Putting its members first
The Northern Rivers region of NSW is no stranger to floods. But this resilient community has been stretched to breaking point this year, with record-breaking floods reaching heights beyond what anyone had ever imagined.
Rural journalist Michael Cavanagh joined John Williams, CEO of Summerland Credit Union, to find out what drives this member-owned bank to keep going in even the toughest circumstances.
Discover why member-owned banks are an important part of the Co-operative Farming family, how Summerland’s co-operative values have informed its flood response and why Summerland is optimistic about the future.
Read more about the bank that’s putting its members first and strengthening the capacity of its community to recover from the 2022 floods.
Melina [00:00:03] Every month the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals podcast series looks at the operations of co-ops and mutuals closely involved in the rural sector. But this time, we’re taking a look at another community-based operation, which, while not directly involved in primary production, it is deeply embedded in regional areas. Hello, I’m Melina Morrison and I’m CEO of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals or BCCM. The floods on the New South Wales north coast in the Richmond River area still have communities reeling. I mean it’s been devastating. Michael Kavanagh looked at how one operation has ensured the community can rebuild through a co-operative.
Michael [00:00:47] Melina, Summerland Credit Union, not something you’d normally think is directly involved in farming. No gumboots out in the paddocks and what have you, but it’s very much a part of that community, which was so badly hit by the floods. Largely based at Lismore and Grafton, although with clients right around the country, it, like many other businesses, whether directly involved in farming or linked to the agricultural economy of the region, is far from operating back to normal after the flooding in the area. In rebuilding both businesses in the area and providing support for the shattered communities, the credit union has worked closely with other co-ops and mutuals. John Williams is Summerland Credit Union’s CEO.
John [00:01:45] We’ve got about 30,000 customers. We have customers in every state of Australia but we’re predominantly in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales. We have ten branches, which extend from the southern Gold Coast down to Grafton and we’re primarily a mortgage lender, residential mortgage lender so that’s about 95% of the business, which we do. We have a small commercial component, which is about 5% of our business.
Michael [00:02:13] And that commercial component, would it be essentially small business in the area?
John [00:02:18] Yes that’s right, essentially small business, although having said that, in our residential mortgage loan portfolio, of our approximately 3,200 customers with mortgage loans, about 25% of those are actually self-employed. So we have an exposure or an interest in the business market but as a self-employed, from a self-employed income perspective, servicing mortgage loans.
Michael [00:02:45] As a mutual co-op, whichever way you want to actually describe the credit union, you’ve got some interesting criteria for such things as you’ve got four goals, which is under the UN sustainability. And in that sense, how does that actually affect the operations of the credit union because you’ve got no direct investment in fossil fuels, for example?
John [00:03:11] That’s correct, so as an organisation, Summerland has taken a very strong position on the environment and climate change and have done so for more than a dozen years. To help guide our strategies around sustainability, we’ve aligned ourselves with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 goals in total for the United Nations, and we’ve aligned ourselves with four of those goals gender equity, decent work and economic growth, sustainable cities and communities and climate action.
Michael [00:03:42] John, as the CEO of a credit union and you’ve got these goals under the UN, at the same time, you have to be able to provide returns and profits that go back in to the organisation. How do you juggle that because isn’t there some sort of criteria that you’ve got to make a profit and yet at the same time you’re trying to meet those goals of the UN?
John [00:04:09] Yes, absolutely, it is really around what we do with those profits. So other than unlike listed banks where they have shareholders, which are their primary stakeholder and most financial institutions would have a dividend policy where they’re returning somewhere in the order of 60% of their profit back as dividends for those shareholders. As far as a mutual or a co-op or as we often prefer a customer-owned bank, we don’t have shareholders, we don’t have to pay those dividends. So that profit which we do make purely goes straight back into providing better products and services for our customers, better rates, investing into our business to continue our sustainability and also investing in our people within our organisation. So it’s not a fact that we don’t make a profit. We need to but it’s what we do with that profit that’s the difference.
Michael [00:05:02] And then also as a co-op mutual, you’re talking about profit and it gives better facilities and better service to the clients. At the same time, a lot of co-ops and mutuals, they have almost a designated area of community involvement. Some offer scholarships, employment pathways for young people, or just going out and paying for community facilities. Are you also involved in that sort of thing as well?
