Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley: martyrs to the mutual cause

The bowler-hatted duo have been sacrificed as the B&B acts to avoid becoming another victim of the forces of conversion.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
BRADFORD & BINGLEY this week mounted a new offensive in the battle for the survival of the building society movement, launching three major initiatives aimed at proving the benefits of its mutual status.

Anxious to squash any suggestion that building societies are old-fashioned, B&B's first move was to ditch what it had discovered was a dangerously dated image: the bowler-hatted Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley.

Research - showing the pair are considered "sexist" by a majority of women customers - prompted the society to overhaul its trademark, instead introducing a new logo consisting of a rainbow-coloured montage of "sexless" bowler hats.

But the society's attempt to preserve itself goes further than a change of image. In April it faces a vote on a proposal from Stephen Major, a plumber in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, that the board take steps to become a bank.

As part of its campaign against the move, B&B has become the first big mortgage lender to launch a service designed to protect home buyers from the traditional pitfalls of house purchase.

In line with government reforms designed to make house buying easier, buyers visiting B&B estate agents after April will be able to get a survey of the home they want to purchase before they put in an offer.

Property buyers and sellers will also be offered insurance cover against hitches in the buying process, protecting themselves against an adverse survey further down the house-buying chain, an adverse valuation, or even unreasonable conduct by the other party.

Buyers taking part in the "Fast Move" initiative will also be offered a mortgage guaranteed to be extended on completion, as long as their credit records are clean. And they will receive a guarantee against structural faults in the property they buy if they are not disclosed in the survey.

The initiative, designed to cut by half the time that it takes to complete a purchase, comes at a turbulent time for the building society, which is seeking to persuade its 2.5 million members, many of them carpetbaggers to begin with, to keep the society mutual.

B&B is also seeking to prove it can offer better rates on its savings products than rivals, such as the Halifax and the Northern Rock, that have converted to banks. A series of tax-efficient Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs), matching government-approved "CAT-standards", will become available on 6 April.

To underline the benefits of mutuality, B&B is hoping to outclass its converted rivals by offering better interest rates. Its ISA will guarantee to match bank base rates, currently 5.5 per cent, throughout 1999. Existing members of B&B will get a bonus of a further 1 per cent in interest for the first year.

B&B's fight to stay mutual means that the new ISAs will only be open to existing members; the society was forced to shut its doors to new customers to ward off the threat of an influx of carpetbaggers.

In league tables of savings account interest rates, building societies have been able to dominate the upper ranks, offering interest that is approaching base rates on instant access.

But they are increasingly facing a challenge from another group that claims to have an even better advantage than the mutuals. "Direct banks" say that they can offer higher rates because they do not have to pay the cost of an expensive branch network. Postal banks such as Egg, owned by the Prudential, and Standard Life Bank, are challenging them for the new funds.

Both Egg and Standard Life Bank are beating the rates offered by building societies by attracting business without using a branch network - both over the Internet and over the phone. In its first six months of operation alone, Egg attracted over pounds 3bn - compared to total deposits of pounds 6.7bn at B&B.

Christopher Rodrigues, B&B's chief executive, believes the direct banks are buying business, using shareholders' funds to offer high rates of interest that cannot last. He claims the rate-hunting customers will quickly disappear when the rates no longer top the tables.

"The biggest impact of Egg taking that much money is on Prudential shareholders, since they are paying for it," he says. "All the indications are that those customers are not loyal: they churn their money. And customers who churn are very expensive: I guarantee you that at some time Pru shareholders will not let them pay those rates." He must be hoping his customers agree.

See Nic Cicutti's column, page 2