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CHOICE voting member briefings 2018

CHOICE voting member briefing October 2018

Welcome to my Board briefing for October 2018.

I've recently returned from a magical month's break, so apologise if I have been slow to respond to some of your emails.

The Board met on 8 October, where we discussed the financial statements for 2017–18, progress of the Transformer energy switching service, our 2018–19 Campaigns Strategy and preparations for our Annual General Meeting in November.

2017–18 financial statements

We were pleased to receive a report from our auditors indicating that the audit had gone well, with no major variances or concerns identified.

Noting this report, the Board approved the financial statements for 2017–18, which will soon be made available to you with the notice of the Annual General Meeting.

As you may recall, CHOICE has a healthy cash balance and over the past few years, the Board commenced a period of investment in the organisation, so that it can transform in response to rapid changes in technology, markets and consumer needs. I can't stress enough how important this is and how much time we, as a Board, now spend on this topic. It's involved using some of our accumulated cash through budgeting for a deficit. As planned, the financial statements show a deficit of $1.99m for 2017–18, split between $0.66m that was funded by a grant provided in a previous year and $1.33m from operating activities. This was consistent with the budget approved by the Board.

We ended the year with $10.24m in cash and term deposits, meaning that we are able to support continued investment.

More information on our financial performance, including the outcomes from our investment, will be provided in the financial statements and Annual Review, as well as at the Annual General Meeting coming up in November.

Transformer

The Board received a report on Transformer, the electricity switching service that launched in April after several smaller trials. This service is unique in the Australian energy market because it uses data from a customer's electricity bill to compare their current deal to all other offers in the market, in order to identify whether they can save by switching. Where a saving can be identified, the consumer has the option of paying a fee for CHOICE to manage the switching process. Our product is different to the many dodgy products out there that also offer a switch, but are ultimately driven by profit rather than consumer benefit. We see this as an important way to help consumers in a complex market, and to test new ideas and potentially provide a new business model to support CHOICE's purpose.

Transformer is obviously a complex service to deliver, so it's required considerable investment in technology and customer service. It now requires further investment in order to validate its potential and the Board was happy to support this. There is definitely a level of risk in this startup and as Chair, I don't want to underestimate this. We will carefully monitor the progress of this investment through both the Investment Committee and the Board.

Campaigns strategy

We were pleased to receive a report from the CHOICE Campaigns team on its proposed priorities for 2018–19.

This will see CHOICE continue work on core priorities, such as improvements to the Australian Consumer Law and reforms that are expected to arise from the banking royal commission. We will also do further work on renters' rights, following the positive reception to our research in 2016, and explore new areas such as global roaming charges and services delivered over the National Broadband Network.

The Board noted that this work is now underpinned by strategies to engage the over 180,000 online campaign supporters that help us by signing petitions and contacting politicians, engaging in positive change. This reflects deliberate investment by the Board in growing the organisation's capabilities in online campaigning.

Annual General Meeting

We approved the notice of the Annual General Meeting, which you will receive shortly.

The meeting will be held on 29 November in Sydney, again webcasting for members from other parts of the country so you can participate and ask questions.

We were also happy to approve another 13 applications for voting membership, following our recent invitations to CHOICE members.

I hope you'll be able to join us at the AGM, either in person or via the webcast. As I've said before, I'm very keen to hear from you, so please feel free to contact me at any time at sldavey@choice.com.au.

Dear voting members,

Welcome to my mid-year Board briefing.

If you're one of the 547 people who recently applied for voting membership, a warm welcome! I send a message like this after each Board meeting so that you have a sense of how the Board is going about its role.

The Board met on 30 July, where we reviewed the organisation's progress through 2017–18 and made a number of decisions about the 2018 Annual General Meeting and Board election process.

Performance

2017–18 was the final year of a three-year strategy, so we reviewed a number of reports on how CHOICE had performed against that strategy.

One of the key goals of this strategy was to be more effective at driving change for consumers, and 2017–18 was a particularly effective year for this. I'm really delighted to share some of the key wins that CHOICE helped to achieve:

  • Government commitments to improve the Australian Consumer Law, including clearer rights to refunds and replacements and stronger penalties for businesses that do the wrong thing.
  • New credit card laws that make banks do more to ensure people can repay their credit card, and make it easier to cancel a credit card account.
  • The mandatory recall of dangerous Takata airbags, after a CHOICE investigation revealed the flaws with the voluntary recall process.
  • Action by the ACCC against major car manufacturers who were failing to provide remedies for lemon vehicles.
  • Better access to dispute resolution in the financial system, with the establishment of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.

Another goal was to expand the way that CHOICE helps consumers through experimenting with new services. We were pleased to see the launch in April of this year of the Transformer energy service, which helps consumers who live in areas where there is a choice of electricity retailers to find the best deal. Transformer had over 800 paying customers by 30 June, with more signing up every week. We're pretty excited with what we've done here and I look forward to keeping you updated.

