Fifty years of friendship and finance – meet James Berry

Today in our series of interviews with friends from the last fifty years we speak to James Berry, Chief Executive of Great Western Credit Union – previously Bristol Credit Union.

ICOF have always been fairly close neighbours of ours, because we’re both based in Bristol. The original direct involvement has been through support that ICOF offered to the then Bristol Credit Union back in 2009. The ICOF Trustees had decided that they were looking to support the growth of credit unions as fellow cooperatives and fellow mutuals and they made some special funds available to credit unions in the form of subordinated loans. Effectively, this means that in terms of being repaid, it ranks below any other creditor which means that our regulators, the Bank of England will then count it as regulatory capital. This is very helpful for a credit union, because it allows us to grow more quickly than we otherwise would be able to.

The loan process was great. I heard about it through another credit union – that’s the way our sector works. We talk to each other and if somebody thinks something is a good idea, somebody else probably will too. So it was word of mouth that put us in touch. One of the Ians (Taylor and Rothwell) visited the then Bristol Credit Union office, which was on a major thoroughfare in Bristol, I think he was quite impressed that the credit union was so visible and available, back in 2009. I’m not sure he was quite so impressed when he came to visit me in my office, which was basically the basement in the building! As we’d grown and expanded already, we’d run out of space above ground for everybody to be up there. So as the CEO I volunteered to be the one who went downstairs and lived in the basement.

So, Ian had to come and visit me in the fairly grotty basement, but we had a good chat about credit unions about what we were up to, what our growth story had been up to that point, and then how the subordinated debt was going to help us to grow further, deliver more impact for communities around the Greater Bristol area. Obviously, the fund overall really got what we were trying to do, particularly with that specialism in cooperatives and community finance. So that was a really fruitful conversation in terms of the understanding being at a reasonable level already. I think it was more about sharing how credit unions have grown and developed rather than an introduction to what it is in the first place, which is always a better starting point, as with commercial banks and organisations, we quite often have to start with ‘what is it at all’? And then ICOF had a really supportive approach to seeing how we could make sure that the ICOF rules and due diligence and so on could be satisfied. We were really working in partnership to get the information in the right way to enable that to happen and ICOF were very collaborative and cooperative around the whole process of working with the fund.

Our original loan was repaid at its 10 year term, and we have had a subsequent follow on loan. Probably the most amusing thing to me about the original loan and possibly much less amusing to ICOF but nevertheless – was that they lent the 2009 money to us at base rate, and that was when base rate was 5, or 5.5%.  Very quickly after that, the financial crisis meant that base rate plummeted, and so for quite a long time, I was earning more having that money in the bank than I was actually paying on the loan. I rather foolishly did remind Alain of that from time to time!.

In terms of what the money enabled us to do, the loan itself allowed us to scale more quickly than we would otherwise have been able to.

Our primary source of capital is the money that we earned and the surplus or the profit that we make. Now if we want to grow quicker than our ability to accumulate that surplus, we’re then fairly limited, because we need to hold the right read levels of regulatory capital. So the money enabled us to reach probably thousands more people than we would otherwise be able to reach in a much shorter time.

The impact of that in terms of those communities and those members that we’ve been able to support through the ICOF loan is massive. It really makes a big difference to people’s financial wellbeing, being able to work with the credit union. In terms of the loans for example, somebody who borrows £500 to £1,000 is often saving £100, £200 even £300 pounds over the course of a year in interest that they would otherwise have paid to a high cost lender. Multiply that by a good couple of thousand people – that’s a really big amount back into local communities, supporting people to be able to have a better standard of living than they would otherwise be able to, and it’s really making everybody better off together, which is our kind of raison d’etre. Really, it’s what we’re here for. We work together as a cooperative to become better off together. The support from the loan just enables us to accelerate that and provide that support to many thousands more people.

People don’t tend to talk about informal lending and loan sharks but all the research would suggest that there are bound to have been people who would have borrowed from loan sharks who are now borrowing from the credit union, even if they don’t tell us which they usually don’t! We’re proud to have been instrumental in the conviction of at least one loan shark in the Bristol area.

Somewhere else we’ve been able to make a difference is around gambling harm. We were involved in a real lived experience discussion recently, with a charity and somebody who’d been really affected by gambling, who was talking about how really easy availability of credit exacerbated their problem. That really helped me to see how we could do things differently as a credit union, by taking a person first approach rather than just worrying about how much money we lend in any one month, which is perhaps where other lenders go astray. Even just doing simple things like always – always – taking a second look at a loan application that’s made between the hours of 11pm and 6am helps. Because chances are if somebody is applying for a loan at that time, there’s something really driving that, that’s not necessarily in their best interests. Of course we know people work shifts and the like – it’s not a ‘no’ but it’s just saying taking a closer look.

Massive congratulations to ICOF, 50 years is such a fantastic achievement, the level of impact and the level of difference that they’ve made to communities, to cooperatives to mutuals around the country has been phenomenal across that time. Happy birthday, ICOF