John [00:05:30] Yes, we are deeply connected with the community within the Northern Rivers. We support the community strongly and they support us strongly as well in return, I’ll have to say. But we do have business grant programmes. We have programmes to support community groups. And over the years, over the last five years, about a little over 5% of our net profit is returned back to customers through grants and donations back into the community. So it’s a very strong part of what we do and from a sustainability perspective, we do have a focus around supporting sustainable organisations, things like Bangalow koalas as an example. So we align our donations to fit with our purpose and our strategies.
Michael [00:06:15] Well, let’s look at the koalas, for example, because that’s an interesting aspect, because you think of supporting orchestras or small choirs, what are you going out and helping regenerate the forest or research into those particular koalas in the Bangalow area?
John [00:06:29] Yes, both of those actually, our staff get heavily involved in this. We provide staff volunteer days each year and we expect them to take that and they go out and help various community organisations. Bangalow koalas is a good one. Quite a number of our staff went out and planted trees to help to develop the pathways for the koalas to move and migrate and as well as straight cash donations to those organisations to support their own activities.
Michael [00:06:57] And how much does the community itself or the shareholders or the customers of the Summerland Credit Union have a say in these sorts of projects?
John [00:07:07] We do, so quite often our staff will reach out through the community, various community groups, there’s community organisations, quite often when we’re going to issue out our grant programmes, we will seek submissions from the community and they will go through an evaluation process and determine those that are most worthy. And we try to spread those funds around. It’s not just all about koalas. We spread to sporting groups, community groups, art groups to give a broad benefit to the wider community.
Michael [00:07:36] You’ve got 30 years experience in the finance sector, you’ve gone to a community-owned and run bank, how much did it have to change your thinking to be able to operate in that sort of environment?
John [00:07:49] Well, Michael, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been working largely in the customer-owned banking sector for more than 30 years. So nearly all of my banking career has been in that customer owned sector. It’s a sector, which I developed a passion for quite early in my career and one, which I’ve maintained and actually treasure. I’d probably find it difficult to go and work in a listed organisation after having worked in the co-operative mutual banking sector.
Michael [00:08:12] Well, here you are fronting a credit union on the New South Wales north coast and in the space of a couple of years you’ve been hit by two major disasters, the bushfires, and now you’re more than still coping with the floods, whether be in Lismore, the main commercial centre of that area, Grafton and you’ve got smaller branches at places like Nimbin. The floods hit, how did you cope because you’re still in effect not definitely not running at 100% higher, are you?
John [00:08:46] No, we’re not running at 100%. So the disruption for us as a business, but probably more so for the community, it been quite, quite significant in that sense.
Michael [00:08:57] Well, the flood and you’ve got it, essentially, some of the worst parts of the flooding occurred on the weekend. You’re getting dragged in and you’re obviously trying to get make sure that your own staff are coping and then you’ve got your 30,000 customers. They’re not all obviously in that area, how did you, as a small operation, although a fairly substantial operation on the far north coast, what did you have to do to make things work practically?
John [00:09:26] Look, I think it was about having real clarity of purpose and living to the values, which we have as an organisation. We adopted an approach of being as prepared for the flood as we possibly could be. So the floods occurred on a Monday, the 28th of February, but we knew on Saturday that we would have it’s likely that we would have some level of flooding. So we actually had, if you like, the luxury of time to prepare. So on Saturday, a number of our staff came in and removed vehicles, etc., from our basement car park. And then on Sunday we had an executive crisis management meeting Sunday morning. So we at that stage were expecting a flood. We activated our business continuity plan. We, as a financial institution, we’re required to have those plans in place. And because of the propensity for floods within the Northern Rivers, we actually have a specific flood business continuity plan. So we were well prepared in that sense. We had multiple staff come in and clear out our office spaces to the height of the flood, which we expected it at that time and had prepared well, as had most other businesses in the Lismore CBD. As I said, it floods relatively often in Lismore and most businesses and most households understand what they’ve got to do to prepare for that. I think the issues in this particular flood and probably related back to climate change is that the scale of the flood was significantly more than anything that had been experienced in living memory, in fact, probably longer than that and much higher than what the authorities had predicted on the Sunday. So on the Sunday evening the CBD of Lismore was evacuated and at that stage the flood levels was expected to reach about 11.5 metres. At that height we would have about 200 millimetres of water through our premise. Unfortunately, as it panned out, the flood levels were 14.4 metres and so what people had prepared for was quite different to what actually eventuated as it turned out. So from that flood preparation, I remember sending an email to my board actually on Sunday evening saying, oh, look, we’re in a good place here. We’ve had the luxury of time and everything is good. But, you know, tomorrow how we go. But as I said, that didn’t wasn’t quite how panned out in the end.
