Meet … Matt Bland, CEO of the Co-op Credit Union

‘The need for a new way of doing banking and financial services has never been more pronounced’

Matt Bland joined the Association of British Credit Unions (Abcul) after graduation and was appointed Co-op Credit Union CEO at the start of 2020 – just a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic began. For International Credit Union Day 2021 (21 October), Matt speaks about the importance of purpose, collaboration, sustainability and relevance within credit unions – and his hopes for the future.

How did you get involved with co-operatives and credit unions?

I joined Abcul in 2009 having recently finished a history degree. During my studies, I took a keen interest in the nineteenth-century self-help and working-class movements – of which, of course, the co-operative model was a crucial part. It was also the height of the financial crisis with the government nationalising major high street banks. So when I saw a job working in policy for Abcul – bringing together my interest in co-ops and the opportunity to develop a more ethical model of banking – it was an opportunity I couldn’t let slip.

Which organisations have you been involved with?

Through my role at Abcul I was fortunate enough to work with a whole range of credit union and co-operative organisations here in the UK and internationally – that includes the World Council of Credit Unions, Inclusiv in the US, the European Network of Credit Unions as well as more familiar organisations to Co-op News readers such as Co-operatives UK and the Co-op Party. I also became a director of the Co-op Credit Union in 2017 – and was appointed its chief executive in January 2020, which has given me an opportunity to become much more familiar with the non-credit union co-op world.

What is the purpose of the Co-op Credit Union?

We are a credit union that was established in 1998 for those working within the Co-operative Group. Since then we have grown organically to serve 9,500 members with a balance sheet of £7m. While the Co-op Group colleagues are still our main audience, in recent years we have branched out so that colleagues working for – and the members of – a whole range of co-operatives can join us and use our services. We are also open to members of the shopworkers’ trade union, Usdaw.

At its simplest level – and like most credit unions – we’re about reducing the cost that people pay to borrow, and helping our members to build a savings habit with financial resilience and wellbeing in mind. This year we have been engaged in a process of reflection around our purpose and values as we reinforce our commitment to our core co-operative values to underpin our growth plans, and we have some exciting plans around offering more support to our members to budget, plan and invest in their futures that are emerging from this thinking.

International Credit Union Day (ICUD) is held on the third Thursday of October each year. What does this day mean to you?

Well this year it just happens to fall on my birthday which is a nice coincidence. When I realised some years ago now that I happened to have been born around International Credit Union Day, there was a spooky feeling of the stars aligning! I think what ICUD has always meant for me is inspiration; credit unions here in the UK are really small compared to other parts of the world, so to have a day where we recognise the achievements of credit unions globally has always been a chance to consider what it’s possible for us to achieve here in the UK.

The theme for ICUD 2021 is ‘Building financial health for a brighter tomorrow’. How can credit unions help people do this?

The World Council of Credit Unions has picked this theme, I think, as a nod to the pandemic and the huge disruption it has caused to all of our lives. And, of course, we focus a lot on the health impact of the pandemic and the millions of grieving families, my own included, who have lost dear friends and family from Covid-19. But we must not forget the financial impact that the economic disruption caused by the pandemic has had and how this has – quite predictably – landed on the poorest and most financially vulnerable. Credit unions are all about addressing the core dynamics of this inequality in terms of the debt trap many poorer households find themselves in and the inability that this debt creates for their prospects of building wealth and assets.

What are the challenges and opportunities ahead for credit unions – both in the UK and internationally?

Abcul did some fantastic work in this space with its Vision 2025 process back in 2019. They framed the challenge for credit unions around four key themes: purpose, collaboration, sustainability and relevance, and I think these perfectly encapsulate what credit unions need to do to be successful. They need to achieve sustainability through scale and profitable business models; they need to collaborate with each other to achieve this; they need to be relevant to a new audience in terms of how their products are delivered and how they market themselves; and most important of all, they must nurture and keep returning to their core purpose as organisations, without which they are no different to anyone else.

Where do you hope the Co-op Credit Union will be in 10 years time?

I was appointed in 2020 to grow our credit union and I set us an ambition when I started that I want us to become a leader in the British sector in terms of those challenges and opportunities above (purpose, collaboration, sustainability and relevance). So I hope that in a decade we are several times bigger than we are today and, more importantly, that we are part of leading a renewed renaissance in the British credit union scene. Because as we start to put the pieces of our lives back together as the pandemic recedes, the need for a new way of doing banking and financial services has never been more pronounced and there is a real window of opportunity for credit unions and co-operatives more generally to lead that change.