Belfast Telegraph

Numbers add up for Progressive with its record profits

By John Mulgrew

The Progressive Building Society has reported record pre-tax profits of almost £13m - the biggest in its 100-year history.

And it also plans to expand its workforce following its latest buoyant accounts.

Northern Ireland's largest home-owned mortgage lender's increasingly positive numbers - which saw pre-tax profits more than double in 2014 - were fuelled by a mix of first-time buyers, those moving home and savers.

Overall lending at the building society increased by almost a third to £153m for 2014.

The Progressive said the additional mortgage lending was "achieved in an improving but still difficult housing market". The society has been headed by chief executive Darina Armstrong for the last four years. And she said 2014 was "the best we've ever had".

"We turned 100 in May last year, and we've had our best figures in that 100-year history," she told the Belfast Telegraph. "We've invested heavily in our branch network, and in training. They are great results in terms of our mortgage business and savings business."

It's also seen its staff numbers increase to 160 over the last few years, with plans to expand as business continues upwards.

"We are doing well and we will be gradually increasing our numbers - partly in mortgage business."

Ms Armstrong said the spike in business was in part down to consumers moving away from big banks, as well as positive referrals from customers.

"We get good business through referrals, and customers really value being able to drop in to a branch - knowing the staff and the branch managers.

"To be able to lift the phone and speak to a branch is highly valued."

The Progressive still relies on a small branch network to deal with its customers, and doesn't operate a centralised call centre.

And it has no plans to go down that route in future.

"We have watched from a distance and there's nothing that appeals to us," added Ms Armstrong.

"Fundamentally, we are a building society, which is a mutual - we don't have shareholders that are forcing us to do something in order to turn a profit."

It's also developed its high-street presence, spending some £2m on redeveloping its Ballymena branch, as well as opening a new outlet in Londonderry, follow its merger with City of Derry Building Society in 2014.

It now has 12 branches across Northern Ireland.

Deputy chief executive Michael Boyd said while it had forecast an "improvement" in 2014, the figures were higher than expected.

"It was £12.6m before tax, but we also had increases in our assets and were up £68m in the year to almost £1.7bn," he said.

And the group said its improvements were "right across the board" in terms of mortgages and savings.

Balances among savers increased to £1.43bn last year.

"There's increased buoyancy in the housing market, and there's added confidence among consumers, and that's starting to come through in the figures."

And while it is predicting "another good year" in 2015, "margins will be tighter".

Economist John Simpson said Progressive had "sharply returned to normality".

"Progressive is returning more to normality after what had been a very stressful time, with lower profits," he said.

"It is surprising that they have recovered so sharply - and the housing market has recovered quite gently. They have managed to catch more of this at an earlier stage than others."

Belfast Telegraph