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Philip Williamson

Nationwide’s outgoing chief executive recalls how he took a £45,000 pay cut in his enthusiasm to join the society in 1991. Since then, he has helped to double its mortgage book and gain a reputation for fairness with customers and staff. When he departs this week, he will leave the UK’s most prominent mutual poised to become the country’s second-biggest lender. Interview by Guy Anker.

Nationwide chief executive Philip Williamson is set to draw down the curtain on a 37-year career in financial services when he retires at the end of this week.

Williamson, who began as a junior at Lloyds Bank in 1970, leaves behind a society that is set to become the UK’s second-biggest mortgage lender following its proposed takeover of the Portman in September.

He will be remembered largely for transforming Nationwide’s fortunes by almost doubling its mortgage book from £70bn to £130bn following his appointment as chief executive in 2002.

Williamson is mulling over a number of potential non-executive offers but wants to limit his involvement to two companies although he has yet to decide which ones.

Speaking in his Swindon office, which bears the signs of an imminent clear-out, he says: “I have really enjoyed it here and will miss the place. It is a lovely place to work. In management you are making judgements every day and on balance my judgement has been good. I have made more right decisions.

“I am a great respecter of our people and one of my highs was when we were named the best large company to work for in 2005. What pleased me was that marks came from confidential surveys that employees did. Our people are proud to work for Nationwide.”

He expects Nationwide to continue to flourish after his departure, with the Portman deal central to his prediction.

“We will be second-biggest lender when the Portman deal is done. We will see increased market share from Nationwide beyond par performance this year when our results are out and would expect things to improve further. We want to play more aggressively and Portman will help. We need to punch our weight more in specialist markets like buy to let, self-cert and sub-prime.

“We are already the second-biggest savings company in the UK and we are making progress with current accounts and credit cards. The Portman deal will enable us to get cost efficiency in bringing them together and being able to price more competitively. In a couple of years, we will be a £200bn organisation marking profits of £1bn, which for a mutual gives us a lot of strength.”

Williamson has strong views on how the industry can improve its service to consumers. He is particularly unimpressed with the way some fees and charges are hidden and the general lack of transparency. “There is a lot of smoke and mirrors. The financial services industry has not covered itself in glory.”

He thinks borrowers sometimes have too much choice and “it would be better if businesses had fewer and more transparent products on their books”.

Williamson is also calling on FSA officials to sit in on a mortgage interview so they can witness for themselves that the process is too time-consuming.

However, the current state of the market is a far cry from when Williamson took his first job at Lloyds Bank after finishing economics degree. “I liked the idea of working at a bank. I became a senior executive at Lloyds and worked there for 17 years. I then worked for UK Land before I saw an advert in the Financial Times for head of commercial lending at Nationwide and thought I would go for it.”

In 1991, Williamson left an £80,000 salary to earn £35,000 at Nationwide which shows how much he wanted the job.

He says Nationwide was “in a pickle” with bad debt provisions of £1bn during the recession which compares with less than £10m this year. “I have been invited to sort out some troublesome situations during my time. One in particular was our mortgage indemnity claims and I got a favourable settlement for Nationwide.”

In 1994, he became divisional director on the board and main board director in 1996, before rising to chief executive in January 2002.

There have been some tough moments during his career. His first Radio 4 interview came in October 2001 when Nationwide’s market share fell to 3 per cent. “I got beaten up by the presenter,” he jokes.

He says the low point came in 2001 when Nationwide reduced its standard variable rate by 50 basis points, which was part of the dual-pricing debate, and got tripped up by the ombudsman for it.

“We thought we were being fair but the ombudsman challenged us and we had to give some back to those with a discount deal on SVR and it cost us £90m. We did not like it but we abided by the decision.”

Williamson also faced accusations that Nationwide was doing a U-turn on its policy of offering exactly the same deals to new and existing customer last December, when it changed its pricing structure to have separate products for homebuyers and remortgages. “We could not compete in the two markets as we wanted to. We had to change our pricing and it has worked very well. We have kept the same principle of offering the same deal to all but within different product ranges.”

Williamson is proud of the way he claims Nationwide has led the market in making fees and charges transparent and he will be a tough act to follow for new chief executive Graham Beale.

Lives: Family home in Sussex but Swindon during the week

Career history: 1991-2007, Nationwide Building Society, becoming chief executive at the beginning of 2002; 1988-91, director, UK Land; 1970-88, senior executive, Lloyds Bank

Education: Calday Grange Grammar School, Newcastle University, Harvard Business School

Likes: Most sports, especially golf, travel, bird watching, stamp collecting

Dislikes: Ignorant and uncaring behaviour

Drives: Jaguar XJ2 4.2 litre turbo

Book: The Dave Peltz Putting Bible (only for keen golfers), To See Every Bird On Earth by Dan Koeppel

Film: Witness, the Amish murder mystery with Harrison Ford

Band: 3 Doors Down

Life ambition: Achieved – chief executive of Nationwide.

If I wasn’t doing this job I would be… A professional golfer ranked in the world’s top 10

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