Ronnie Graham – A lifetime of fulfilling dreams with VM
Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Graham is a master raconteur who can spin a tale that can magically transport you back in time, even while articulating a singular idea.
Minutes into an interview, he related a story of a chance meeting on the Washington Boulevard almost four months ago, that summed up the qualitative experience of his corporate mandate: fulfilling the dreams of his clients.
“I left VM 20 years ago, a man stopped me and said: ‘Mr. Graham, you don’t remember me? I am so and so, you helped me when you were at VMBS Duke Street and I now own my own home’. He remembered me, after all these years, we helped him to achieve a significant milestone for him and his family, and that gives you a feeling of satisfaction that you have contributed, and to have had the opportunity to touch lives,” he said.
When Graham joined the Victoria Mutual Building Society Group in 1959, the society then had assets of £1 million. He showed the company’s growth through the lens of the 43 years he was employed.
“At that time, we used to put it on our letterheads, that we were the largest building society in Jamaica and the Caribbean. By the time I left in 2002, that had grown to $25 billion which was significant at that time and that was 20 years ago,” he said.
The company has continued to grow exponentially over the past six decades.
“When I joined VMBS, we had 20 staff members working at the 6 Duke Street location. When I left, it had grown to 500 staff members and we had 15 branches all over Jamaica, in Canada and the United Kingdom. That was significant,” he said.
It was hard, grueling work building the company before the advent of computerization.
“The systems used for accounting were ledgers, we had to post savings and withdrawals and at the end of the month, we would balance these things. It was challenging, but we did it. We moved to accounting machines, and we became the first building society in 1973 to be computerized, and that was a transformation to how we did things,” he said.
He joined VMBS as a junior staff member and he left VMBS as the divisional president of the building society’s operations. Graham is a man with a vision and optimism to spare. In many ways, he was the operations point man who engineered the growth of the VM Group as it sought to hammer out the stakes in the exploratory frontier of the financial landscape of the 1970s.
“That gave me an awesome feeling of inspiration, there was great achievement over that period,” he said.
The VM Group decided to become more deliberate in its push, by approaching the Jamaica Defence Force, the Jamaica Constabulary Force, and the Maritime forces to increase its savers and customers.
“In 1975, we took the decision to become more aggressive in terms of marketing, we wanted people to know who we are, we made the decision that we were going to go into the field, and explain what we’re all about, we challenged the larger companies and institutions,” he said.
The armed forces and local constabulary were integral in this push.
“We had the opportunity to go in and speak with them and figure out how to work with them and assist them to acquire homes. How do we assist them to acquire homes? It’s always good to advertise, but there is nothing like when they’re able to sit in front of you and ask questions, and that I believe, made the difference,” he said.
The VM Group also reached out to the diaspora, the vast population of Jamaicans overseas.
“We visited the US to promote the same ideas. It went exceptionally well. Three months after the first promotional leg, we decided to expand our marketing effort to the US and UK leg in 1979,” he said.
Graham said building trust was the key to making the push viable.
“Jamaicans living in the US demanded a certain level of customer service, we did so well that we developed a relationship with those folks, and to this day, we have the largest population of overseas savers still. We built up that trust, they knew they could speak to us, we allowed them to have confidence in us, in fact, when they visited us in Jamaica, they came to the persons who they saw when the presentations were made, creating a comfort level that worked for VMBS,” he said.
VMBS would eventually grow to become a strong, integrated group with offerings that go well beyond traditional savings and mortgage loans. Through the parent entity, subsidiaries, and affiliate companies, VMBS eventually moved to offer a range of financial products and services for individuals and businesses, including wealth creation and management, remittance services, real estate services, pension administration, general insurance, and development financing.
They also expanded their reach to overseas territories, serving Jamaicans in the Diaspora and other clients in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada.
Graham said that as the company grew and expanded into other areas of business such as insurance and real estate, it remained true to its core principles. Still, Graham recognises that challenges to income security such as high inflation have to be met headfirst to protect its older, more vulnerable customers.
“A building society, in its true concept, is really a savings and loan institution, encouraging people to save, and allow members to secure a mortgage: How can we assist more Jamaicans to own their own homes? But as the world has evolved, the question must be asked: As a Jamaican, how seriously do you take living into retirement age? Folks don’t pay much attention. we enjoy today, and we retire and realize they do not have much to live on, unless you have a plan, for too many, when they reach retirement age, they are not able to stop working,” he said.
He applauded the innovation of the company, and its key marketing moves such as sponsoring and athletics events.
“Through these moves, we were able to interface with people of different classes and cultures. We were able to go into schools and these things helped us to grow, to satisfy the needs of individuals and we did that exceptionally well,” he said.
He fondly remembers core members of his team that helped to create a family-based corporate culture at the VM Group.
“We have a large group of workers on WhatsApp and Facebook who keep in touch today because of the wonderful times at that institution, I am proud to say we were able to forge together and help VM evolve into the financial giant it is today,” he said.
Since 2016, VM’s evolution accelerated with a purposeful move to digital and a more proactive drive to develop and enhance its product and service offerings. Significant milestones have also been achieved in this period, chief among them, the listing of subsidiary, Victoria Mutual Investments Limited (VMIL) on the Jamaica Stock Exchange, giving ordinary Jamaicans the opportunity to generate wealth for themselves and families.
In November 2021, the Victoria Mutual Group of companies, embarked on a brand transformation campaign, to bring its storied history as a beloved global player in the financial sector, into alignment with its brand image, leveraging the opportunity to re-establish its commitment of care and expertise to its Members and the public. The organisation rebranded as ‘The VM Group’ creating a more cohesive and integrated look and feel across its subsidiaries.