50 years of friendship and finance – meet Dr Steve Walker

Dr Steve Walker first became involved with ICOF in the late 1990s when he was co founder of the Aston Reinvestment Trust. Now, over 25 years later, the Trust has become ART and Steve is still a member of ICOF. Here, Steve shares a particular memory with us.

Like ICOF, ART is celebrating a birthday. We’re 25 this year and back then, we were the first ‘place-based’ Community Development Finance Institution (CDFI) in the UK using social investment from individuals and companies. Like ICOF we were raising money to lend to coops and businesses, but we were mostly focusing on lending to under-served communities in inner city Birmingham, whereas ICOF as the first CDFI in the country lent nationwide.

The two organisations complemented each other and had very strong alignment. That connection became stronger because Martin Hockley, who was CEO of ICOF, became a board member of Aston Reinvestment Trust and I did a board swap and became a director at ICOF. I was on the board for three or four years. When I first joined the board, I wasn’t actually employed by ART, I was seconded from Barclays where I’d worked for 29 years as a senior corporate manager. I’d never heard of social enterprises back then and I’d had very little to do with coops so the board swap gave me a complete eye opener into a different world, and at the same time gave us the benefit of Martin’s experience at ICOF, that we were able to use developing ART into a CDFI .

My first Board meeting was quite something. I was expecting it to be something like my first ART Board Meeting. In that meeting, I had just been appointed as CEO and the Chair, and the organisation’s founder Sir Adrian Cadbury, a terrifically influential and experienced businessman, started the meeting then just handed it all over to me and said ‘off you go’, ICOF was different!  I went in my suit and tie, and my big, shiny bank car to Loughborough College. I rolled up the night before and… well, I thought it might be a bit different from that first ART Board when most of the people arrived on motorbikes! I walked in and played snooker and chatted to people I’d never met before over a beer or two and then famously introduced myself to Bruce Wood, the Chair at the time and said “Of course you do realise that financial institutions don’t make money out of lending to small business”, which, of course, was ICOF core business! What a way to make an impression!

You see, I was used to the bank model where much income is made from charging for services and was expecting to find some services to sell. Very naively, I hadn’t realised that what ICOF do, and what ART do, wasn’t about products and making sales, it was about the loans, just the loans – and the impact they made. My eyes were opened and I lost the tie pretty quickly, I can tell you!

I learned that the other Directors had a considerably better ideal of life. When I asked one colleague “Where do you do most of your work?” he told me he sat on a beach in Cornwall dealing with loan applications. I thought to myself, I’m in a run down office in inner city Birmingham – it was a real education for me. Gradually I learned the co-operative way, from Martin as CEO in particular, and from his connections. Being part of ICOF has given me so much insight into the world of cooperatives – the world of sharing and understanding, and that’s followed through in the CDFI sector, and as they’ve developed it’s all been about sharing info, knowledge and experiences too. I’m proudly still a member of ICOF today – though I’m not sure I could put my hand on the certificate.

Happy Birthday ICOF –  Wishing you many more years of success.