How Summerland Credit Union is helping Lismore get back to business

The bank that’s putting its members first and strengthening the capacity of its community to recover from the 2022 floods

Interview by Michael Cavanagh and Lauren Moxey
Photography by Summerland Credit Union

When the rivers began to rise, the residents of South-East Queensland and the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales knew what to do. After hastily preparing their homes and businesses, they began the nervous wait for the floodwaters to recede so that normal life could resume. But the deluge kept coming and the riverbanks burst, spilling into the streets– many were left desperately clinging to their roofs. The relentless flow of water persisted, and the residents realised with terror that this was no ordinary flood. Three months on, life is far from normal.

In the aftermath, stories of brave rescues and incredible escapes began to emerge, and the community began to comprehend their enormous losses. Tragically, 22 people perished, and these losses alone have left an indelible mark on the survivors. There were more losses: beloved pets, local wildlife and farming stock, houses – each one filled with a lifetime of memories –were now caked in thick mud throughout, and schools and other places of sanctuary and community life were refuges no more. Hundreds of business owners braced themselves for bad news as they neared their shopfronts and offices, but nothing could have prepared them for the sheer magnitude of the destruction that awaited them.

Headed by CEO John Williams, Summerland Credit Union is a familiar presence in the region, and with 30,000 customers – most of them local – it’s easy to see why. The bank concentrates on residential mortgages, which comprise 95% of its business. Around 25% of their 3,200 mortgage loan customers are self-employed and include local farmers and other primary producers. As a mutual, Summerland is customer owned, so it doesn’t have to pay dividends to shareholders. Instead, profits are directed towards providing better products and services and more competitive rates, as well as investing in the sustainability of the business and in the people who make up Summerland.

Summerland focuses on four of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals: gender equity, decent work and economic growth, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action. These goals shape what the bank does with its profits; for example, 5 per cent of net profits are returned to the community through grants and donations, which are awarded for their alignment with the goals of the bank. As a White Ribbon accredited organisation, the bank also looks to support individuals who are experiencing significant life challenges such as domestic violence, financial hardship, or living with a disability.

For John, his work is more than a job – it’s a calling. “I've been working largely in the customer-owned banking sector for more than 30 years … 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.”

He's proud of the leadership role Summerland plays in the communityworking with other co-operatives through the Northern Rivers Co-operatives Alliance: “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 … 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.”

Concentrated in the Northern Rivers region and with 10 branches between the Gold Coast and Grafton, Summerland had experienced previous natural disasters, most recently the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires. The 2022 flooding, however, was unprecedented in its impact on the bank’s branches and general operations – not to mention the number of staff and members who were directly affected.

Knowing that the floods were approaching, the Summerland team put an action plan in place from Saturday, 26 February, preparing their facilities and vehicle fleet and implementing their flood business continuity plan. But even the authorities couldn’t predict what Monday would bring. John explains that “at that stage the flood level was expected to reach about 11.5 metres. At that height we would have about 200 millimetres of water through our premises. 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.”

“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.” John explains that “the best way that we could 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.”

Remarkably, the hub was up and running just four days after the flood. Instead of using the space exclusively for themselves, Summerland invited five other mutuals to join them so that more community members could access essential banking services – the co-operative spirit at work. The hub will be in place until at least December, such is the devastation in the town centre.

Lismore-based dairy co-operative, Norco, approached Summerland to assist them to support their staff. Together the two co-operatives ensured that Norco workers received their pay, in cash, so that they could access essential goods and services. It didn’t matter if the employee was a Summerland member or not – everyone was cared for. Indeed, John refers to the pivotal role of co-operatives and mutuals in harnessing their local knowledge to quickly enact solutions in times of crisis: “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.”

For John, putting people before profits wasn’t even a decision he had to make: “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 program 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.”

“We've got to be conscious about our profitability, but 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.”

Signs of life are starting to emerge in Lismore. Recently, Summerland has been able to move back into its head office in the Lismore CBD. John and his team knew that this was as much a symbolic gesture as it was a practical one. By providing a tangible demonstration of their long-term commitment to the region and their belief in the recovery process, they have instilled more confidence and optimism among local residents.

The Summerland board members recognise that this won’t be the last flood they face. “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.”

Part of the secret to Summerland’s success is their unfailing optimism and their strong organisational culture. John is keenly aware of how these factors shape a business:“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.”

After hearing from John about how Summerland has continued to embody the co-operative spirit despite extreme challenges, we’re quite optimistic too.

Listen to our interview with CEO John Williams, Summerland Credit Union on our Meet the Co-op Farmers podcast.

Visit the Summerland Credit Union website.

John Williams
Summerland Credit Union branch in Lismore reopening

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