AS Darlington Building Society celebrates its 160th anniversary Business Editor Andy Richardson talks to chief executive Colin Fyfe about the lender's bold pledge to shre its skills, branches and money with the local community. 

Why do you think Darlington Building Society (DBS) is still going strong after 160 years?

IT has a very distinct geography. We are a business that has been at the heart of this part of the world for all of that time. It has never launched a mission to take over the whole of Britain or amalgamate with a large organisation and try to go global. Its roots have always been firmly planted here, and that continues.
It also has particular strengths. For example, the ethos of the organisation with it being a mutual means that when decisions are made the directors and executives sit down and ask: ‘What would our customers think about this?’ The customer is considered when we are planning things within our business not just when we open the doors of our branches. 
Also, this is not the type of ego-driven organisation that takes huge risks. It does not have a typical City of London or Wall Street type of attitude that you have got to go for at all costs and forget the consequences. There will have been many challenging times throughout our 160 years, but those principles have really held this business in good shape and I am really pleased to say that it continues to this day.

Why didn’t DBS follow other building societies and become a bank or Plc? 

THERE are times when you can be tempted to go into a field which is not your natural habitat. At first it might feel fantastic and be hugely successful but I think it runs true with most businesses in most sectors when you start to go away from your core skills that is when you run the highest risk. 
The Darlington has always  managed to navigate itself away from those places. 
We now use the phrase ‘stick to the knitting’ to describe our strategy. By that I mean we are very good at servicing customers around traditional financial needs: mortgages, savings, insurances and investments. That is our absolute core. The style that you bring to it and your attitude is where you can be innovative and different from other people in the market. But if we started to dabble in some of the products that got financial services firms into difficulty – such as some of the bonds and impaired-type of assets that became synonymous during the financial crisis – the problem is we don’t claim to have expertise there, so we would rather stick to what we are good at.

During your recent rebrand did you ever consider changing the society’s name?

WE started with a blank sheet of paper, so everything was under consideration. 
The first thing we did was to ask our customers, staff, as well as professionals in the local community. Their feedback reiterated the pride that people have in the Society and therefore any thought that we might consider different names was blown out of the water. We never gave it serious consideration. 
Darlington, as a name, is probably more of a challenge locally than it is nationally, because I want to make sure that the people in Middlesbrough, Bishop Auckland, Redcar, Northallerton, all across the region, know that we are here for their communities. Obviously the name Darlington Building Society gives us a particular identity. It also gives a sense of longevity, but this is a town which has a very positive future and we want to be an integral part of the exciting things that are happening here too. 
For our customers further afield in other parts of Great Britain, they will use us for the quality of our service and our price rather than based on what they know about the town of Darlington. 
Therefore it gives us a nice balance. We can make money through having mortgages with people in other parts of the country to strengthen our operations in our heartland area.

How have you managed to protect the Society’s reputation during a period of scandal and crisis in financial services? 

WE deliberately do not go out and shout about ‘trust’ because it is a commodity that a lot of organisations in our industry lost over recent years and we very much think it should be earned through actions, not words.
The fact that we are rebranding and celebrating our 160th is partly about showing pride in our longevity and also  that we want people to know that we exist. 
The awareness of Darlington Building Society among some people is second nature because they grew up with us and regard us as a trusted name. 
Amongst others it is lost in a sea of TV adverts and newspaper bad press about scandals, banker bashing and suchlike. We do need to tell people of different generations that we are here and what we stand for. We hope at that point they consider us. That consideration is key. There are people who will say ‘I am loyal to the Nationwide or the Newcastle’ – which is fantastic, we respect that because loyalty is important. But there are a lot of people who feel disenfranchised, who don’t actually know who their local branch manager is or if one even exists. They may believe that a computer runs their bank. 
That is the complete opposite from us. 
Raising awareness helps to create a virtuous cycle so we become stronger and are able to invest even more in our local communities. 

How do you plan to work even closer with the community? 

WHEN we were asking our members and our staff: ‘what type of values would you get behind?’ loads of words were used, but we brought it right down to one – sharing. We have a got a rich history so the credibility and knowledge of our staff is terrific. 
I know am I biased but cannot imagine that the skills and experience of the people here are stronger anywhere else. We have got resources that we want to share with local people, whether that is our premises, skills, our money – we enjoy working with people. 
One example if local homeless charity 700 Club. They had been the beneficiaries of one of our Affinity mortgages – where every time a customer takes one out we give money to a local charity or good cause. 
A member of their board came up with a brilliant idea that we help fund 160 nights of shelter for homeless people. That was exactly the kind of thinking we were looking for to link our anniversary year and help us live up to our pledge of sharing with local people.

Meet the Boss

FIVE minutes with Colin Fyfe: 

Favourite North-East building and why?

Transporter Bridge – I like the paintings by McKenzie Thorpe.

What was your first job and how much did you get paid?

Working in the family funeral business.  £5 a day.

What is the worst job you’ve had?

Organising the old bank notes to be burnt.

What would you cook for me if I came around for dinner?

Chicken Pasta

What would your superpower be?

Stretch (The Fantastic 4) – sometimes too far!

Name four people, dead or alive, who would be at your perfect dinner party.

Ghandi, My wife Lesley, Sir Alex Ferguson, Jan Francis (From Just Good Friends)

Most expensive thing you’ve bought – other than car or house – and how much?

Eternity ring for Lesley.  Ssh – she doesn’t know!

Who is the best person to follow on Twitter and why?

Sophy Ridge from Sky.  Hear her speak twice too and good insights into politics.

Favourite book?

Long walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

When did you last cry?

August 15 when my oldest Son Andrew got ‘A’ level results needed to go to University.

What is your greatest achievement?

Maintaining close relationships with my family, primary school and secondary school friends.

What’s the best piece of advice in business you’ve ever been given?

Look in your wing-mirrors.  Don’t lose the people you work with.

Favourite animal and why?

Cock-a-Poo – my dog called Alba.

Most famous person on your mobile phone.

Friend uno is ex-Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen.

Describe your perfect night in

Lesley and 2 sons, Andrew and Alasdair watching Impractical Jokers.

In another life I would be…..

Centre Forward for Motherwell Football Club.

Who would play in you a film of your life?

Colin Firth (I get confused at times with him when I say my name over the phone).

What irritates you?

People who criticise when they have never done the job/been in the situation before.

What’s your secret talent?

It’s a secret.