Balancing The Books

How embracing constraints stimulated two endangered species to build a prosperous new ecosystem

As the world moves increasingly online, there are some predictable casualties fighting for survival. In two of these – building society branches and public libraries – we can see an example of embracing constraints to thrive through partnership, a model that one can see will be an important example for others in the future.

But let’s start with the survival instinct. Andrew Haigh, CEO of Newcastle Building Society, sees branches as essential but an ‘endangered species’, needing to adapt in order to survive. So when the idea of creating a new branch within a community-based library in Yarm, North Yorkshire, which itself was under threat of closure, was suggested, it seemed to him like an ideal partnership.

The Newcastle Building Society branch in Yarm had closed some years before, but Haigh felt that this could offer a way to return their branch service to the town, and benefit the community by helping keep the library open at the same time: shared space could solve both of their commercial constraints. So in October 2016, Newcastle Building Society opened the UK’s first branch within an existing public library in Yarm.

Embracing the constraints of space, noise, resource and function in a shared, more limited space such as this posed an obvious challenge. How do you fit standard branch operations into a space only 20% the size of a normal branch? They could if they removed superfluous elements and scaled everything back to bare essentials. The Yarm branch has just one private meeting room, one till position and a secure back office, yet it could still operate just like a traditional branch.

Greater emphasis on electronic transactions over paper ones was introduced, as well as booking appointments that fit in with the schedule of the library – avoiding 10am, for example, when a mother and toddler group meets every morning. With no formal waiting area, customers are encouraged to use the library or garden to wait in, and the limited staff from both sides help each other out, whether queries concern books or finances.

While this might have started as an encouraging story about two worthy groups partnering to survive, the real impact of the partnership has been much more interesting than that. Since the branch opened, the number of library visitors in Yarm has grown by 43% and book lendings increased by 12%. Newcastle Building Society has found that new customer sign-ups in Yarm are 39% higher than its branch average, with customer appointments 25% above the norm.

Tony Franco