The best-kept secret in the public sector

Source: PSE - April/ May 15

Carl Fillery is chief executive of CSMA Club, the membership organisation that offers discounts, deals and leisure experiences for people working in the public sector. He told PSE how much the organisation has changed since its foundation in 1923, and what it offers people today.

Carl Fillery has led CSMA Club for a year, helping to ensure the mutual organisation offers great things for its members across the public sector and that it produces surpluses that can be reinvested for their benefit. 

The organisation was originally known as the Civil Service Motoring Association, but it has changed massively in its 92 years, with motoring now much less important than its network of leisure resorts and discount deals. But the basic raison d’etre has not changed in all that time: helping its members get more for their money and more enjoyment out of life. 

It is still a not-for-profit organisation, but is now run like a modern business, rather than by a series of committees as in the past. It generates an annual spend of £120m amongst its members. 

Fillery, who has been part of CSMA for 11 years and in the senior leadership team for eight, stepped into the top job in May 2014. He said: “The governance is now fit for running a modern business. The heritage is really important: there’s a lot of trust there, and it’s the essence of why we became what we became, and it is incredibly important for us to build on that. Of course, part of the challenge for any business is being a trusted brand. We’ve got that and we don’t want to damage that at all. With trust comes responsibility.” 

He has described the Club as “essentially a combination of crowdsourcing, social media and Groupon, but as a mutual organisation it is run by members for members and profits are ploughed back into the organisation to benefit the membership”. 

Attracting new members 

Membership used to be restricted to people working for the Civil Service in central government departments (and their families), but has changed with the times and is now open to anyone in the wider public sector.

Fillery said: “Historically, we have behaved like an exclusive club, but I am keen that we not only shout about the great work we are doing but let more people benefit by becoming members. We have recently embarked on expanding membership eligibility to employees in the education sector and the police force; initial feedback has been positive and it is definitely a step in the right direction. 

“The key for us is to give something back and have something for this public sector group of people, who are doing very important jobs.” 

Membership now stands at about 270,000 – down from its peak – though retention is good, at 92%. The focus now is attracting new members, and the signs are positive. 

“We know we’re still the best-kept secret in the public sector,” he said. “We get 92% retention and people stay with us for an awfully long time. But not enough people know about us. That’s the part we’ve got to modernise. A big part of that is how we communicate, and the channels people use to engage with us. The old clunky ‘foot soldier’ method, just going out to offices based in London, doesn’t work any more – the public sector is far more diverse than that and it’s not easy to take people’s time these days.” 

Some public sector workplaces have been keen to help ‘spread the word’ about CSMA Club’s potential benefits for their employees. Fillery explained: “We’re talking a lot at the moment to HR people particularly, and the heads of some of the organisations and agencies, and they’re very excited about us. [Many of them ask,] ‘why didn’t we know about you?’

“We know how the public sector has been feeling for a while, and continues to feel. That’s not going to change any time soon. These senior managers are asking, ‘how do we help that and improve the wellbeing of our team and motivate them?’ There are open doors, there, and I’m very optimistic.” 

Overall, Fillery said: “It feels really good, where we are at this point, because we’ve got evidence of some real tangible things happening, and indicators that the plans and strategies we’ve put in place are the right ones, and are going to deliver.” 

The organisation has been running pilots of new potential offers to test them out on particular subsets of the membership and see what grabs attention, and to ensure the changing demographics of its membership and potential membership are taken into account. 

Fillery said the most popular things it offers are those that “generate memories and experiences”, so predominately things like family days-out, events, festivals, holidays, travel and cooking. 

“We’re able to package up and bring great things together,” he said. “It could be as simple as discounted tickets, but we prefer a whole ‘experience’ around it – the travel there, what you get when you’re there, a good price-point, access to things that don’t exist as a package usually. 

“People really like what they get from us here and want more of it.” 

It also offers more everyday offers, such as discounts on groceries, deals on credit cards, savings on energy prices, and money off cinema tickets. 


Heritage and interest groups 

‘Motoring’ as a concept is “not important to us now”, Fillery said, though through a wide range of partnerships it does still offer discounts on everything from travel insurance to tyres. It sold off its breakdown service, Britannia Rescue, to insurance group LV= in 2007. LV= Frizzell remains the preferred partner for breakdown and insurance for CSMA Club members. Even before its acquisition by the LV= group of companies in 1996, Frizzell had worked with the CSMA since the 1920s to provide insurance products to members. 

CSMA Club also has six interest groups dedicated to motoring: 4x4, classic vehicle, karting, marshalling, motorcycle and motorsports. Nationally, there are also groups dedicated to books, quizzes, food, gardening, photography, and social breaks. There are a further clutch of locally-based, geographically defined groups who put on their own events for members. The organisation helps out from the centre with some funding and capability creation, but members can basically “dip in and out” as they wish, Fillery said. 

Fillery said: “For me what’s interesting around motoring is: what did it mean at that time? When we look at that, and look at our heritage, it was more about bringing people together, and fun; it was pioneering, it was an experience, it was unique, it was new, it was only achievable through CSMA, and it happened that motoring did that at that time. It’s a case of modernising our heritage: capturing that essence and translating that into modern-day products and benefits and services.” 

Confident about the future

CSMA Club is headquartered in Brighton, where about half of its 240-strong workforce are based. The other half work across its network of leisure retreats: a portfolio of holiday parks, self-catering cottages and hotels. Fillery joined CSMA Club Leisure Retreats as general manager in 2004, helping to turn a £1m annual loss into a profit-making enterprise for members, following a series of disposals and acquisitions, plus robust new financial management procedures. 

Promotions followed, giving Fillery a wider perspective on what was going on across the organisation. “It became apparent the Leisure Retreats business was not an isolated case, there were failings across the business. Subsidiary businesses were operating in isolation, were struggling to make a profit and were run by committee.  

“We had to streamline the organisation by folding or selling off the subsidiaries and make changes to the leadership structure. To make such root and branch changes we needed to amend the articles of association and this required a vote at the AGM. Selling off larger assets such as Britannia Rescue also required membership approval. Thankfully, we got the support from the membership which allowed us to make these important changes.” 

Fillery said: “We will achieve an operating profit this year, and will start achieving surpluses next year. We’re a mutual, so the surpluses will find their way back into member benefits. 

“We stabilised the business, aligned it to what we’re trying now to achieve, and focused on the important parts of our business. Sustainability is our focus – it’s been around for 90 years, and people want it to be around for another 90 years. So it’s not boom and bust, providing good things then disappearing. I feel very confident about where we’re going. There have been some tough decisions we’ve had to make as a business, but they are the right ones, and the confidence is now back. We can make it work, and give ourselves the revenues to do the type of research and product development that’s required to make membership what it needs to be.”

Timeline of key events 

1923: Founded

1927: First ‘Continental run’ to France and birth of CSMA Gazette

1930: 6,000 members, becomes a limited company

1961: Acquires second leisure retreat

1983: Britannia Rescue founded

1994: Purchase of Ghyll Manor

1999: Purchase of Cotswold Motor Museum

2007: Sale of Britannia Rescue to LV=

2011: CSMA Club established as a subsidiary of the Civil Service Motoring Authority

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