Michael [00:11:52] John Williams is my guest, CEO of Summerland Credit Union and a part of the Meet the Co-op Farmers with Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. Normally, we look at the area of primary production or businesses directly related to primary production. But when you consider something like Summerland Credit Union involved on the North Coast where there is a lot of primary production, both traditional and emerging industries and affected by the floods. John, you’ve got Casino and Grafton as your predominant areas for the credit union, but there’s also in those smaller farming communities, you’ve got offices or branches. Now banking is very, very much linked to the Internet. And here you are, you are hit by the floods and people are needing cash. Now, normally they just go to the ATM and that’s it. How did you get around things like that because people would have had to have cash to make payments, whether it’s just to have bread on the table or make a payment to a small rural supplies operation, for example?
John [00:13:03] Yes that’s a very interesting question, Michael, so when the flood hit Lismore in particular, every bank branch for whichever institution and every ATM was destroyed. So the Lismore community had no access at all to any sort of cash facilities and in a broader sense around most of the Northern Rivers. When the floods occurred there was a significant outage of both Internet and mobile services and this has had a great impact on merchant services. So nearly every merchant has an EFPOS machine that is reliant on the Internet. So most, although those many merchants were not operating, those that were didn’t have any payment facilities. And as I mentioned, there were very few ATMs available within the region. And those that were available actually, most of them ran out of cash and some of our cash supplies into the town for Casino that you mentioned were actually using helicopters to deliver cash to the town.
Michael [00:14:01] Brown paper bags.
John [00:14:03] Yes, a little bit that’s right and in our case, the best way that we could do to support the community was to be able to get banking facilities up and going as quickly as possible. So we established through the Southern Cross University a community-banking hub at the university grounds in Lismore. We had that through the very kind and generous support of the university. We established that hub on Friday after the floods so four days after the flood, we had access to that building and we invited five other mutual banks to come and join us in that facility. We could have taken that facility for ourselves, but as Summerland, it is a community-based organisation, we didn’t think that that was the best thing for the community and the best outcome for the community. The best thing we could do is get a broad range of services, whichever institution they bank with back in operation in the markets. So we invited them in, they came and joined us. They’re still working there today because there are no bank branches in Lismore today and we’ve just agreed to continue that arrangement at the Southern Cross University through to December because we think it will be that long before any of those financial institutions can rebuild a branch in the CBD. And in that context I had a phone call from another co-operative, the CEO from Norco gave me a call on Saturday after the floods and he was very interested in supporting his staff, as you would expect and because there were no merchant services available and no cash available, he was looking for some assistance to provide cash to his staff, a cash advance, if you like, to support them, particularly those that were flood impacted. So we actually opened and traded on Sunday after the flood and we invited the Norco employees to come through. They had a HR payroll person there who is confirming their identity and we were providing cash to those people regardless of whether they’re a customer of ours or not, to be able to support them and the community through what was quite a difficult time.
Michael [00:16:09] Well, you mention of Norco there and the region that you largely work to has some very large and successful co-ops. You’ve got Norco, you’ve got Casino Food, and then there are smaller ones involved in the macadamia industry and in that and you being a mutual, how much do you think because a lot of the work you’re doing, you’re on skates on the weekends trying to get things done. How much do you think the fact that you’re in a community, you’ve had the executives of Norco contact you straight away. How much do you think because of being community -based, you are able to make decisions, which literally were being made on the run?
John [00:16:53] Absolutely, in fact, we have a quite a tight network of co-operatives within the region. And I meet quite regularly with the executives and CEOs from Casino Food, from Norco, from macadamias, from the blueberry industry. And we meet quite frequently actually and we’ve met several times since the flood to look at options and ways that we can further support the community and rebuild businesses within the Lismore CBD. I also think it’s important those organisations are in touch. As you mentioned, they’re on the ground, they can see what’s happening and in the context of Lismore, if it were not that we had a presence here and a deep understanding of the community and who to talk to that community-banking hub would not have eventuated. It’s about knowing who to contact and the people at the local level. Locals helping locals, if you like that really made a significant difference through the floods.
