Lives: Haywards Heath, Sussex.
Born: December 11, 1947.
Education and qualifications: Caldy Grange School, Wirral; degree in economics from Newcastle University.
Career to date: Lloyds Bank 1970/88; UK Land director 1988/91; Nationwide 1991 to date, promoted to divisional director in 1994, appointed to board in 1996, chief executive since January 2002.
Career ambition: Achieved. “Happy to retire in this role.”
Life ambition: “To give something back by going to work in an underdeveloped country for VSO, the British Council or Water Aid.”
Likes: All sports, Liverpool FC. “I can talk about any sport at length.”
Dislikes: “Rude people and any form of violence.”
Peers say: “We don't know him well enough yet.”
Car: Supercharged 4.2 litre Jaguar.
Everything is going to plan and there will be no change of strategy – that is the message from the man moving into the top post at the UK's biggest building society.
Philip Williamson could be taking over as chief executive just as everything starts to go right for Nationwide. After the mutual's new lending wipeout in the first half of this financial year, second-half results can only show improvement.
Nationwide is also currently basking in media applause for its decision to refund a total of £90m to 400,000 borrowers following the Financial Ombudsman's ruling that its dualpricing policy was unfair.
Its decision to scrap the higher of its two standard variable rates and backdate refunds to March 2001 has thrown down the gauntlet to the other major lenders and, once again, the building society has scored in its aim to get across the message that the country is a better place for having “nice” mutuals doing nice things.
Williamson, whose philanthropic credentials extend to having spent a year with Voluntary Service Overseas in Fiji, is mutual to the core. He believes banks cannot match Nationwide's grand gesture because of their duty to shareholders.
“As a building society, we are not in the business of maximising profits. We need to make sufficient money to maintain strength but, by distributing £90m to 400,000 customers, we have delivered our corporate strategy, which is to operate for the benefit of our members,” he says.
Asked whether the goodwill generated is worth the £90m it will have cost, Williamson says: “We have tried to do the right thing and the brand reputation will be strengthened.”
Halifax has had to admit that it will not be doing the same for its customers and is facing a deluge of complaints to the ombudsman as a result.
Being the consumers' champion is a cornerstone of Nationwide's long-term strategy and Williamson has moved adeptly to carry on where former chief executive Brian Davis left off. To turn a tribunal defeat into a media coup shows skilful footwork and, by launching its new mortgage range in the same week, Nationwide has shown that it will not have to put up rates to fund the payout.
To turn the screw on the other lenders, Williamson is calling for a different channel for applications to the ombudsman that clearly have wider implications across the market, so that decisions can be taken as precedents and enforced by the regulator across the board.
He says: “The FSA should look at the process. The ombudsman knows that in certain cases where there are wider implications, there is a need for another process. In cases that require a more detailed examination such as a cost/benefit analysis or consideration of proportionality, financial strength and prudence, there is scope for a more detailed review.”
S trengthening the Nationwide brand in the mind of consumers is exactly how Williamson believes he can win back the market share that some would say was thrown away last year. The first half of this tax year saw Nationwide's new lending dive from 10.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent of market share.
Seen by many observers as disastrous, last spring's scrapping of front-end discounts is defended by Williamson. He says: “We are delighted with the way the strategy is going. We deliberately anticipated a substantial loss of business and we are happy with that fall.
“We knew that introducers would say the key to attracting new business is discounts and for the first four months the introducers pulled away. But we have won a lot of them round now and they are coming back in healthy numbers. This year, lending of £500m is a very manageable target.”
The move may not have been to the taste of many IFAs but last autumn saw Nationwide moving to improve its intermediary relationships by increasing its intermediary roadshows and putting more business development managers out in the field. This may have helped its second-half lending figures.
Intermediaries are now recommending Nationwide products more readily than they were and Williamson believes the strategy is starting to move the argument in his favour.
He says: “We are saying: 'Look, everyone is in this pub. We are going to a different pub. Do you want to come?'”
Williamson seems a man who shares many of Davis's opinions and his reign would appear to promise a seamless transition of power. He has been on the board since 1996 and has been involved with plotting Nationwide's path for some time. He is not planning to rethink the lender's refusal to offer discounts to grab new business at the expense of existing borrowers – at least, for another two years.
He says: “We, as a senior team, have all been on board for six years. All the decisions have been taken together, not just by Brian. We have no plans for discounts but never say never. We said we would give this strategy three years and so far so good. The strategy is basically to continue as we are for another two years.”
Williamson laughs off suggestions that he is a closet anti-mutualist, saying his 11 years at Nationwide show his commitment, despite 18 previous years at Lloyds. He expects more attempts to demutualise the society but believes carpet-bagging is a “weakening force”.
He says: “Just because I worked for a clearing bank does not mean that I want to make Nationwide a bank. You know Nationwide is absolutely committed to its status of mutuality. Having a strong mutual in the marketplace is essential to keep the banks on their toes.”
The 54-year-old chief executive's not-for-profit credentials extend to a desire to reprise his voluntary work when he leaves Nationwide, with a move to an underdeveloped country to work for a charitable organisation. When he gets there could depend on whether Nationwide wins the argument on front-end discounts.