The boss of Darlington Building Society is a very busy man. Graeme King met Peter Rowley, chief executive, marathon runner, real ale fan and one of a shrinking tribe who believe in the power of society.
YOU don’t really expect the chief executive of a 21st century building society to talk about his ‘credo’, or at least you don’t expect that to take in a commitment to developing society.
But Peter Rowley appears to be no ordinary boss, for not only did he take over the Darlington Building Society at the age of just 36, but he has since taken it on quite a growth spurt – assets have increased from £222m to £650m in the 15 years he has been in charge.
And he has driven its profile higher too, whilst ensuring that the business plays a full role in the life of the town whose name it bears.
The society’s name is now to be found on the side of many of the town’s most prominent institutions – the football club and the Civic Theatre to name but two.
Rowley appears to be one of those people who has somehow found more hours in each day than the rest of us.
As well as heading up the expanding society, he sits on numerous boards and committees, is a keen runner and seems to be quite a world traveller too.
He says what sits at the heart of all this activity is an ingrained commitment to public service – something he talks about with a rare passion in the modern business world.
When he does speak about himself, however, it is with a degree of discomfort at the trumpet blowing involved and he later apologises – needlessly – for losing his usual fluency when discussing his own achievements.
It all started out for Rowley in the south Staffordshire brewing town of Burton on Trent. The son of a local authority clerk and a dinner lady, Rowley attended the town’s grammar school and then went on to study geography at Manchester University.
As a Burton boy he says he was “weaned on Marston’s Pedigree” bitter and despite a brief period of loyalty to Boddingtons, it’s still his favourite pint.
After university, Rowley’s ascent of the financial world began. He spent four years as a graduate management trainee with Midland Bank, and then moved on to the Co-operative Bank in Manchester.
There was a brief period with Standard Chartered, but then the Co-op welcomed him back and he came to the North-East for the first time.
Eventually he joined the Newcastle Building Society as general manager, where – as Rowley puts it – he “had a go at most things” including opening up the first branch of a British building society in mainland Europe, in Gibraltar.
Then in 1992, Rowley was approached to join the Darlington Building Society and became the youngest ever chief executive of a building society, at the age of 36.
He says: “I’ve always aspired to run something, but I don’t think anyone wakes up with a burning ambition to be the chief executive of a building society.”
Rowley joined the society at a time when mergers and demutualisations were popular in the building society sector and says there was a period when he was very popular with certain large institutions looking for a slice of the North-East mortgage market. But all approaches were rebuffed.
He says: “There was a lot of consolidation in the building society movement at the time. We remained independent, and today not many organisations can point to a heritage of 150 years.
“We are now larger, financially stronger, more diversified and more significant than we were at the time.
“Back in 1992 there was a hugely viable, lovely business to develop, which the board wanted to do but it needed a new pair of eyes, perhaps a bit of youthful exuberance. And I eat, breathe and sleep it. This is a wonderful organisation, and after 15 years here I’ve just about got the hang of it.”
As well as the society’s assets nearly tripling, Rowley has also overseen an increase in membership from 50,000 to 85,000, with most of those in the North-East, and there has been significant diversification.
The Darlington is now the only building society that actually builds houses, just as building societies were formed to do, and offers other services too, including independent financial advice.
Rowley says: “As a mutual, the members are our customers, so the interests of our customers and shareholders are one and the same thing.
“It’s a bit like a tree. Mutuals are seen as fairly dull but dependable – not sexy, we are not growth stories.
“But it takes hundreds of years for a tree to grow, mature and develop. If it grows rapidly, it does not put down roots, and will be blown over.
“Most businesses fall within their first three years and the horizons of most business owners are for a sale, but a mutual is there for the long game. It’s about steady, controlled growth.”
Rowley speaks with an obviously deep-seated pride of what the society has achieved in recent years – but is also aware of the history behind his role.
“We are very proud of the fact that while we may not be one of the largest institutions we are one of the strongest.
“Mutuality is not some kind of Victorian anachronism, it’s a vibrant, sustainable corporate style. It’s all about creating interdependence, about mutual trust. The modern version of mutuality today is a social enterprise.
“Building societies were created to provide workers with homes in the late 19th century and the societies would carry on until every member had a home. That was when society was society.”
But Rowley is not one for harping on about ‘how it was in my day’ for he seems to be very positive about playing a role in today’s world too.
“Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century, and the dependence on community, and the willingness to make a community, is just as valid – perhaps even more so than in the 19th century.
“It’s about helping others to help themselves. That’s what a building society does – it’s not just about money, it’s about doing your bit.
“I’m just so proud of what the Darlington Building Society has achieved. We try to be innovative and do things other building societies haven’t done.
“If we were just a financial firm, we would not worry how the money was spent, but we are only as good as the community we support.
