Aussie's CEO: Not so new on the block

Aussie Home Loans and the Symond name and have been almost synonymous for years, so many interpreted James Symond’s appointment as CEO to mean business as usual. If only, he tells MPA editor Sam Richardson.

MPA: Given your long association with the franchise, does your appointment as CEO mean real change for Aussie?
James Symond: The good news is that Aussie has been on a very successful track for a long time. So it’s not a business that needs revolution; it needs evolution, which is really important. I’ve been very fortunate to be here from day one, the day when we started the business, and for me, coming into the CEO role has been a real privilege. [It’s] something I’m really excited about, to be able to give back to the broader group of Aussie, not just the distribution channels. So for me, it’s about ensuring my focus on the back room, on head office, on finance, and HR and IT and compliance and parts of the business with which I might not have been so intrinsically linked in the past. They’ve really come front and centre in my world, and I really have this one-team focus across the business, which I’ve really tried to push. So for me, it means evolution rather than revolution, but change is what this team is seeing – good change, which is making them feel more part of the business and part of the sales culture than ever before, because we are a sales and distribution business at the end of the day.

MPA: You’re bringing your call centre back in-house this year; what was the thinking behind that move, and what results have you seen since then?
JS:
The most important person ultimately in our business – in any business – is the customer. So for me, it was absolutely integral to bring the customer as close as possible to the business, as close as possible to our thinking, to be at the front of our thoughts and minds. Being able to bring the call centre back in house, back into being an integral part of the team, was so important. Having it outsourced to another company was not satisfactory anymore. Bringing it to head office and having immediate and daily visibility, for me and the whole team, was absolutely essential.

MPA: Are you looking for more control of brand – and what does that mean for brokers?
JS:
Where we believe we can add strong value, we’ll try to have a more intimate relationship with that process. We believe from a core standards point of view, we can add even more value to the consumers byother peripheral areas under the Aussie bringing it in-house, and that’s why we’ve done exactly that. In some cases there’s a different situation – for example, IT. We’re not IT experts; we still outsource much of our IT, and I can’t see that going away any time soon. It’s like mortgage brokers – mortgage brokers are, across the industry, commission-only, selfrun, self-energised business people. That model works; having a model where it’s PAYG hasn’t worked in the past, and is unlikely to work in the future, because bringing those guys closer, in that sort of way, is not what is best for the customers.

MPA: How are Aussie helping your brokers deal with rapid regulatory change and avoid being caught out?
JS:
Our training – our ongoing and our upfront training – is best in class. And it’s not just training in selling a home loan; it’s training and education ongoing about regulatory changes as well. So we’re putting more effort, more time and more money into ensuring that our brokers are educated and trained to meet this new regulatory strong world.

MPA: Aussie reached the 1,000-member mark in June. How are you ensuring sustainable growth when taking on new brokers?
JS:
We’re very experienced with very, very strong growth. We have a diversified distribution strategy, and it’s a very thoughtful one where we have a mobile broking channel, we have a senior mobile broking channel, and we have a retail franchise channel. And we do that so they all complement each other, and we have plenty of business out there for everyone. Even though last year, as a group, we settled just under $2bn, we only have a 5% market share across the country; there’s 95% market share across the country that is open to business for us. The blue sky open to us across the country is enormous. Our sustainability and track record speaks for itself; our retention is greater than ever before. The average broker and the average loan that they write are greater than ever before. Last month alone, our retail channel settled just over a billion dollars. The average store settled $5.7–6m a month – that’s the average store! These people are writing great business; the number of customer enquiries is greater than it’s ever been. We all know that the marketplace, as a general rule across the country, is very strong, and particularly in the eastern seaboard and Sydney and Melbourne, it is off the charts.

MPA: Aussie are well known for on-boarding new-to-industry brokers. What can you offer to more experienced brokers considering joining?
JS:
Our retail channel is the channel that is probably attracting more experienced brokers than every other channel we have. You’ve got brokers out there in the marketplace who are experienced brokers who want to take the next step and run a shopfront. [They] want to have a brand on that shopfront, want to have those walk-ins and eventually want to have a business that in five, 15 or 20 years’ time, they want to move on and sell. We have stores that are attracting 18-25 fresh walk-ins every week; consumers are seeing the Aussie brand across the door, walking in and saying, ‘Hi, I need a home loan.’ That’s forgetting over-the-phone, forgetting local area marketing or community involvement – these stores generate activity.

MPA: So in practical terms, how can you help brokers who may be reluctant to do more formalised training?
JS:
We have some very senior brokers at Aussie – I’ve got brokers who have been with me for 20 years; I’ve got brokers who settle $35m every single month, as is the case with Parramatta. We have brokers who are extraordinarily successful, and they know it’s about going away and sharpening the axe. I’ve got a massive sales conference in two weeks’ time – the BE conference in Melbourne – with 500 brokers alone, plus 70 lenders. And it’s three days of what basically is retraining – three days of motivation, three days of fun. These brokers know they need to walk away and sharpen the axe to come back harder and sharper than ever before. So I think that it’s a bit of a falsity to say that these brokers don’t want to be told what to do; sometimes when you’ve been in the business for a long time, you actually do need to step aside, retrain yourself, jump back into the game and be better than you’ve ever been before.

MPA: How are your Aussie Select whitelabel products performing?
JS:
We started this business as a non-bank lender; we had a singular Aussie product. We became a mortgage broker in the early 2000s, but we always still had our own home-brand product; we never lost what we first had. The last two or three years, we’ve decided to dial that product up and have it compete. And it’s really as a reaction to our customers’ enquiries. Our customers and our brokers were, more and more, asking for an Aussie product. Our customers would walk into an Aussie-branded store, speak to an Aussie-branded broker and ask about an Aussie product; it just made sense. So for us, the main thing was to make sure that product was a competitive product out there, which we have, and certainly that product has fared very favourably on the panel, and it’s an important part of the toolkit for an Aussie broker.

MPA: Where’s the main take-up of the Aussie select product – is it from mum-and- dad owner-occupiers?
JS:
The average Aussie customer is the average mum and dad; the average Aussie customer is that first and second and third home buyer. So our average customers are those average mums and dads; our average loan is $370,000, which is very similar to the four major banks. The profile of the Aussie loan is very similar to what we have – those average mums and dads, that average loan size; it’s a product that competes directly with mainstream lenders.

MPA: How is Aussie going to look a year from now?
JS:
We’re rebuilding our head office and support capabilities behind the scenes, and that’s probably a 12-month journey for us, because we know we can support our brokers even better than we do; we know we can add value for our customers even more than we do.

So for us, it’s always about evolving – it’s never stopping, and we’ve spoken about the core skills piece as part of that. You’ll see over the next 12 months, our brand will probably go through another reiteration of evolution, in terms of our campaign and our reach out there and our voice to the consumer. We’re putting more marketing dollars in than ever before. We have large-distribution mouths to feed, for want of a better term, who we need to make sure we focus on, and over the next 12 months you’ll see us step up another gear.

In terms of our store strategy, as I said before, we only have 5% of the market share of the country, when you talk about some of these banks, like Commonwealth Bank and Westpac, having 20%. Five per cent means we have so much headroom. Mortgage broking might have 52% of the market space, but it has 48% still to go – those consumers who aren’t using a mortgage broker.

So I think that our own market share is not where I want it to be; I think the mortgage broking market share has plenty of room to grow. It wouldn’t surprise me if mortgage broking, over the next four years, hit 60–70% in terms of the share. Consumers are voting with their feet, and mortgage brokers and the proposition they offer to the consumer deserves a greater share still.

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