Posted on Saturday 22 January 2011 by Ulster Business

Darina Armstrong

Progressive Building Society's new chief executive is intent on carrying on the good work of her predecessor and making sure the society continues to navigate the difficult lending environment in prudent fashion

Darina Armstrong isn't about to rock the boat. The good ship Progressive has sailed a steady course through the recession while other financial institutions have faltered, and its new Chief Executive is keen that nothing changes as her watch officially begins this month. Armstrong has been with Progressive for 18 years, most recently as its chief financial officer – a key role through the credit crunch. She took over from long standing CEO Bill Webb on January 1 and says she has big shoes to fill in the top job. "He's so admired, not one member of staff has a bad word to say about him. So in a way he is a hard act to follow, but hopefully I've picked up a lot from him," she said. "There's a tremendous culture that I want to keep going. More than ever the past few years have taught us the value of caution. Five or 10 years ago we looked a bit old fashioned as we weren't chasing the quick returns from high risks our competitors were. "At this point we've survived the credit crunch well, thanks to the prudence of Bill and the board. As you know we're not a reckless organisation so when others were burning we were able to stand back and see how it all worked out," she added. Mrs Armstrong trained as an accountant and began her career at KPMG, before moving a few hundred yards down the road in Belfast to Progressive. She admits to having a "stubborn independent streak" that led her to pursue accountancy rather than follow in her parents' footsteps as a teacher. But while she has reached the top of her organisation while also being mother to two children, she is reluctant to be singled out as a role model. "In Progressive there has never been an issue; it is predominantly a female organisation, so I don't see that I'm cracking the glass ceiling. But by the same token I don't push the fact that I am a woman," she said. "When I started accountancy there were very few females. That was probably when I had more of a challenge on my hands. But I managed the same as anyone else. I was the first female in the audit group I worked in, so I lived in that kind of strange set up 20 years ago. But time has moved on, it is an even playing field in many ways now. I hope it is not even an issue for the current generation." Certainly, Mrs Armstrong is passionate about Progressive and committed to the business having lived and breathed what it does for the last 13 years as finance director. As the organisation nears its 100th year she says that it will continue to grow naturally, and will not start seeking risky returns. "I know the organisation and because it is a small one, relatively, you can get very involved in all ends of the business. That's probably what I enjoy most about Progressive," she said. "There is a Progressive way, there's a passion for what we do. It is very much a family atmosphere, very loyal and we are very thorough in our dealings with the public. We don't go for the hard sell, we don't harass people, our staff aren't trained to do that. A huge part of our business comes from referral because people appreciate what we do. "When it comes to getting a mortgage it is a stressful time and people will often come to us having had difficulty in bigger banks or English banks because it takes so long to get a decision." Progressive's exposure to the financial meltdown was limited because it primarily lent on owner occupied property rather than the commercial business which caused the major banks so much trouble. She notes that while the uncertainty over the severity of public sector job cuts means people are not spending, there are some signs that the market might have hit bottom. "A few years ago the fashion was to increase your mortgage, buy a new car, have an extra holiday, keep on increasing your debt. Now we're back to the cycle 40 years ago where you paid off your debt as quickly as possible, which is good, it suits the Progressive way of doing things. "But I would love to see the housing market pick up and a bit of confidence back in the economy," she said. "We would like to see recovery in the volume of transactions coming through. At this point we have a very strong mortgage book but we would love to see more people coming in looking for a brand new mortgage from us. We do have that money there to lend but transactions are not happening, particularly at the top end of the market." The current environment, and the caution that pervades means however, that many of Progressive's competitors are now competing for the business once out of fashion. "Our basic business model was always to go for low loan to value market. Our competitors who were previously chasing the 95% to 100%+ deals have now decided that is a better place to be too. So competition is fierce, but it always has been. "Northern Ireland is a small market and there are a lot of players in the market but there is room for all of us," she said.

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