“I care about how we care for and protect our members’ money. If I did not, I would be a merchant banker.”
The chief executive, who is married with two children, devotes quite a lot of time outside the office to various board memberships and directorships.
He says: “I get rounded up to sit on this committee, or chair that one. I believe passionately in public service, and I hope my enthusiasm for it rubs off on the team here.
“When I was growing up in the 60s, life was still very much community based, and I have always been encouraged to get involved.
“It’s a credo and that comes from the way I was brought up. They are the kind of beliefs and values which are important to me.
“It’s not ‘churchy’ at all, I’m just a team player. I was always playing rugby or cricket when I was younger – playing a part in the team rather than just doing it for me.
“I carried it on through college and university and the kind of organisations I’ve worked for are good at getting individuals to get involved.
“I have the privilege to lead a firm that is part of society, so then leaving the office here and playing another role in society, sitting on a committee or chairing a group, I just enjoy it.”
There is one part of Rowley which does have an individual streak however – his love of distance running.
He is a member of Quakers running club in Darlington and proud that, allowing for an age handicapping system, he is now a better runner than he was more than 20 years ago.
He says: “I’m 52 now so I’m not going to win races, but I can compete against others in the same age group, and on that basis my times are still improving compared with when I was 30.”
I hear there is a story to be told about Rowley’s running exploits when he was on holiday in the US, and after some prompting, he tells it.
“We were in Colorado at 10,000ft above sea level, and that altitude can have an effect on you, so the received wisdom is that you should take it easy for the first two to three days there.
“But on the first day, I went for my first run – just a 10-minute jog and I heard there was a 5k road race on that day.
“So I entered and then found it was a trail race and we went straight up the side of a mountain! Eventually I came 20th out of 190 entrants and second in my age group.”
While the building society is clearly very important to Rowley, he is never more animated than when talking about his running.
He says: “It clears the mind – you can put the jumble of thoughts in your mind in some kind of order, and you can listen to some great music on your iPod at the same time.
“It’s a fantastic feeling and you do feel quite self righteous afterwards.”
As well as running for pleasure, Rowley has also raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity in recent years, including for the NSPCC and the hospice movement – an extension of his commitment to being part of wider society.
He says he is generally out of the house three or four evenings per week representing the society or doing committee work.
He is, or has been, involved with the University of Teesside, the local Learning and Skills Council, Beamish Museum, Accent North- East housing association and forces radio company Garrison Radio.
Peter Rowley has achieved much in his 15 years in Darlington, and there is clearly more to come. All in all, a picture emerges of an individual who loves life, embraces all the many opportunities it throws at him, and understands he has a role to play in making it better for everyone around him.
Peter William Rowley
Born: July 1955, Burton on Trent, Staffordshire.
1966-1973 Boys Grammar School, Burton on Trent,
1973-77 Manchester University, BSc in geography, Intermediate LLB (Hons) part 1.
1977-81 Midland Bank, graduate management trainee.
1981-85 Co-operative Bank, progressing from business development officer to senior assistant controller (advances).
1985-86 Standard Chartered Bank, manager of UK corporate banking division.
1986-87 Co-operative Bank, manager of Sunderland branch.
1987-89 Co-operative Bank, manager of corporate banking in Newcastle.
1989-92 Newcastle Building Society, general manager.
1992-present Darlington Building Society, chief executive.
Directorships/board positions include:
Member, board of governors, University of Teesside.
Chair of the Learning Partnership between University of Teesside and Darlington College,
Member of the advisory council for the Business School, University of Teesside.
Trustee of Beamish Museum, County Durham.
Board member, Accent North- East housing association.
Board member, Garrison Radio.
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Sardis in Darlington.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Johnny Vegas, Peter Kay, One Foot in the Grave, The Simpsons.
What’s your favourite book?
The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham.
What’s your favourite film?
The Godfather, parts I and II.
What was the last album you bought?
Memory Almost Full by Paul McCartney.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
A trail guide in the Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
Not making the most of life.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
1. Just do it!
2. Always be nice to people on the way up, you may need them on the way down.
Worst business advice?
‘Stress test your risk mitigation programme.’ It’s about saying ‘look before you leap.’ Financial services is a very regulated industry, and sometimes we do tend to worry about the risks we encounter rather than going out and doing it. In the end it boils down to the use of judgement, rather than just the use of tools.
What’s your poison?
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times and The Economist.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
It was about £50. I was a bus conductor.
How do you keep fit?
I am passionate about running – about 35 miles per week.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Not for me to say – ask my wife.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Running shoes. I get through too many pairs.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
Ernest Shackleton – for refusing to give up.
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Nicole Kidman for poise and elegance; George Melly for storytelling; Eric Clapton for music and Bobby Moore as a role model.
How would you like to be remembered?