"More homes for first time buyers" is the boast of the Catholic Building Society. Christopher Rails talks to its boss, Francis Higgins.
WALK DOWN any high street, and you'll probably pass half a dozen building society branches, most of them in the big name bracket such as the Halifax, Abbey National, or Nationwide.
The Catholic Building Society isn't in that league. It doesn't have branches all over the country. In fact, it only has one office, tucked away in Strutton Ground, off London's Victoria Street.
But its managing director and secretary, Mr Francis Higgins, helps ensure that the society maintains its record among building societies for the loiigest number of loans to first-time buyers.
Francis, a Lancastrian from Warrington, spent 10 years with the Halifax before joining CBS in 1968. At 28 he was the youngest chief executive of any building society in the country. When he moved to the CBS it was only eight years old.
"I came half way through its life." Francis said. "Nearly everyone else has about 100 years start on us."
The CBS became a member of the Building Societies Association in 1970, and one of Francis' first tasks was to win that position. To do so meant proving it had assets of at least £1 million.
Most Catholic organisations are charities. CBS is part charitable, but also commercial. "You have to be commercial," Francis said. "It is in fact proving a successful formula for getting things done. Most charities are constantly so short of resources they can't do the things they set out to do. Most commercial organisations are only interested in the profit motive. CBS is an unusual blend of both."
During the course of the past
12 years, Francis Higgins has steered the company on a course that has kept a balance between adequate funds and an excellent reputation. He has been aided by two retired men: John Noone and Gerry Burden, both with 40 years experience.
The three bring to bear 100 years of expertise in the field. In 1972, the post of General Manager was added to that of secretary and Francis has been managing director and secretary since 1975.
Latest figures show that CBS spent 62 per cent of all their loans on the first time buyer in 1979, whereas the national average for the Building Societies Association in the third quarter of 1979 was 42 per cent — and falling.
I asked Francis Higgins how he managed to spend so much of the Society's money on helping the new housebuyer.
"A building society has to attract funds so that as many people as possible can buy their own homes." he said. "The big societies are in a dilemma. They need so much money to keep going they need massive publicity campaigns. We don't adopt the same tactics. We don't use advertising gimmicks, and we don't have plush, expensive offices. Instead, we put forward a coherent policy which will itself generate new members. Promotion is largely by word of mouth and personal recommendation."
As regards first time buyers particularly, he explained: "It's partly a matter of policy. A building society can control its own destiny. It can choose to lend to first time buyers if it wants to."
The Catholic community as a whole, he explained, has a lower home ownership level than the national average, so there is a higher demand among Catholics to buy their own homes. A large proportion of Catholics are also disadvantaged in this respect, for two reasons: 1. First-timers like to buy older property, because it's less expensive.
2. Their income and savings are both at comparatively low levels, so the "risk" associated with lending is greater.
Other societies, he said, positively underestimate people's determination to buy their own homes. But a risk is what you make 01 it. The CBS lends 50 per cent of its mortgages on property which is technically "older" tie built before 1920). The national average for lending on such property is only 23 per cent. . "It makes all the difference in the world to the housebuyer if you're prepared to lend as much on older property as you are on more recent housing," he said.
Apart from Francis the only full-time officials are the assistant secretary, Mary Keane. and Francis' secretary, Angela Gurney. I remarked that London must be an expensive place to rent an office, and asked why they didn't use a cheaper city, especially with investors all over the country. Francis replied that people were always visiting London, and when they did, they found time to call on CBS.
"It's the best place to be despite the expense," he said. "and its great advantage is being near Westminster Cathedral, the centre of Catholicism in England." However, he wanted to expand, and he had accepted an offer from an agent in Leeds to cover business in that area.
Francis and his wife Wendy still think of themselves as exiled northerners, and when Francis can break away from the burdens of office they retreat to their favourite part of the country the Lake District.
Francis maintains his interest in music. He used to sing in the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral choir, and still finds time to conduct a children's folk Mass at his local church. He has also served as secretary to the Southwark Laity Commission.
But CBS takes up the bulk of his time, and the results of his efforts can be summed up in his own words: "It's what is behind the statistics that counts — many happy families in their own Monies who would not otherwise be in that position."