Oration for Graham Beale CBE

By Mr Nigel Siesage

Bankers, according to recent surveys, are one of the professions least trusted by the public - kept off the bottom of that list of shame only by politicians and journalists.

Today we celebrate the achievements of one of the few leaders of the British financial services industry to emerge with credit from the crisis which began in 2008. Graham Beale assumed the position of Chief Executive of the Nationwide Building Society in 2007, just in time to deal with the worst crisis in the sector in living memory - and possibly even since the bursting of South Sea Bubble in the early eighteenth century.

In the nine years in which he ran the society, while banks and building societies famous internationally for their apparent dependability collapsed or suffered radical restructuring, the Nationwide thrived and grew, strengthening its reputation for integrity; and Graham became recognised (as the Sunday Times put it) as “a chief executive who leads by example, running a company based on sound moral principles”.

A career at the top of a business with assets of over £200 billion, 17,500 employees and 15 million members and customers was far from Graham Beale’s aspirations as a child.  He joined this University as a student in 1977, armed with excellent reports from school where he had been deputy head boy, and with enthusiasms for motorcycling and modern jazz as well as for his subject, psychology. But inasmuch as he had considered the future, it was a career in marketing that beckoned. The nearest he came to fulfilling that ambition was immediately after his graduation, when he took a temporary job as a sales assistant on the Leicester Mercury.

While a student – and like many students before and since (including our Chancellor) - Graham had had one particularly important life changing experience:  he met his future wife, Ros, in his first week here. They married straight after graduation, Ros securing a good job at the City Council; and Graham recognised that he had a responsibility to support his new family and establish a career of his own. So, as he puts it, as a sensible step rather than from a burning ambition, he started as an articled clerk with Thomson McLintock, training to be a chartered accountant and developing the skills which have underpinned his subsequent successes in business and informed his response to its challenges.

The next critical step was our honorand’s decision in 1985 to take a job at the Anglia Building Society, prompted partly by having done work for Thomson McLintock at the Leicester Building Society. Two years later, the Anglia merged with the Nationwide Building Society, a move which made it already one of the largest of the “mutuals” – businesses which are run for the benefit of those who bank with them or borrow from them.

The Nationwide’s determination to retain this status, and its success in doing so against the trend in the last quarter of the 20th century, has set it apart and has formed the basis for its current strength. Graham, who rose to become Divisional Director for Commercial Lending and then Group Finance Director, is a passionate believer in this business model. He very properly acknowledges the influence that his predecessors, Brian Davis and Philip Williamson, have had on him in developing his philosophy; but we recognise his unique contribution, both to the Nationwide and to the wider sector, in steering them through the storms of 2008 and after, with their members’ resources protected and that philosophy intact.

Those who know Graham best testify to the passion he brings to everything he sets his hand to. He believes, quite simply, in helping people make the most of their financial affairs. We have seen with our own eyes ample evidence that this has not been the approach of many banks, which have been motivated to make a profit at almost any cost – and which have suffered as a consequence. Under Graham’s leadership, and thanks to his well-earned reputation for integrity, the Nationwide’s stability was never in doubt, and he was able to use this strength to rescue other building societies.

He was also determined to ensure that the business kept pace with technological change, and his professional standing was recognised when he was elected Chairman of the Building Societies Association in 2009-10. His success is further reflected in his recognition by the Times as one of 7 “business people of the year” in 2015, when he was described as “one of the best, if not the best, chief executives in Britain”. Earlier this year, the Sunday Times listed the Nationwide as the third best company to work for in the UK, acknowledging its “strong social conscience” and ranking it top for “giving something back”.

The Queen has appointed Graham Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an honour which in itself symbolises the slow recovery of the reputation of British banking, to which Graham has contributed so much.

Fittingly for the head of an organisation which helps so many home-buyers (the Nationwide provided nearly half the residential lending in the worst years of the crisis) Graham has had a lifelong enthusiasm for architecture and the restoration of houses. But it is for his restoration of decency and our faith in the financial services sector, more than anything else, that we are particularly proud of this distinguished and honourable alumnus.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council I present Graham John Beale, that you may confer on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Delivered by Mr Nigel Siesage on 13 July 2016

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