Interview: Marlene Shiels, Capital Credit Union

Under Marlene Shiels, Capital Credit Union is now the third largest in Scotland. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Under Marlene Shiels, Capital Credit Union is now the third largest in Scotland. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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CAPITAL growth and help for the ‘unbanked’ drives credit union leader

These days she’s one of the movement’s leading campaigners, but when Marlene Shiels first got involved in setting up Capital Credit Union 26 years ago, she had no financial background to speak of.

An administrator in human resources at what was then Lothian Regional Council, Shiels volunteered for a project designed originally to help the council’s lowest-paid employees. She spent two years juggling all sorts of marketing and administrative tasks to get Capital up and running while also holding down her regular job.

She got to know the new board members very well, so it was no great surprise when the chairman rang her up a few months into operation. The board’s secretary had gone off sick – could Shiels fill in at the next meeting?

She did so for the next several meetings, and when it eventually became clear that her predecessor would not be coming back to work, she was asked to join the board on a permanent basis.

“There and then at 26, I became a director of a credit union, but I had no idea what it was,” she admits. “I really was learning on the job.”

After four years she stepped up to become the president of Capital, which like all credit unions is owned by its members. This was another voluntary post alongside her full-time job, though the council’s support for the project meant she could attend board meetings during normal working hours.

By 1998 Capital was in a position to begin employing staff. Shiels successfully applied to become business development manager and stepped down from the board. A subsequent restructuring led to the creation of the post of chief executive in 2002, which she has held ever since.

Previously the credit union for a single employer – Lothian Council – Capital was by then accepting members from staff across 26 employers in the Borders, Edinburgh and the Lothians. By that time it was also operating as a “community” credit union, meaning that membership could extend to anyone living in those regions – not just council staff.

It unlocked a period of brisk growth for the credit union, now Scotland’s third-largest with 22,000 members and £26 million in assets. Further expansion is on the horizon as Capital prepares to extend its reach as far north as Angus, adding hundreds of thousands of potential new customers to its catchment area. Capital recently opened to business in Angus, Clackmannanshire, Falkirk and Fife, but will not begin its official marketing push until September. It takes the population covered by Capital from roughly 900,000 to 1.4 million people.

“The scope is enormous,” Shiels says. “We are very much looking at a growth strategy.”

Capital has already had informal discussions with a number of existing credit unions to its north in a bid to reassure local institutions that they will not be squeezed out. Shiels says Capital will not actively market in areas that are currently well-served.

However, she points out that the combined membership of all credit unions in the four new authority areas comes to just roughly 10,000 people.

“There is a lot of scope to work with there without threatening a small, successful local credit union,” she says. “What we have said to them is that we are not coming as a threat – we want to work with you.”

The aim is to ultimately reach par with Glasgow Credit Union, Scotland’s largest with 36,000 members and assets of more than £100m. One slight difference, however, is Capital’s focus on financial inclusion.

It began actively working with the “un-banked” – those whose income is so low that they struggle to afford financial services – in 2008 as part of a programme backed by the Department for Work and Pensions. By the end of that three-year initiative, Capital had about 2,000 previously un-banked members, and that number has continued to grow to 4,500 today.

“People who are on benefits or a very low income don’t tend to have a lot of experience in dealing with financial institutions, so they are usually more comfortable coming in and talking face-to-face,” Shiels says.

“It does take more resource and more effort, but we have adopted a whole new way of working, and our team here of 18 has done an excellent job in adapting to that.”

Her determination to eradicate financial exclusion – and passion for the credit union movement – is evident in her lengthy list of appointments.

She is the first and only credit union professional on the council of the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland, and is a board director on the World Council of Credit Unions. Earlier this year, she was appointed to the Financial Conduct Authority’s Smaller Business Practitioner Panel.

Shiels is also a special advisor to HRH the Duchess of Cornwall on credit unions and issues of financial inclusion. This has led the Duchess to open her own account at London Mutual Credit Union in Peckham, which also holds accounts for staff of the Royal Household.

It’s a rather extreme example, but it illustrates a business model that relies upon recruiting members from across the financial spectrum. That campaign has been aided by the fall-out from the banking crisis, which Shiels believes has cemented the position of credit unions on the financial landscape.

“We are on the map in a way we have not been in the past,” she says. “Our job now is to deliver on that.

“One day, our vision is to be the primary financial institution for all of our members, not just the financially excluded.”


Job: Born: Belfast, 1963

Raised: Belfast

Education: Napier University

First job: Assistant secretary to the director of missiles, Short Brothers, Northern Ireland

Ambition at school: I was never terribly ambitious. I always wanted to work with people, but never really extended it beyond that

Can’t live without: Right at this moment in time, probably my puppy

Kindle or book? A book – if you drop your Kindle in the bath, you are done for

Favourite city: After Edinburgh, it would have to be Washington DC

Favourite mode of transport: If you had asked me that a year ago, it would have been flying because it gets you there quicker, but in the last year I have really started enjoying the train up and down to London. You can relax and get work done

What car do you drive? A Land Rover

What makes you angry? Injustice of any kind, whether it is to people or animals

Best thing about your job:

The people, that is the main thing for me