James Berry, CEO of Great Western Credit Union, talks about the ethical saving and fair loan provider’s historic relationship with technology, how this evolved - and whats next.
Seeing - and realising - new digital possibilities for your organisation can feel like a daunting prospect at first. It can be tough to know where to begin and which are the right steps to take to become ready for the future.
Great Western Credit Union (Who were until recently, Bristol Credit Union) needed to evolve digitally to support both its existing members and achieve its strategic growth objectives. Working in partnership with Digital Wonderlab, the fair banking institution has been on a journey of discovery - transforming digitally while staying true to its core purpose.
Tell us firstly about Great Western Credit Union - who you are and what do you offer?
“Great Western Credit Union (GWCU) is a banking institution powered by local people: we support borrowers and savers by managing risk and building capital for them. Yet what differentiates credit unions from most banks is purpose: the credit union model operates with a ‘banking with purpose, for people and place’ ethos.
At GWCU, our mission is to make the people and communities that we serve better off. It’s that simple. Our ownership structure supports this; as a financial mutual, our customers - based across Bristol, Bath, the West of England and beyond - are also our owners. We are now the largest consumer-owned co-operative in the South West, with 16,000 customers and counting.
Founded in 1999, we have been based in Stokes Croft, central Bristol, for more than ten years but we have firm roots established across the Bristol area, Bath and Dorset. GWCU is a Living Wage Employer, is overseen by a voluntary Board of Directors and is actively supported by - and involved in - the communities we serve.”
How would you describe GWCU’s historic relationship with technology?
“Our use of technology didn’t fundamentally change for the first 15 years of GWCU. We had a variety of systems in place - all of which were unconnected - and used multiple spreadsheets and databases to operate, which inevitably resulted in a lot of re-keying and duplicate activity. We also had a largely unresponsive website with limited tracking or marketing information in place.
In 2015, we realised that our organisation’s structure was unsustainable in the long run: we needed to grow, and in order to successfully expand we had to address our technology. We also realised we’d made very minimal investment in tech, and the returns received echoed this lack of investment.
To take a leap forward and make a difference to our organisation and members, we really needed to invest and put the right resources behind getting the technology needed to grow and prosper.”
What did you need technology to deliver for your organisation?
“Technology has been crucial in moving the business towards fintech territory, enabling GWCU to become a modern-day financial institution that works with a progressive fintech mindset and infrastructure while remaining community-spirited at heart.
Going in, we had a lot of expectations and requirements that our new tech ecosystem needed to deliver on, including: speeding up the applicant process and increasing the volume of applicants, bolstering security through migration to the cloud and harnessing real-time data to aid decision-making and support agile growth. We also know that security is a huge concern for members, so technology needed to provide our community with freedom and choice while keeping our community’s assets safe and secure.
We knew that, above all else, we needed our tech to be connected and equipped to meet future challenges. We also wanted to be open-source and not tied to a particular vendor going forward. We required technology to allow us to be even more member-focused - a core part of our mission - and to drive internal efficiencies in order to enable us to grow sustainably.
Having secured the investment required to get the technology we needed to engage with our audiences in the right way, the above design principles all fed into our primary strategic aims: to deliver a great member experience and enhance the volume of lending that we could offer as a Credit Union.
This clear focus has ultimately led to a truly connected tech eco-system, with a number of solutions seamlessly working together in the background to really support our members. We now present a much more modern and device-responsive impression to the world, and tech is making a big difference in allowing us to achieve our strategic direction.”
What have you learnt during the course of your digital transformation journey?
“We are an organisation that is very much on a journey: we are moving from a traditional approach to becoming a fully-fledged fintech company.
During the course of this journey, we’ve learnt that cultural shift and skills development is vital: we have helped our team to grow their skills and to work in a more agile and responsive way, on course to becoming a more innovative and change oriented organisation.
We have learnt about the importance of great design and finding out how things work ‘in the wild’ - sometimes, concepts that look great on paper have to adapt and evolve when the user experience calls for it. Another key learning, that we could never have predicted at the start of 2020, is that developing a new platform during a pandemic is not ideal timing: there was a lot of work, blood, sweat and tears during lockdown! While our team is very confident working remotely, and we have adapted our ways of working during the many months of lockdown, it’s much more challenging to have crucial conversations remotely, especially as a group.
However, finding the right partner made all the difference to us: Digital Wonderlab was the right values-fit for us; the team’s size and “tech for good” approach complemented GWCU perfectly. As the wizards behind our new tech infrastructure, Digital Wonderlab supported us on a challenging journey and proved that we could successfully move into the modern world and be ready for whatever the future holds.”
What’s next for GWCU?
“Our primary focus right now is building and establishing our fintech approach. We are continuing to iterate on the platform, bringing forward features and ideas that will benefit our members, and we anticipate that we’ll need to replace our core platform in the near future. Most importantly, we are building our agile culture and promoting innovative ways of thinking to allow us to move forward with our fintech development.
Because of who we are and what we are, tech is absolutely essential to us but it will always be secondary - technology is nothing without a purpose. What tech has done for BCU is give us a platform to extend our membership area: we now accept members from the Severn to the Sea, covering Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset as well as the Bath and Bristol areas, so we have a significantly larger operational footprint thanks to identifying and embracing the right technology.
The platform will also allow us to bring back current accounts in the near future, to grow our money@work financial wellbeing in the workplace proposition, and to secure further investment to scale our impact and reach our bold ambition to grow ten-fold in the next ten years.
We have recently become Great Western Credit Union - reflecting our ability to support a much wider member base while staying true to our legacy. It’s a symbol of both our growth and our focus for the future. Exciting times ahead.”