"Flexibility is key" - profile of Fiona McBain by Business 7 magazine
“Flexibility is key”- profile of Fiona McBain by Business 7 magazine
This article is kindly reproduced from Scottish magazine, www.business7.co.uk
Scottish Friendly chief executive makes her mark
The focus on placing customers at the heart of the business can perhaps explain why Scottish Friendly has been a real financial services success story.
Simple things such as making sure there are no menus to navigate when phoning the company and having a human being answering at the other end mark it out as different from larger competitors.
Chief executive Fiona McBain describes some rivals in the life assurance and savings sector as being like supertankers while she is piloting a speedboat.
Under her charge the mutual society has seen impressive growth without losing any of the flexibility of a smaller vessel.
The Glasgow business has seen its assets under management go from £500 million in 2006 to £3 billion now.
Its most recent sales figures showed a 48 per cent rise in premiums to £12.9 million.
McBain has been with the business since 1998 and had spells running customer services and as finance director before taking the top job five years ago.
A mixture of organic growth, mergers, a strong IT system, new products and outsourcing have all contributed to the success.
As a result some of the major players in the industry now come to Scottish Friendly for help in launching new products.
She said: "Even members of my board have said to me why would the likes of AEGON UK come to us?
"The real reason is when big plcs want to develop new products they go to their IT people and get a lead time of about 12 months.
"They come to us and from that initial conversation to getting it on the streets is about 12 weeks.
"I don't know many other businesses in this sector, if any, which can do that.
"Our main unique selling point is our flexibility and the cost efficiencies that brings.
"As we can do it so quickly you can effectively test and learn. They can come in with a product campaign which we will tweak and monitor every single day and you can learn a lot.
"We spend heavily on customer research so we can find out whether it was something as mundane as the colour of the ties in the photograph people didn't like or whether it was the product itself the message, the terms or the pricing."
The quietly spoken but steely McBain has spent the past couple of years repeating the mantra "We are not bankers, we are not the baddies here" to customers and staff alike.
While she does not feel the reputation of Scotland's financial services sector has been damaged by the failure of its biggest banks she is adamant the tighter regulations which are being imposed are not the way forward.
She said: "I don't have any doubt that our economy and our nation was ill served by the credit crunch and what came out of that.
"There were definitely failings in the regulatory environment which all of us as taxpayers has had to pay for.
"But a lot of the way it has been handled since then is the classic closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
"Yet our sector is having to pay the price in terms of much more regulation. The chief executive of the Financial Services Authority proudly said it was going to be a much more intensive and intrusive regulator.
"What that means is it takes up much more business time and it is much more expensive.
"What gets me upset is people don't seem to think about where that cost is being borne. Particularly for us it can only be borne by our end customers."
That issue of passing costs on to the people who ultimately own the business, is one which pains McBain.
She also feels the playing field in the sector is far from level.
Sitting in the light, airy first floor boardroom at Scottish Friendly's office on Blythswood Square McBain considers her words carefully.
She said: "Every indicator which is going says we in Britain need everyone to start thinking more about their future, becoming more financially aware and saving.
"We are here poised to deliver that but instead it feels to me it is being made harder for us to do that.
"For example as we are a friendly society we can write tax exempt savings plans but the limit hasn't been changed in years and is capped at s25 per month.
"Out of that we have to support the same level of premium as an organisation which is say writing a bond for s150 million. That is really difficult.
"The government say they want people to save so they should be helping us to do that at low premiums.
"Instead they are putting a bigger and bigger burden of regulation on which makes it more and more expensive to offer small savings schemes."
In recent years the 49-year-old has taken on more lobbying roles to ensure her voice is heard within the industry and to raise some of the problems which are arising.
Although that means a few more trips to London McBain is happy with the balance in her work.
While in Glasgow she is normally at her desk by 7.30am and rarely leaves before 7pm.
She said: "Normally it goes really quickly whether it is here interacting with people doing the business, with clients, with chief executives of other organisations or politicians."
There's also pride in what has been achieved at the business.
She tells an anecdote about how compartmentalised the business used to be.
"We had different silos for each part of the policy life cycle. So we had people who had worked for more than 30 years doing nothing but one type of claim on one type of product.
"That would break your heart. Now all our staff can do any part of our product range and that started to drive a whole cultural change.
"Some people thrive as they have a more interesting and wider role. Other people feel threatened as their personal kingdom gets eroded.
"The growth we have had creates a dynamism and we are small enough so everyone feels involved.
"I hope everyone feels part of what we are doing and knows why we are doing what we are doing. We have been really lucky to have had success and that helps keep our cultural change going."
McBain has led a number of mergers and acquisition deals during her time in the role.
It's an area she enjoys though she rolls her eyes and jokes she could do without "calling in the lawyers" when negotiations get to a certain stage.
Still she admits more deals could be on the agenda in the coming months.
She added: "I still love seeing opportunities and being able to translate them into things for our members.
"There is a lot of talk about consolidation in the industry and speculation about when Scottish Friendly is doing its next takeover.
"We are certainly open to doing more transfers but I am determined we won't take on someone who has left it too late and got into trouble.
"There were two which came to us last year and we said no thank you. So we are quite fussy but it is a nice position to be in."
Editor of www.business7.co.uk