The strategy also had a strong focus on improving CHOICE's existing work. This has involved heavy investment in our digital tools, including choice.com.au and new tools such as Do I Need Health Insurance and our new health insurance finder . We were pleased to see that this helped us to increase the number of new members coming to CHOICE in 2017–18 by 4.3%. Had it not been for changes to some banks' credit card products, which unfortunately lost us more members than usual, we'd have had significant growth in membership. Given the challenge with publishing and subscription models, this part of the business is performing particularly well.

The final area of our strategy focuses on the standards we set for ourselves as an organisation, and we're happy to see that CHOICE has continued to increase its social impact, while reducing its environmental impact. During 2017–18 we became formally accredited as a carbon neutral organisation.

Overall, the Board was very happy with the degree of change within CHOICE over the past three years and we're looking forward to seeing even greater change under the new strategy we've just adopted.

Financial results

We reviewed draft financial results for 2017–18. We are part-way through a period of investment, using the healthy cash reserves that we've generated in recent years to grow CHOICE's impact and improve its future sustainability. While we have budgeted for a deficit in 2017–18, we're pleased to see that the draft results indicate that the deficit was lower than budgeted, leaving us with a strong cash balance at 30 June.

Our auditors are finalising their work and the audited accounts will be made available with the notice of our Annual General Meeting.

Board election

Three positions will be elected this year through a postal ballot in October-November. Under our Constitution, the Board is required to identify the skills that are most needed in order to ensure we have the right balance of experience to govern CHOICE effectively.

We reviewed the outcomes of a detailed skills audit and decided to set the following areas as priorities for 2018:

  • High-level strategic and commercial operations experience
  • Investment capability
  • Skills in digital content, products and services
  • Consumer focus.

Nominations have been invited from candidates with strengths in one or more of these areas and further information on the nomination process was provided with the preliminary notice of the AGM that was recently circulated by our Company Secretary.

Annual General Meeting

We set the date of the AGM and approved a preliminary notice, which you should have received. The meeting will be held in Sydney at 6.00pm on Thursday 29 November. Members who don't live in Sydney will be able to join the meeting via an interactive webcast. We'll provide a formal notice of the meeting with more details in early November.

Our next Board meeting is 8 October and I'll be in touch after that. Until then, please feel free to email me with any questions or suggestions at sldavey@choice.com.au.

Welcome to my June Board briefing. There's a lot here, so please settle back and enjoy.

The arrival of cooler weather across much of the country has seen a rise in people looking to buy heaters, which has helped us attract lots of new members to CHOICE. If you're looking for economical ways to make your house warmer, Chris Barnes from our testing area recently provided some useful tips on heating options in a segment on Studio 10, which you can watch here.

The Board and I met on 28 May, with the major item on the agenda being our strategy for the next three years. We also approved next year's budget, began planning for this year's Board election and Annual General Meeting, and were briefed on CHOICE's role in the banking royal commission.

CHOICE's Strategy 2021

In my Board briefings in December and March I discussed how we were analysing CHOICE's current performance, in the context of the opportunities and threats facing us, to help us work out the key priorities for our strategy over the next three years. Thanks to those members who responded to my invitation to provide suggestions to feed into our thinking. I know myself, the Board and the management team appreciate the time you took to send your thoughts in.

During an offsite day in April, the management team presented its initial thinking on priorities for the next three years to the Board. This ultimately fed into a new strategy that was endorsed by the Board on 28 May.

The ultimate objective of the new Strategy 2021 is to improve CHOICE's impact and sustainability. This reflects the fact that we exist to make an impact for consumers. The need for CHOICE isn't going away, so the organisation must remain sustainable in the long-term.

There are three key ways we'll aim to do this:

  • We will increase the power of consumers by winning more of our battles for better consumer rights, and helping more people make good decisions using our tools and services.
  • We will engage more people in what we do, through coming back to our website on a regular basis, joining our campaigns or participating in CHOICE.Community.
  • We will grow our revenue from around $20m today to over $26m by 2020–21. We believe that this is necessary if CHOICE is to remain relevant and powerful in the future.
three key ways

While these are major priorities, we also need to improve the foundations of the organisation by ensuring we have a culture that supports growth, technology and good quality data.

The Board has approved ambitious targets for growing consumer power, the number of people we engage and revenue growth.

We'll communicate our progress in implementing the strategy through future Board briefings and our Annual General Meeting. If you have any questions, by all means get in touch with me at sldavey@choice.com.au.

Budget

To support the first year of the new strategy, we approved the budget for 2018–19.

This will involve a deficit of $1.55m in 2018–19. This is the second year we've budgeted for a deficit of around this level. This is a very deliberate decision, reflecting the fact that the organisation has healthy financial reserves and that we need to invest in changing how CHOICE helps consumers, especially through an ongoing investment in technology.

