Meet the Board Member: Michael Finister-Smith

Michael Finister-Smith, 24 July 2023

When I took early retirement, I wanted to try out some non-executive director roles. The first one was at Ongo, based in Scunthorpe. Since I had time on my hands I next joined Saffron and Broadland and have been there ever since.

It’s great sitting on different housing association boards because I’ve got that comparison and I can see the things they do slightly differently and what some might do better than others. They’re all a similar size, between 6,000 and 12,000 homes, and they all do development which is something I was looking for. They also work in the community, which is important to me.

My previous career was in finance. I was meeting people all the time from various different backgrounds – it’s the people more than anything that draw me to an organisation. I’m quite a gregarious person so I love the opportunity to meet different people. It’s also really good to get a different perspective from resident board members.

The biggest challenges facing housing associations at the moment are the financial pressures, increased costs and governmental support, and how we make sure we’re looking after the stock that we have. We need to manage the risk of building enough new houses whilst maintaining quality and effective governance. There’s also real pressure around cyber and IT infiltration; and then staff recruitment and retention.

I am really proud of my work with Ongo, transforming their governance and demonstrating that we’re changing things for the better and making sure we’re meeting compliance with the regulator. We’ve got back up to G1 now, which I’m very proud of. I really enjoyed the process in a strange sort of way, because it’s quite structure what you need to see happen, the regulator sets an agenda and it’s quite pragmatic. We’ve got a really good group of people there now, everyone takes the job seriously and brings something to the board.

The way I work is to always keep focused on objectives. If you focus on that, why we are making this decision, what we're trying to achieve, how does it fit in with that, it makes it a lot easier. The housing associations I work with want to do things over and above building houses, they want to help the local community.

Working as a board member you can miss a level of detail of what's actually happening in the real world, the operational stuff. If I could ask any question to the next board member in this series, I’d like to ask how they find attending board meetings a few times a year rather than being involved directly in the business all the time. For me that can be quite a challenge.

Something other people might be surprised to learn about me is that I’m a volunteer for Pets As Therapy. I visit different schools and hospitals with my dogs, and children read to the dog – which sounds bonkers but it helps build their confidence as they don’t feel judged. That’s one of the most rewarding things I do. The kids love it, there’s a massive queue because they’ve either never had a dog or they’re away from home, especially international students. It’s quite amazing.