it would like to pretend'. A week earlier The Times asked, 'Can building societies still be trusted with your money?'

John Wriglesworth, MD of the Wriglesworth Consultancy, said: 'The industry has taken some knocks, but it has not hit an iceberg. Building societies remain clearly ahead of banks in every area of perception. I would like to see some more proactive PR banging the drum for them.'

Despite traumatic economic conditions, building societies have attracted increased deposits of £22.6bn since August 2007.

But it has not been all plain sailing. The Cheshire, Derbyshire and Dunfermline building societies (which received a £1.3bn state bailout) all needed to merge into Nationwide to secure their futures.

Wriglesworth claimed the 'brilliant news' about West Bromwich should 'finally put an end to speculation about who is next'.

However, Maxine Taylor, divisional director, corporate affairs at Nationwide, said the historically low interest rate environment would continue to put stress on the sector.

'As an industry, we are not immune from the situation and not out of the woods yet,' she said.

The focus of comms in the sector is to draw a clear distinction between the business models of mutuals and the tempestuous banking sector.

Neil Johnson, PR and policy manager at the Building Societies Association, said: 'If anything, the financial crisis has meant people have become more aware of the difference between banks and building societies, and we will continue to make that case.'

Some media reports suggested the terms of the West Bromwich deal effectively made it more like a bank in structure - a point that the mutual, and adviser College Hill, were at pains to dismiss.

It has helped the sector that the Government, the FSA and HM Treasury remain committed to the mutual model.

HOW I SEE IT 

MAXINE TAYLOR, Divisional director, corporate affairs, Nationwide Building Society

There is a very clear difference of business model between banks and mutuals. Building societies have no distractions in terms of shareholders - our members are our shareholders, so the focus is completely on member benefits.

The majority of societies are in good shape, but we have never seen market conditions like this. In a sustained low interest rate environment, profits will continue to be constrained. Any business with a strong retail funding component - bank or mutual - will continue to face significant challenges.

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