Meet … Robert Kelly, chief executive of Abcul

‘The principle of co-operation between co-operatives is hugely important for small businesses like ours to remain competitive’

Robert Kelly took up the role of chief executive at the Association of British Credit Unions (Abcul), the trade body for the sector, in September 2018. He brings with him more 15 years of experience in the credit union sector, having served as CEO of NHS Credit Union and as president of Abcul.

How did you get involved in the credit union sector?

My first involvement in the sector was as finance and compliance Officer for Glasgow Credit Union in 2003. That was fundamental in developing my understanding of the huge potential of the sector and the value base that was aligned to membership service, co-operative ownership and systems and product development. I held that role for four years, then moved to the banking sector for a short spell before taking over the CEO role at NHS Credit Union in 2008. My original background is accounting and finance – I started as an auditor with PwC – but I have been well and truly bitten by the credit union bug and have loved the experience and development journey in the sector for over 15 years now.

 What lessons have you brought to Abcul from the NHS Credit Union?

There are two key lessons: the first is about the value of collaboration and co-operation between credit unions. NHS Credit Union drew huge value from our peer credit unions through its close association with Abcul members and – whether in long-term partnerships or just in best practice sharing – the principle of co-operation between co-operatives is hugely important for small businesses like ours to remain competitive in the modern marketplace and deliver on our co-operative values for our members.

The second is about developing our future leaders. Both in collaboration with the wider sector through Abcul’s CU Futures programme or internally, NHS Credit Union always placed a huge premium on our people and the importance of developing the leaders of the future. This is so important to a small sector like ours where young talent is so hard to find and even harder to retain and I think developing talent and planning for the future will be critical to our role as an effective association.

 Could you describe a typical day at Abcul?

My first three months in post have been a whirlwind of activity meeting members, attending local forums, meeting stakeholders and picking up on a huge volume of on-going projects and legacy items so the quick answer is that I have no idea yet! What I do know, though, is that Abcul has a hugely dedicated and committed team who are clear in their focus on delivering value for our members and the credit union sector at large. Our team takes huge pride in representing, supporting and serving the credit union sector to the best of our abilities in order to help credit unions be the best that they can be for their members.

What are your priorities for the organisation?

The last few years have been tough for a range of reasons and we have not always been as close to our members as I think we need to be. So my biggest priority is to spend as much time as possible consulting with and listening to our membership and the wider credit union movement to help us agree a clear vision for our future and a strategy for getting there. I want Abcul to be central to enabling that collective shared vision – so the town hall consultation process, due to be launched in March 2019 at our AGM and conference, will be led by members and will inform Abcul’s priorities thereafter. Ultimately the objective of this process is to document a refreshed future vision for Abcul and the sector to 2025 and beyond.

Related: Examples of how collaboration has boosted credit unions around the UK

Policymakers, such as Andy Burnham, the Co-op Party and the Scottish government, have talked about growing the role of credit unions in creating a fairer economy. How do you see Abcul’s role in helping to facilitate this?

Abcul is all about providing credit unions with the tools, skills and powers to succeed and deliver on their co-operative values for our members. So under my leadership Abcul will be engaging with the likes of Andy Burnham, the Co-op Party and Scottish government – as well as the UK government and the regulatory authorities – to ensure that our invaluable role in supporting the financial capability and wellbeing of British society is supported as best it can be. We will also be working with our members to help them tackle their operational and strategic challenges, however big or small.

At this year’s Abcul conference speakers called for the credit union and co-op sectors to work more closely together. How would you like to see this progress?

Co-operation between co-operatives is a really important principle and I am keen to explore how we as an association can help our members work with the the Co-op Group and the wider co-operative sector to deliver on our values together. Credit unions, as financial co-operatives, could play a crucial role as an enabler, be it in terms of helping people become more energy efficient, getting a better deal on white goods and household appliances, or supporting small co-operative businesses and I hope to see more of that happen during my time at Abcul.

 What are the biggest challenges ahead for the credit union movement?

 The big challenge for credit unions in the millennial era is relevance. Credit unions’ values are clearly aligned with those of the millennial generation who want businesses to deal with that are ethical, responsible and not motivated by profit alone. But they also expect digital access as standard and to access their services conveniently through their laptops and mobile devices.

Credit unions have it all in terms of ethics, values and a genuine desire to support and facilitate the financial resilience of their members. However we have a long way to go in terms of digital delivery and I firmly believe that it is by working together and investing co-operatively that we will get there.  Consolidation and sustainability in the movement is also a huge question to tackle in the months and years ahead.  I look forward to taking on all of these challenges for Abcul and how we serve the development of the movement.