Michael [00:17:51] Well, you’ve done things such as with the ATMs down, you had to bring in cash. I love the vision of a helicopter coming in with a bag of cash. It’s just a wonderful picture. But you’ve also did waiving fees on early access. You had to make decisions that on paper were going to hit the bottom line. How did you manage that because you still have to know that you’re going to be operating in not just 12 months time and the flood recovery is going to take a hell of a lot longer than that, just infrastructure-wise? How can you juggle those things of both meeting the community’s needs but still stay afloat?
John [00:18:33] I really do think it comes back to clarity of purpose so as a co-op or a mutual, we’re very clear who our owners are. It’s our customers and that’s our primary, the absolute commitment to servicing those customers as best we can. So when you get to an urgent situation or a disaster situation like this, I think it really is coming back to clarity of purpose and clarity of your values as an organisation in your culture. So we were very keen to help out our customers. We put that assistance programme in immediately. We identified every customer that had a mortgage loan with us that was likely to have been impacted. We made outbound calls to them to check not only on their welfare, but also to see if we could assist them with insurance claims, assist them with hardship or in whichever way that they needed. So I think it really is about clarity of purpose. As you say, we’ve got to be conscious about our profitability that we do take a long-term view. We’re not necessarily worried about what our performance looks like per se this year. We have the benefit of being a mutual. We take a long-term perspective and we’re not beholden to shareholders looking for that dividend and facing difficult shareholder meetings when you don’t make a profit through a year. Our perspective is more long-term.
Michael [00:18:14] How do you also marry that part of, as you said, you had very early contact with Norco as Casino Food and then there are other co-ops in the area, very much in emerging horticulture, how do you balance that thing of you’re a member of the community and people have been hit, hit dramatically, but you’ve still got to show empathy, not sympathy, and also meet the requirements of the financial authorities. How did you park that emotion?
John [00:20:32] I actually have a technology background and quite often in disaster situations, you build up a resilience, an approach to that. And being calm and showing leadership is the first thing that you need to do. There’s nothing worse than a leader who is running around in small circles, and that really doesn’t provide clarity or support or confidence to your staff or to the community. So we were very conscious about supporting, showing leadership and in fact, as I mentioned before, today, this week we’re back into our head office in Lismore. And one of the reasons we want to do that is to show support and confidence to the community that as a leading organisation here, we’re willing to support the recovery process and make it happen and bring life back into the Lismore District and to the CBD.
Michael [00:21:19] John Williams is the CEO of Summerland Credit Union, largely based on the far north coast of New South Wales and like many businesses there, still recovering from the floods. It’s a little bit of a different Meet the Co-op Farmers podcast. We’re not looking directly at primary production, but looking at those operations and obviously while they are linked to the economy, the area, which is still largely primary production, we’re just taking a look at it in a different way as part of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. John, you’ve had the bushfires, you’ve now got the floods, you set up some funding or some to raise some funds. And for example, if I’m correct, I think the flood funding was a target of $200,000. Is that coming from the council? How does that operate?
John [00:22:11] Sure, so we’re using the services of another mutual organisation, the Australian Mutuals Foundation. They have a foundation. They already have the infrastructure set up to take donations, provide tax receipts, etc. So we’re utilising their services. So you’re right, we have a target of $200,000 to achieve at the moment that’s sitting at a little north of $150,000. We fully expect to reach the target, which we’ve set. Those funds have come from a range of organisations. Some individuals, of course, including some of our own directors and staff, have donated directly to the fund. Summerland themselves have donated lots of other financial institutions, particularly mutuals and co-ops, have donated. A number of our business partners have donated to the fund as well. So our payments providers, insurance companies, software development companies have all understood our situation. They understand their deep connection with the community and they want to support us and they want to support the community. And they have made also donations through to the Australian Mutuals Foundation. In fact, we’re just starting now to have a look at how we distribute those funds. We want to get those funds out of the foundation and into the hands of the community. Up until now, it’s been difficult for community groups to think about that too much. They’ve had more urgent needs to deal with in probably in their own personal circumstances or the recovery of their community organisations. But now is the time where we will start to seek submissions from the community and allocate those funds out to organisations as quickly as we can.