We are, however conscious that we cannot run deficit budgets forever, so before considering the budget we examined a range of financial scenarios prepared by management. The Board discussed these in some detail and was ultimately confident that it's the right decision to continue to invest in the organisation, even if this means more years of deficit budgets. We're confident that across the next two to three years, we can return to a balanced budget without our cash reserves becoming unacceptably low. We will, however, be carefully monitoring revenue and expenditure so that we can take early action to change our strategy if required.

As Chair, I am extremely aware of these important choices, and I'm confident the Board, our management team and the organisation are also aware of the investments we're making to secure our future. We will remain alert and conscious of this privilege.

Board election

Three positions on the Board fall for election each year, with nominations opening in early August. Our governance processes require us to analyse the skills required on the Board, so that we can give members our views about the gaps that should be considered in the Board election process.

We spent some time discussing the key skills required on the Board, taking into account what we want to achieve through our new strategy.

One current Board member, Ben Slade, has announced that he won't be standing for re-election, so we've decided to start the search process early for a potential replacement. We're looking for someone with skills and experience in high-level strategic and commercial operations and/or digital content, products and services. If you're interested, or know of other members who possess the skills and experience we're looking for, please see this notice for further information.

Royal Commission

Our Director of Campaigns and Communications, Erin Turner, briefed us on CHOICE's involvement in the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. We see this as an important opportunity to achieve major reforms to the financial system and to put consumer interests at its heart.

CHOICE has a small team working on the royal commission, with support from a range of other staff. We were invited to make a submission at the start of the process and have since been granted leave to appear, which means that we're able to make further submissions at the end of each round of hearings on what should be done to fix the issues that have been revealed.

We expect this to be a minimum two-year commitment, because the opportunity for reform won't end when the commission does. We'll need to work closely with politicians and policy makers beyond the commission process, to make sure that it results in meaningful changes to the law.

Read more about our position and join the campaign.

I'll be back in touch in early August after our next meeting. Until then, if you have any feedback please email me at sldavey@choice.com.au.

Welcome to my first Board briefing of the new year. I hope you had the opportunity to enjoy a summer break and have returned refreshed, happy and ready to face 2018.

We met for the first time this year on 1 March, where we welcomed a new Board member, spent some time discussing our strategy, and elected office bearers.

Welcome to Alexandra Kelly

We were pleased to welcome new Board member Alexandra Kelly, who was elected to the Board at the 2017 Annual General Meeting.

Alex is Principal Solicitor of the Financial Rights Legal Centre, a community legal centre in Sydney that operates the National Debt Hotline and Insurance Law Service. She brings considerable legal expertise to the Board, along with a detailed understanding of the problems that consumers experience in financial services so we're thrilled with her appointment and keen to welcome her contributions.

Reviewing our strategy

We spent a large part of our meeting continuing our discussions about what needs to change in CHOICE's next three-year strategy.

The CHOICE management team prepared some excellent analysis to guide our discussions, which highlighted the major changes in technology, the economic and political environment, and the demographic profile of the Australian community over the past few years.

One of the key themes emerging from our discussion was the need to ensure that we make the most of some our unique advantages, such as our reputation, our history of campaign wins, our deep understanding of consumer products, our high volume of website traffic and our emerging innovation capabilities.

We'll be continuing this discussion in April, to provide further guidance to management and expect to approve a new three-year strategy at the end of May.

If you have any thoughts on things that CHOICE should be doing differently, I'd be keen to hear from you. Please email me at sldavey@choice.com.au.

Reviewing our performance

We also spent some time discussing how CHOICE has been going over the first two quarters of 2017–18.

It has been a busy period for our campaigns team, especially with the financial services royal commission underway, and we see this as an opportunity to drive further reforms to protect consumers.

Financially, the organisation is broadly on track. We have increased expenditure across areas such as product development and innovation so that we can do more to assist consumers, but we expect it to take time for this to result in significant revenue growth. As you know from previous briefings, we've budgeted for a deficit this year. This is something we can sustain and are comfortable with, as we have strong cash reserves. At this point in the year, the organisation is on track to remain within our budgeted deficit.

Office bearers

At the first meeting of each calendar year, we elect a Chair, Deputy Chair and Company Secretary.

I was thrilled to be re-elected as Chair, alongside Deputy Chair Bill Davidson.

Linda Magee, who has been our Company Secretary for the past six years, is leaving CHOICE at the end of March. Linda has made an enormous contribution spread over 18 years at CHOICE and we are all sad to see her go. Linda will be replaced by Jessica Hill, who takes on these duties alongside her role as Director of People and Culture.

I will be in touch again after our next meeting in April. If you have any feedback, you can contact me at sldavey@choice.com.au.

Kind regards,

Sandra Davey

Chair of the Board