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We need to ‘step forwards into an unpredictable world’ – Spence at Cambridge BS

  • 22/02/2021
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“I constantly find that the richness and diversity in my life in one area gives me lessons I can apply in another,” said John Spence, the newly appointed chairman at the Cambridge BS.


Spence began his new role at the mutual on 1 November last year and hasn’t met any of his colleagues yet in person, but brings a big CV to an increasingly demanding role.

“The Cambridge truly holds [its] members at the heart of what it does and has a wonderfully rich history of helping people have a home. I’m honoured to join the team and look forward to helping guide and shape the next chapter of its history,” Spence said.

After a 32-year career in banking at Lloyds, rising to director of retail distribution and director of policy co-ordination and risk, Spence also continues as chairman of Spicerhaart, finance chairman of the Church of England’s Archbishop’s Council and in his role as an Essex county councillor.

A rare accolade, John has received an MBE, OBE and CBE for his services to the community, charity and business respectively. He is also blind and has held chairmanships of Action for Blind People, Vitalise, Blind in Business and Essex Community Foundation.

I ask Spence about what he predicts will be the long-term impact of the pandemic.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt to predict about the Covid virus, is that it’s unpredictable. In terms of strategy as a building society, we need to step forwards into an unpredictable world. It is only months since the predictions were for a significant fall in house prices and in the early days of 2021 there’s no sign of that at this stage,” he added.

He said he suspected that as furlough is unwound and the economy unlocked we may see a much more divisive economic performance with some sectors flourishing and others not, which particularly in the light of Brexit, could lead to major inflation.

“How do you get the right balance of ambition and caution in an unpredictable world?,” he asked.

Following a question on the pandemic, Spence said we are unlikely to ever go back to normal, adding we are likely to go forwards into a ‘new normal’ instead.

“We have learnt that hybrid working works. I think the days when we drag people large distances into a room for a meeting will be mixed now with a Zoom or a Teams on a digital basis. Time can be reinvested for a better purpose as long as you’re getting the right mix of face to face and digital. I think office space will be used for individual working, particularly for those with less conducive home arrangements, but much more for team gatherings, you can reinvest that time for better purpose.”

He added: “All those brokers have learnt to do things in new ways – they won’t go back. They’ve learned how to build relationships without being in the same room and they’ve learned how to glean the info – we need to see that progress into the legal sector. We can all see that’s a sector that has struggled and needs to join us on this journey of discovery of doing traditional things in a myriad of new ways.”

Given the pandemic and the shifting nature of of the outlook and economy, is more being asked I asked of board members than ever before I ask?

“You need more than ever now to have your eyes open to the full spectrum of possibility. Too often our thinking is confined between three and seven – now is the time to be thinking from nought to ten.”

However, Spence was very clear that face to face meetings and networking still offered huge value.

“Networking will remain critical. We’re human animals and thrive from being with other people. How often have we learnt things from being at a table at an event? How often have people said things that would never have occurred to you? That’s how you expand your mind,” he said.

The Cambridge has always lent nationally on its buy-to-let range but extended its lending area across England and Wales for all products in March 2020.


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