Michael [00:23:51] Would you look at new projects or is it really building up infrastructure and what have you that those community organisations suffered a hit because of the floods?
John [00:24:02] I think our primary response would be to rebuild what has been destroyed through the floods. I think that’s the best outcome. The community organisations that already exist are providing the social fabric to our communities and they’re the organisations, which we really want to focus on the support on to start with.
Michael [00:24:20] The credit union, as you said, the bulk of it, it’s over 90% is mortgages and then a small percentage is small business. All of this going on and you’re still recovering and you’re working out where to go and make sure that the infrastructure is up and running for the credit union, has it changed possibly the thinking and the direction and investment of the credit union, maybe spreading its risk for want of a better term, wider?
John [00:24:51] Yes, it has. So we’ve always been aware that this applies to any mutual bank. They’re largely regionally based, many are regionally based or they are bonded to a particular employer group. We’re more regionally based and we’re centred around the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. And as you’d appreciate, the Northern Rivers has its more than fair share of natural events and disaster events and from a risk perspective, you can end up with concentration risk, particularly in your lending portfolio for us, even in this event though, I’d have to say that our customers have been highly resilient and we’re providing as much support that we can to our customers, but it’s much less than what we may have expected in the first place. So the community themselves are showing, as I said, amazing resilience in being self-sufficient and supporting themselves. But as an organisation, yes, it does create increased focus around concentration. And we had already started a programme of spreading our wings a little bit further. As I mentioned, we do business in every state of Australia. We do use mortgage brokers to support our lending activities. And mortgage broker business typically comes from outside of our region and about 25% of our mortgage book is originated through those brokers, which helps spread our risk from a concentration perspective.
Michael [00:26:12] How much is it also a concern when you walk down the main street of Lismore at the moment, for example, there is very, very little commercial activity and that would transfer through to farmers, who are still trying to recover, whether it be building fences or restocking. Is that a worry for you that a lot of those will just say, we’re moving on, we’re getting out, we’re not going to be able to cope. We’ve gone through the bushfires. We’ve now been hit by the floods. How much is that a worry for Summerland Credit Union and its viability?
John [00:26:49] It’s a concern for us in respect that we think about it more broadly as a community, community event. So we are absolutely committed to the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. We’re committed to rebuilding into the Lismore CBD and showing leadership to other businesses and help and support them. Banking service is one of those things that is almost a fundamental as far as businesses are concerned. And if we can bring banking services back into Lismore to give confidence to particularly smaller businesses that the CBD is still viable, I think that’s an important thing. As far as our own viability is concerned, there’s no risk there. We prepare for events like this. We have provisioning set aside and meet the banking regulations that we have to abide by, as does every other financial institution, including the major banks. It’s the same regulations and the same laws that we have to apply for, so we manage risk quite well. We have loan provisioning, which we allow for. We are prepared for these sorts of events. We have high levels of capital relative to other businesses that support events like this where losses may occur. So from a viability perspective, our APRA regulation and the framework within which we operate is highly resilient to these sorts of events.
Michael [00:28:11] Well, talking about APRA and the other banking authorities, have you had to mount a different argument because you’re mutual and you’re very much community-focused? Has it been difficult to explain to them why you are doing certain things that are changing, not the direction of Summerland Credit, but possibly just the immediate day-to-day because people just aren’t up and running, whereas APRA would be looking such as the Big Four and then there’s yourselves. Have you found it difficult to mount a cogent argument for them to understand?
John [00:28:50] No, they are very much across the mutual banking sector. APRA supports the community-banking sector as an alternative and to have competition in the Australian banking market. And I honestly could not praise APRA high enough for the way that have managed and worked with ourselves and I’m sure with other financial institutions and not burdening us with a whole stack of questions, data analytics, analysis, they’ve been very patient and they’re happy to take the work, which we’re doing for our own board. And I couldn’t compliment them more about the way that they have approached the floods and the support to the financial institutions affected by them.
