In recent months, we have been asking our clients and local business leaders for their take on the COVID crisis and they have generously given up their time to provide us with their perspective on a number of questions.  Paul Feist is delighted that the last article in this series has been provided by Joe Garner, the Chief Executive Officer at Nationwide Building Society and a client of Plus Accounting for over 20 years.

Joe became Nationwide Building Society’s Chief Executive Officer in April 2016, inspired by the Society’s principle of mutuality. As a building society, Nationwide was founded for a social purpose; to help members buy their own homes and improve people’s lives. Nationwide is one of the UK’s largest mutual organisations and the world’s largest building society, with 16 million members and a balance sheet over £250 billion. Joe leads an employee base of 18 thousand people and continues to be guided by the Society’s social purpose and mutual difference.

Joe’s career started with Procter & Gamble and Dixons Carphone. Joe joined HSBC in 2004, latterly appointed as Head of HSBC’s, Retail and Commercial Bank, UK. In 2014 he became Chief Executive Officer of Openreach.

1. When did COVID-19 affect your business and was it immediate or gradual?

The velocity and impact of COVID – 19 has been unlike anything I have seen previously – which includes leading businesses through the Financial Crisis of 2008, the London riots of 2011 and the Russian crisis of 1996. The key difference is that this one is a human crisis first and foremost, and so the health, safety and well-being of our employees, members and communities has been the top priority. This impact was immediate.

2. How did you communicate this impact with your team and clients?

In terms of communicating with our members, we have been going to extremes lengths to communicate – and help – our members. We started opening our branches early in the morning for vulnerable members, and even started a cash delivery service for those who were housebound. But the biggest shift was internally, where we moved from a very ‘face-to-face’ culture to digital overnight. In March, we went from almost zero to over 150,000 video streams per week. It is amazing what can be done when you have to. To illustrate, after the lockdown announcement on the evening of March 23, I recorded a video message on my iPhone at around 10pm and it was distributed through our email systems to all our 18,000 employees by midnight that night.

3. What decisions have you had to take in respect of your business?
Thousands. Every day we have been constantly innovating, adjusting, adapting – all at unprecedented pace. I am deeply proud of how the organisation has risen to the challenge. Just one of many examples is how – in a matter of a few days – we reconfigured our systems and organisation to route call centre calls to our 650 branches. This enabled us to handle peak inbound phone calls, at a time when the branches had fallen quiet.

4. Have you accessed or will you be accessing any of the Government support schemes and grants?
No. We believe that the furlough scheme was designed to help businesses that could not operate through the crisis – to survive it. We are in a different situation – as a part of critical national infrastructure, we have kept operational throughout. While we identified that we could qualify for financial support via use of Furlough, it was not designed to help us, so we chose not to take it as a matter of principle. As a mutually owned building society, we always seek to put our principles ahead of short-term profit – and this is one example.

5. Do you think the Government support goes far enough?
No one has lived through this before, and we are all learning as we are going. But the Government have acted quickly, decisively and at scale.

6. What effect will this pandemic have your business in the long term?
3D’s: Digital, Debt and Distance. In general terms, COVID-19 has accelerated the rise of digital, burdened many individuals and businesses with increased debt, and redefined the rules of social contact. Like all businesses, we will adapt to these changes, but remain focussed on meeting our members’ needs with our distinct brand of digital technology delivered with a human touch.

7. Do you have a crisis management plan now in place?
We have always had crisis management plans and processes in place – and they have worked extremely well so far. Overnight we deployed our incident response and over 10,000 people switched to home working. It is interesting though that most disaster recovery plans are built around a short-term catastrophe in a specific site…a flood, bomb or outage. COVID-19 is a prolonged catastrophe centred around people – not property or IT.

8. What decisions are being made now for when you are able to get back up and running?
We kept all our operations running throughout, with over 90% of branches open, telephony and digital services. We also kept our offices open but moved to low density working – operating at around 20% capacity. This made the initial transition very difficult, but now we are in a state where we can fine tune based on emerging guidance, without the need for any significant ‘back to work’ type initiatives.

9. How do you think the business landscape will change in Brighton?
Brighton has long been an icon for digital innovation, and a major social centre. In time I could see Brighton capitalising on the acceleration of digital. The social side is more challenging in the short term, but I could again see Brighton benefiting from the natural outdoor attractions. Maybe it is time to build a longer and wider new pier!

10. What tips can you give other businesses currently going through the crisis?
Think in fundamentals and live by the values of the organisation. I think the most important decision that I made was on March 23 when I publicly stated that anyone who does not feel safe does not need to come to work. This gave license for all our 18,000 people to stay at home if they chose to. But they didn’t. Our people rose to the challenge in front of them and did whatever was needed in the moment. But they know that they are trusted and supported in doing so. We call this ‘accountable freedom’.

Author: Joe Garner, Chief Executive Officer @ Nationwide Building Society

Date Published: 03 August 2020