AT 65 Leslie Farrer-Brown embarked on his new career as a director of the Alliance Building Society, becoming its chairman six years later and holding that office for a further six years until 1981, writes Mervyn Griffiths.
Farrer-Brown's background fitted him well to the ethos of building societies in the early Seventies. Most directors saw themselves as trustees of friendly societies more than as directors of a large financial institution and were mainly drawn from the great and the good. Mortgages were 'granted' only to deserving cases and almost half of the society's funds were channelled to it by kind bank managers who wanted their customers to get a better return. It was known quaintly as the building society movement, rather than today's equally curiously described 'building society industry'.
Farrer-Brown brought to this new career great intellectual curiosity and an almost austere sense of fair play, always anxious to balance the interests of investors and borrowers. In his speech at his last AGM, he almost gleefully welcomed competition for investments from government funding of the National Debt, which 'may in time prove pleasing to investing members'. These, he felt, got a raw deal because inflation harmed them and favoured the borrower. He stamped his demand for integrity in business dealings very firmly. When he turned down some scheme, of a type commonplace today, as not being entirely transparent, an exasperated executive remarked that Farrer- Brown had spent most of his life giving money away (via the Nuffield Foundation) and had little stomach for making it. However, under his six-year chairmanship, the society's assets grew from pounds 700m to over pounds 2bn and its branch network doubled in size.
He loved innovation and would pursue new ideas with the thoroughness of a forensic scientist. Trying to find ways of preserving 'true value' was an abiding quest, involving ever more sophisticated index-linking devices, and during his time the society pioneered the entry into institutional funding.
He also took a very direct personal interest in the staff, particularly the young. A trawl of the house magazines during his time shows 80 per cent of the pictures of him were presentations of examination awards, with very rare appearances at big occasions. He was never happier than when visiting the young staff in the branches and he had the knack of making them feel that he had a real interest in them.
He will be remembered as an astute, caring and commanding figure, who guided the society through a very successful period. He will also be remembered for his vigour. The last words he spoke at his last AGM, aged 77, were 'my warm good wishes to my successor will, I must admit, be tinged with a touch of envy'.
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