Michael [00:29:28] I’m Michael Kavanagh and this is one of the Meet the Co-op Farmers podcast. But we’re not actually talking directly to farmers as part of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. But John Williams, who is the CEO of Summerland Credit Union, largely based on the northern rivers of New South Wales, Grafton and Casino, Lismore. John, as part, I suppose, of a PR exercise, when you’re walking down the main street of the devastated towns and you can say, listen, this co-operative, this mutual, it’s been operating without a problem. How much does it actually raise the profile not necessarily of Summerland Credit Union, but the role of mutual because a lot of people don’t realise that they are actually co-ops.
John [00:30:16] It has raised the profile of Summerland and of the mutual banking sector more broadly. In particular the community-banking hub, which we established with the other five mutual banks that operated out of Lismore that was the first group and first set of financial services that was available. It was available within a week of the flood and the community really supported that. We received a high level of profile about that, which was really; it was a very well appreciated. But it was just really fundamentally living up to our core values of our organisation and supporting the customers as best we possibly could. So absolutely it has and I think also our involvement through various business groups. So the New South Wales Government and the Federal Government have been running a series of workshops for businesses. We’ve been represented there, we’ve been voicing our opinion and as best as we can provide confidence to those small, particularly smaller businesses that we are here in for the long-term and we are going to continue to support the Lismore community.
Michael [00:31:20] How much do you think also as people walked up to you on the main street and said, look, we didn’t realise that it was a co-op and in fact largely based on the Northern Rivers of New South Wales?
John [00:31:34] They have, and in fact our member growth has grown substantially over the last three months since the floods. We were very proactive in getting banking services back up to the community. A number of other financial institutions were not as quick as us and those customers couldn’t get the banking services that they needed immediately. And they’ve actually opened up accounts with us to get banking services. They can see that we’re open, we’re visible. We ran a advertising campaign to let the community know that we were here, particularly through social media so that has actually increased our profile and actually increased our customer growth and through what has been a quite a difficult time.
Michael [00:32:13] A bit of irony when you see the Big Four have been closing their branches in a lot of the smaller communities, while I suppose you’re not actually rolling out new branches and you couldn’t build one at the moment anyway. Is that also part of possible future that as a mutual and so heavily entrenched in the area coming out of the floods, can you actually see a greater number of if not branches but outlets for people to be able to bank directly with Summerland Credit?
John [00:32:42] That’s an interesting question, Michael, banking services in Australia, as you are aware and as your listeners would be as well, are largely provided digitally these days. So 98% of our transactions are done electronically. And it’s interesting thing with branches, customers in general really treasure branches, they just don’t want to use them and that creates a difficult dilemma.
Michael [00:33:07] A bit like motherhood, isn’t it?
John [00:33:08] It is that’s right and they get confidence by organisations that do have a physical presence. And of our ten branches, in fact, three of them are in in locations where we are the only financial institution remaining in those towns. And when you get to that situation, those communities rely very heavily on those banking services and you’ll be aware of the issues that come from communities where there are no banking services available. So the issue for us is to acknowledge that we need a significant investment in digital distribution and digital services because that’s primarily what customers want. But we also have a community obligation to provide fundamental bricks and mortar banking services to communities without leaving them high and dry. And it’s a difficult equation for all financial institutions, as I said, with there’s an expectation of higher levels and more sophisticated and a broader breadth of digital services. But organisations and financial institutions only have, like every other business, so many dollars for investment, and it’s about allocating that investment in the best way possible, acknowledging that the digital part has got to grow, but the physical bricks and mortar component is declining in transactions. Cash transactions in Australia are declining at around about 10% per annum. Branch closures, particularly through the majors, are around about 9% per annum over the last year. So it is a definitely a trend and a growing issue, particularly for smaller communities.
Michael [00:34:39] You’re working closely with other co-ops, not just the mutuals, but you mentioned Norco, the biggest co-op dairy in the country, Casino Food and some of the lesser but emerging primary production in the region that you’re based in, in your dealings with them over this, have you also seen opportunities for organisations like Summerland Credit to be more involved on the finance side with those sorts of organisations?
John [00:35:14] Yes, absolutely, it is a little bit horses for courses and depends a little bit on the size of the co-op. So as we talked about earlier, we’re predominantly a residential mortgage lender and although we do commercial business, it’s largely in the SME market. And some of the co-ops, which you mentioned, are quite significant large businesses and the level, the services, which we provide are probably not to the sophistication that some of those organisations require. However, I think that we can support them in multiple different ways, whether it be through fundraising accounts or the smaller co-ops that need assistance, then that’s absolutely part of our profile and the services which we can have supply to them.
Michael [00:35:56] Well, John, most bank employees, mutuals credit unions, they’re always smartly dressed, particularly in the offices. I suppose this time round, if you’ve had to cope with bushfires, you come out of that. And now coping with the aftermath of the floods, how much, apart from possibly handing out gumboots to the staff, how much have you also changed, possibly the training and the staff’s outlook in dealing with these small communities?
John [00:36:30] Look, we do a lot of work on that. So we have a vulnerable persons programme within our business, and that’s vulnerable persons in all contexts, whether they’re victims of domestic violence, disability, lower socio economic areas or in cases, in some cases, as I said, locations where there are no other banking services. So we make this quite visible to all staff and about the support that which we need to provide to vulnerable customers in whichever shape, way shape or form to the point that we are white ribbon accredited organisation and I’m a white ribbon ambassador myself. So we support those vulnerable people in a whole range of ways and absolutely supporting those smaller communities is part of that programme.
Michael [00:37:16] Well, John, I suppose given what’s gone on in the last 2 to 3 years, the last thing you want is the CEO of Summerland Credit based there in the Northern Rivers, you don’t want to see the horsemen of the apocalypse coming over the hill. Is there any time when you and your executive staff have thought, what else can we do?
John [00:37:40] Yes, there has, it has been very wearying over the last couple of years and you’ve mentioned bushfires, you’ve mentioned floods. We had COVID in between for a couple of years, of course, which has impacted a whole range of services and how we go to market. But I think from our perspective, it is just about expecting the unexpected and particularly with respect to climate change that what we’ve known as the norms in the past are not necessarily the norms of the future. And we need to start catering for unexpected events more so than what we have done in the past. Being a financial institution, we have high levels of compliance and regulation that support us in that endeavour. And I’m sure the banking regulator, APRA, is doing some further work on that as well. It’s just a matter of being prepared and changing the mindset a little bit to broaden out the range of possibilities that could occur.
Michael [00:38:37] Have you found that being able to change the mindset and what have you in dealing and talking with your colleagues and counterparts in the larger financial institutions, have they made the comment that possibly you, as a community based organisation, they actually see in some ways you’ve been able to possibly cope better and provide those coping mechanisms for your clients as opposed to the operations they are in.
John [00:39:07] Yes, I think so, being smaller and more nimble, we can make decisions pretty quickly and because of our purpose and being customer owned, we’re really focused around that outcome. So yes, I think we can and I think it’s been evident even through these floods when the mutuals were able to get banking services up and going before other organisations is a reflection of that.
Michael [00:39:32] So, John, overall, not just for Summerland Credit Union itself, but the other co-ops in the area, despite what’s gone on, you’re quite optimistic?
John [00:39:44] Well, I am, in fact, I’d have to say one of our values is default to positivity. And it’s one that we’ve used a lot over the last period of time. And from a leadership perspective, you can achieve so much more with the right culture and the right attitude and our people will go so much further. So our culture’s added significantly to the way that we’ve come through the floods and the way that our staff feel about the future. We are quite optimistic about our future.
Michael [00:40:13] John, best of luck with it and thanks very much for your time.
John [00:40:16] It has been an absolute pleasure, Michael, thank you.
Michael [00:40:20] John Williams, CEO of Summerland Credit Union, which like many operations on the New South Wales north coast, is rebuilding after the devastating floods. I like the story of helicopters ferrying cash.
Melina [00:40:33] That rebuilding will go on for a long time and the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals will be taking a look at how other co-operatives are coping. I hope you enjoyed this latest episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers. If you’d like to know anything about setting up or running a successful agricultural co-operative, you can find out everything you need to know at the co-op farming website that’s www.coopfarming.coop that’s right, coop for co-operative. Please share this with your mates, if you enjoyed this story, we really do want to get the great stories of farming co-operation out there. And remember, in a troubled world, with all of the challenges but also the opportunities we have, we really are better together. I’m Melina Morrison, and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers.
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