The first decade 1998 – 2007
In the wilderness – Feb 1998
“I really think you should meet this company”, said the recruiter, a girl by the name of Liz, barely older than myself. “The boss is very charismatic, he’s seen your CV and he wants to see you ASAP!”
It did sound great: a job in finance sales. Loans or something. Probably just the kind of thing I was looking for (I had no idea what I was looking for). I had a 2:2 degree in Finance and Accounting and I thought it best to follow this path. Of course I would go – I didn’t need convincing. I would leave no stone unturned in my quest to find a decent career path.
Currently though, I was washing dishes in the kitchens of Cardiff Castle while a mid-week wedding breakfast was going on, two floors above. I’d taken the job 3 weeks beforehand as a stop gap, having walked out of my first ‘proper job’ working as a tied agent at Lincoln, a life insurance company on St Mary St. The place had been stale, and my colleagues were a down beat bunch. I’d taken the job after struggling a bit to find my way after university. After 6 months I couldn’t stand the crusty politics and tediousness of the place, so one day so I simply got up from my desk, thanked the boss for the opportunity, and walked out of the door. I walked into the first recruitment agency that would give me immediate work (which happened to be around the corner in Castle Street) and promptly over to my new temp job in Cardiff Castle to keep money coming in. The career drop was temporary, and it was no issue for me. I’d worked a hundred manual labour jobs since the age of 11. I was used to hard work, getting my hands dirty, meeting new people and generating my own funds. This was just another job until I found my feet.
First National Bank – March 1998
A day or so later, I put on my best (only) suit and headed into the offices of First National Bank (FNB) on Newport Road in Cardiff. I was greeted by a young, pretty girl and peering into the office I could see that the place was full of young ladies who were working hard and clearly enjoying what they did. I could hardly believe it, I already had very good feelings about the place.
I was taken into the manager’s office for my interview. The chap went by the name of Malcolm Rees who was very pleased with himself having just won the bank’s highest accolade, Branch of the Year 1998. Malcolm was a strong character, and we got on well from the word go (these days Malcolm is a broker like us and is one of Y3S’s top 10 accounts). He was obviously strict and looked like he took no messing about. He described the job, while I nodded enthusiastically and agreed with everything he said. The fact that I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about was beside the point. I loved to learn and was happy to be his whipping boy. I got the job, and within a few weeks I was heading into the office for my first day, where Malcolm emptied his in-tray onto my desk and nipped off to play golf. I was just happy to be there.
The job turned out to be interesting: lending money to people secured by way of a second charge over their property… whatever that meant. A week after arriving, everyone in our branch headed to London spend the evening with the bank’s directors to celebrate winning Branch of the Year. We stayed in a big hotel near London Bridge, travelled by stretch limousine, quaffed champagne, ate at Mezzo’s in Soho and went clubbing in Mayfair. I was really starting to love this company.
A couple of weeks later I headed off on the company induction program at Ettington Park in Stratford-upon-Avon for two weeks, and I was determined to do well. I put my heart and soul into it and came out with the highest marks, which bought me serious initial brownie points throughout the bank and our branch. I couldn’t have been prouder.
As a New Business Representative, my job was to visit local IFAs and mortgage brokers, get friendly with them and then coax them to give me their turned down mortgage applications, reigniting them into secured loans. When I got my first application through the fax from a local mortgage broker, the girls in the office helped me put the paperwork together and then I put it into the post tray. Malcolm called me to his office to say well done and to take the paperwork from the post tray, call up the client and tell them I was coming to hand deliver the documents and answer any questions they had. I hadn’t planned on being a postman, but I got on with it straightaway. I drove to the client’s house 20 miles away. They were delighted to have someone around to help them sign and collect the right statements and proofs. The face-to-face contact meant I got to know the customer and their situation well, and as a result I got the case completed quickly, much to the client’s delight. Turns out Malcolm knew what he was talking about and he always had tips on how to make things happen quicker.
At month end when the commission cheques for my introducers rolled off the printers, Malcolm told me to deliver them personally. “The best time to ask for more business is when you give them a cheque,” came his advice. Turns out he was right again.
Keeping the format just so, the business rolled in and I couldn’t believe my luck in landing this job. I was 23 years old, and I had a company VW Golf and a fuel card (which meant I could go visiting my old college buddies around the country at weekends) and I was earning the grand sum of £14,000 a year plus a bonus, the details of which I hadn’t yet bothered to work out. I’d also been given a BT card to make free calls from call boxes. Screw that I thought and just used my mobile at my own expense (calls were 50p a minute back then). Each month, I’d drive around South Wales signing up clients and forging deep bonds with my introducers, handing over chunky commission cheques with a big cheesy smile on my face, despite me having done all the work. The broker who was getting the cheque had barely lifted a bloody finger!
The new boy – Sept 1998
About 6 months later, another role had come up and the job had been given to a new graduate by the name of Barney Drake, who had also paid a visit to Liz the recruitment lady. Barney Drake! We all laughed, what kind of name was that?! He wouldn’t get far! Barney turned up early and found me in the staff kitchen where we instantly hit it off and discussed our lives to date over a cup of tea. He was clearly very different to me. Privately educated in Hampshire and brought up in the beautiful tax haven of Guernsey, his upbringing couldn’t have been more different to mine; I grew up in a 3-bed semi in Port Talbot, a smelly steelworker town in the armpit of South Wales and then dragged through the state education system from shitty school to shitty school as my wonderful parents moved east looking for better prospects for their growing family. While Barney had been taught to be confident, polite and forthcoming from an early age, I’d had to learn to look after myself and be wary of glue-sniffers and petty criminals, especially when I moved to Cardiff and ended up firstly in Hywel Dda Junior School and then Glan Ely High School, the roughest school in Wales.
Despite our very different histories, we had ended in the same place and we shared one goal: to be the best and stand out among our peers. I was no intellectual, and neither was Barney, but with Malcolm to guide us we were a salesforce to be reckoned with, and many proud moments of accolade were had as we featured constantly in the top spots on the bank’s quarterly newsletters. Barney was much quicker off the mark than I had been; he had quickly devised a spreadsheet to work out what exactly what product points were needed to achieve maximum quarterly bonus with the least effort, which he promptly did. It was impressive, and Drake had made his mark. I had been too laissez-faire with pleasing others and had missed out massively, achieving 25% of the possible bonus. Even worse, