Richard Abelson MERJE, Charity
In the most recent instalment of our MERJE Meets series we speak with Phil Andrew, CEO of StepChange Debt Charity. As well as his role at the debt advice charity, Phil is a Housing Association NED & Remco Chair, a Chartered Accountant and a Chartered Marketer & Treasurer.
Here, Phil shares insights into how the events of the last 12 months have affected StepChange and how he views his role as CEO.
For readers who may be unfamiliar with StepChange, can you summarise the business?
StepChange Debt Charity is the UK’s leading debt advice charity. For more than 27 years we have worked collaboratively with partners to help people at risk of or struggling with debt to take back control of their finances and their lives.
We offer the most comprehensive range of free advice, support and solutions of any provider in the UK, from budgeting to repayment plans and from insolvency to mortgage advice.
Our in-depth analysis of an individual’s financial circumstances takes full account of their situation and needs, to help them choose a realistic path out of debt.
Our vision is to create a society free from problem debt. Problem debt is not just an issue for individuals but goes much further - it damages families and communities and costs in excess of £8 billion a year. By helping those in debt get back on their feet, and by campaigning for policies that aim to prevent problem debt, we’ll help overcome the difficulties that debt creates for our society in the 21st century.
We believe that everyone in debt, for whatever reason, should have easy access to free, fair, independent advice and solutions to help resolve their situation.
We believe that there are many misconceptions about why debt happens, and that these can create an unhelpful influence both on public policy and individual action. By undertaking research, analysis and campaigns to address these misconceptions, we believe we can and do influence change, both in attitudes and in practice.
We also offer early intervention services to help people address financial difficulty at an earlier stage before it becomes a serious problem. We see these efforts as vital to achieving an effective service that is mindful of prevention as well as cure.
What does your role entail as CEO and how has the pandemic impacted your day-to-day?
As CEO I have the honour of leading and looking after the welfare of around 1,500 colleagues, who jump out of bed each day to make a positive difference to those who come to us for debt advice. During the pandemic we have expended a lot of effort getting to the end of each week and making very quick decisions in an uncertain environment. As CEO, my job is to co-ordinate this at the same time as looking forward to 2023 and beyond, to ensure that nothing we are doing in the short term is detrimental to our long term goal of doubling the number of people we help and helping them earlier.
How has StepChange reacted to the pandemic in terms of making sure that you are capable of managing the inevitable increase in people needing your services?
We have worked hard to make sure that we have record levels of funding so we can be appropriately resourced to meet the needs of the increasing number of people who need our help. At the same time, we have had to remain flexible as people’s needs change from pure debt advice to broader and earlier money advice and guidance. We have also moved almost all colleagues to home working, a move we previously thought impossible as an FCA regulated provider of confidential advice.
Covid-19 has seriously impacted many people’s livelihoods. Can you provide some insights into what you and StepChange are witnessing in respect of this and its implications?
As well as producing regular insights reports about how the pandemic has affected our clients, which can be found here, StepChange also commissioned national polling in September 2020 to understand how coronavirus has affected people’s personal finances six months in to the pandemic in the UK.
The report findings were quite a sobering read; firstly 2.5 million people are facing a financial crisis due to the impacts of the coronavirus. The number of people in severe problem debt whose income has been affected negatively by the coronavirus has nearly doubled since the beginning of the outbreak, to 1.2 million people.
Secondly, 5.6 million people are struggling to afford essentials. The number of those affected who have fallen behind on essentials or borrowed to make ends meet has increased from 4.6 to 5.6 million, and we estimate that the amount of arrears and borrowing among this group attributable to the impact of the coronavirus is £10.3 billion.
We also found that coping strategies are making matters worse, with one in three (33%) of those affected having borrowed to make ends meet, which may delay problems now but increases the likelihood of more severe debt problems later. And finally, we found that these financial difficulties are becoming harmful; 17% of those whose financial situation has been negatively impacted by the coronavirus have experienced one or more forms of hardship since March, including going without meals and rationing basic utilities.
We want the country to avoid a coronavirus-related debt crisis, and our report includes a few key recommendations for the government to consider.
What was the defining moment in your career that has enabled you to get to where you are today?
The defining moment for me was having a boss at Sodexo who was willing to take the risk to move me from COO to CEO of an organisation running 5 large prisons in the UK. There is a big hurdle to get over in getting your first CEO role. Many boards play safe and feel that you need to have been a CEO previously in order to be their CEO. It was an enormous stretch and now, on my 3rd CEO role, I consider that first year as one of the hardest of my career.
What advice would you give to people whose ultimate ambition is to take on the role of CEO?
Don’t stay in one role for too long. As CEO you need to be able to bring a broad range of previous experience in different environments to the position. Most colleagues you will be leading will be looking at short term internal issues. Your value will be the ability to look externally at what others have done in similar situations and strategically fit those findings to your current challenges. The more personal experience you have of different industries, cultures, countries and team styles, the more you can bring to the role.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your former self?
Pick your industry carefully in your early career. I spent 7 years in the tobacco industry. This was an extraordinary time, working in one of the best run companies I have ever experienced. I lived in Asia and Russia during this time and learned so much. However, transferring across to the charity sector was much harder with this on my CV and I still have to ‘explain myself’ on a regular basis.
If you could instantly gain a new skill, what would you choose?
I would love to be better at learning new languages. When I lived in Hong Kong I had a mandarin teacher who literally gave up on me after 6 weeks. I studied Russian every weekday with a tutor for 2 years and my Russian is awful. Whenever I try to speak it I constantly mix up German and Russian.
What 3 positives can you take from your personal experiences in lockdown?
Having the children home from university (mostly positive!), having the opportunity to help more people and watching how StepChange colleagues have shone through such a difficult time and achieved things we didn’t think possible.
What is something people might be surprised to learn about you?
As an undergraduate, I spent two summers in Iceland studying glaciers. The first summer was spent in sub-glacial tunnels measuring pebbles. The second was spent studying catastrophic decanting of glacial flood waters. Quite niche!
Many thanks to Phil for chatting with us and providing some interesting insights into his day-to-day. Stay tuned to see more from our MERJE Meets and other series to keep up to date with the latest news and trends in our markets. If you are a business leader and would like to partner with us on a Q&A piece, please get in touch.