Northern Ireland's biggest independent homegrown lender, Progressive Building Society, marks its centenary next year with one of the biggest changes in its history – but its chief executive has vowed its risk-averse approach to business will go on.
he mortgage and savings society has around 100,000 members, though that is set to grow by 2,500 if a proposed merger with City of Derry gets the go-ahead from the latter's members in March.
It is also considering introducing bank cards for withdrawal for its savers – but Progressive chief executive, Darina Armstrong, who has been with the business for 21 years, said that current accounts would be a step too far.
Personal loans are also an area of lending shunned by the society – and even overdrafts are alien to the ethos of caution which has pervaded the society in the past 100 years.
Unlike most lenders, the society has remained in the black despite the downturn, with pre-tax profits hovering at around £3m for the last three years.
People were saving more as a result of the downturn, Mrs Armstrong said. "The fashion is to save, which always suited us, as it was always our model, to have savings from individuals to pass on and fund our borrowing with."
It emerged earlier this year that the Progressive and City of Derry Society would merge, as the smaller entity – which has assets of £42.6m compared to the Progressive's £1.6bn – lacked the critical mass and the IT systems to thrive in a tightly-regulated climate.
City of Derry members will vote on the merger in March, and it will also have to be approved by the Prudential Regulatory Authority.
Mrs Armstrong said Progressive's 99th year had been marked by a recovery in the housing market, the mainstay of its lending.
"We saw a pick-up about March – very happy to see that. We have been seeing action up the chain. Before that, it had been primarily first-time buyers purchasing homes at up to £100,000 purchase price.
"But we have seen quite a few of late that are, shall we say, substantial properties further up the market."
Whatever the progress in the housing market, the merger is due on July 1, before which time the City of Derry members must vote on whether they approve.
Mrs Armstrong said she felt members would not lose anything from the merger. "I think they will actually gain. They have only one branch but we have 12, with 40 agents. Members will be able to service transactions at any premises.
"We also have a stronger IT infrastructure, and and we have exactly the same values, ethos and culture."
After 15 years sponsoring the UTV Live Weather, the building society is now also running ads for products and rates on UTV and Channel 4.
Its UTV Weather sponsorship will finish at the end of next month. The new sponsor will be required to pay around £240,000 for the lucrative publicity opportunity, the Belfast Telegraph understands.