January 23, 2019: Darlington Building Society’s new Vice Chairman, Bob Cuffe, talks to Peter Barron about how his parents’ values helped equip him for his latest role
AS a boy growing up on a terraced, working-class street on the North-East coast, Bob Cuffe’s definition of success was measured by one simple ambition – to one day live in a house with a garden.
To Bob – the son of a plumber and a barmaid – having a garden, with grass, a few flowers, and maybe even a little shed, meant you’d made it in life.
He can smile now at the memory of those humble horizons, justifiably proud of the fact that he went on to cultivate a career that saw him flourish into one of the North-East’s most trusted and charismatic business leaders.
“Right from being a boy, I was always very aware of the value of having a house and what it says about you,” he recalls. “A house with a garden was just a dream.”
His dad, George, had travelled from Liverpool to work at Redcar’s steelworks. “He called himself a pipe-fitter but, let’s face it, he was really a plumber,” says Bob.
George met a Redcar barmaid called Olive, they got married, and Bob was born in a house that had passed down through generations of the family in Red Lion Street.
It was a working-class upbringing but with values that have stood him in good stead: “Be honest, work hard, don’t go into debt, always give your best, and hold your hands up when you make mistakes,” is how Bob sums them up.
His description of himself as “Teesside but optimistic” is an affectionate reflection on the inherent pessimism that he felt hung over his home turf. Going to his first Boro match as a six-year-old is a case in point. His dad took him to one side and told him: “Look Robert, the thing about the Boro is they’ll always let you down.”
Years later, when Boro won the Carling Cup against Bolton in 2004, his Dad was immediately in his thoughts. “As the final whistle blew, I found myself thinking ‘there you go dad – we did it’. I reckon lots of Boro fans were thinking of their dads who’d travelled the journey of misery,” he smiles.
And it wasn’t just football. “Even in the sixties, my mum and dad worried about the future of ICI, the steelworks and shipbuilding. It was just part of Teesside’s nature to expect the worst to happen,” he adds.
How ironic then that earlier this year, George and Olive’s son should have been invited to join the board of the South Tees Development Corporation – headed by Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen – as it plots an optimistic future for the area in the wake of the closure of the SSI plant at Redcar, with ambitions to create 20,000 jobs on Europe’s biggest regeneration site.
Determined to break out of that age-old circle of pessimism, Bob had been the first in his family to go to university, graduating in Politics and History in 1981.
“Mum and dad thought I’d suddenly be able to answer all the questions on University Challenge and they were a bit disappointed when I couldn’t,” he recalls.
There was a sense of disappointment too when Bob got a job as an advertising rep with the Evening Gazette. Still expecting the worst, they feared a job in sales might lead to the sack if he didn’t hit his targets, but Bob optimistically countered that he might get promoted if he surpassed them.
His parents needn’t have worried. He rose up the ranks, with roles including Group Trainer for the Thomsons media group, Field Sales Manager in Newcastle, Telephone Sales Manager in Birmingham, and Classified Sales Manager in Coventry. Having gained all-round experience of the business, he returned to the North-East in 1994 as General Advertising Manager in Newcastle, then Advertising Director back at the Gazette in 2000.
During his climb up the career ladder, Bob had bought a house – with a garden – up the road in Markse. Even then, his mother was disappointed that it wasn’t in Redcar.
“But it’s only two fields away,” Bob declared.
“It doesn’t matter – it’s not Redcar!” came the lament.
Another dream was to be realised in 2007 when he was made the Gazette’s Managing Director. “I was elated but, sadly, my parents had both passed away by then and I know how proud they would have been,” he says.
By 2011, he’d been made Regional Managing Director for what was now Trinity Mirror, and it speaks volumes that he was the only media representative trusted to be a member of the SSI Task Force during the Redcar steel closure crisis.
It was the combination of Bob’s business experience and reputation for strong community engagement that led Darlington Building Society to come calling a year later to snap him up as a non-executive director.
“I’d done a lot of work with the building society during my time at the Gazette and I had a lot of affection for the business,” he says.
“I really do believe in the building society sector and the concept of mutuality as adding huge social value,” he adds.
“Finding a balance between rewarding savers and helping someone buy a house appealed to me, coupled with the local heritage of an institution going back 162 years.”
It comes as no surprise that one of Bob’s favourite films is the timeless classic It’s A Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart.
“You can see in that film how a building society works because it underlines the value of supporting the community,” he says.
Darlington Building Society’s continued commitment to share five per cent of its profits with the community is one of the main reasons Bob is so proud to be associated with the company. In 2017, the Society supported 8,620 people through 148 organisations and gave 134 days in volunteering in the community. Those figures are on track to be exceeded this year.
“Sometimes, organisations might appear to be doing the right things on the surface but, since its inception, DBS has undeniably been doing the right things through to its core. There was not one dissenting voice when the five per cent proposal came before the board because it fitted the company’s ethos perfectly,” he says.
It was another perfect fit, on both sides, when the opportunity arose to make Bob vice chairman. “It’s as good as anything that has happened in my professional life, and I look forward to helping the Society to be the best it can be for its members,” he says.
“We have a bold business plan and yet the beauty is in its simplicity: to go on doing what we’ve been good at throughout our history. We have competitors that are bigger, but they can’t match the levels of service we offer.”
For example, the imminent introduction of online banking will give members another option that is convenient, safe and secure, but Bob is quick to stress: “It will never be forced on those who prefer face-to-face service through our branches.”
DBS has a network of 10 branches and a programme of improvements is underway through refurbishments, starting at Guisborough and Barnard Castle. With each re-design, the needs of vulnerable members, including dementia sufferers, will be taken into account.
Bob is also looking forward to new specialised products being introduced in each quarter over the next year, enabling the complexities of every case to be considered individually.
The specialised products roll-out is starting with the Professionals Mortgage, based on future potential earnings as well as current salary.
“We’re really keen on identifying groups of people who may need additional help,” says Bob, a father-of-three himself.
“With other lenders, the computer might say ‘no’ but because we have manual underwriting and experienced people, we’re in a better position to help hard-working young people buy their own homes sooner.”
Owning a house, hopefully with a garden, was always Bob Cuffe’s measure of success. And while he may have come a long way in his professional life, his values remain rooted in what he learned, growing up on a terraced street in Redcar
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