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Progressive positive on 'uplift' after big plunge in profits

By Symon Ross

Progressive Building Society saw its profits almost halve last year but the company is confident of seeing a "significant uplift" in 2010.

Northern Ireland's largest homegrown building society today reported a pre-tax profit of £1.5m for 2009, down from the £2.7m it posted a year earlier.

However, it said the result was a positive one given record-low interest rates, an increased bad debt provision and the continuing financial compensation scheme levy introduced after the bank bailouts.

Chief executive Bill Smyth said: "While this is our lowest profit figure for some time it is an excellent result in view of the very difficult environment last year. It is particularly impressive given that Progressive has been the only local financial institution of any significant size that has posted a profit for 2009."

He said that in the early months of 2010, the society had experienced improving levels of income and that its board is forecasting a significant uplift in profits for the full year.

Progressive has 12 branches and holds around 15,000 mortgage accounts and 100,000 savings accounts. It is number 98 in this year's list of Northern Ireland's Top 100 companies, which is published today.

New mortgage lending fell to £141m in 2009 from £246m the year before, but overall mortgage balances increased slightly to £1.3bn. Savings receipts were over £400m for the second year running and its overall savings balance rose to £1.4bn.

"We continued to see a low level of housing transactions throughout 2009 which meant less demand for new mortgages. We did, however, retain a very high ratio of existing mortgages coming to maturity and this helped us to achieve a net lending figure of £61m which was close to our forecast for the year," said Mr Smyth.

In contrast to the big banks the society said its mortgage arrears book was low and it added only around £0.5m to its bad debt provisions in the year.

Finance director Darina Armstrong said the results showed the strength of its business.

"We are delighted with where we are when you look at institutions locally which are many times bigger than us. They would envy us being in a position to report profits at all. We feel it was a very good year," she said.

The society's reputation as a cautious institution has also helped during the recession, she added.

"It helps us because there aren't the bad press stories about us, our results are strong, we have never taken excessive risks. The nature of our board would be cautious and prudent. Primarily we're here to protect our savers' money and the fact that we don't have shareholders means we haven't had to generate higher returns by going into riskier markets such as high- risk lending and property development. We're not going to change the way we go about things now," said Mrs Armstrong.

"We only deal locally, that's where we have our experience. We've never been tempted to rush into overseas markets where our competence wouldn't be as high."

Mrs Armstrong noted that while new mortgage lending was down, Progressive had not changed its criteria for borrowers and had money to lend.

"Our criteria were always to look for quality and that hasn't changed. But if you look locally there are no houses changing hands. There is still nervousness out there and not many people in a rush to move house."

She also said the society had only lost a few staff through "natural wastage" because it is writing less mortgage business.

"We feel we're well placed for when the market picks up," she said. "Our staff tend to stay with us long-term which works for our members because they are familiar with them. Perhaps some of the banks lost their way with staff changes along the way, whereas we've stuck with them."

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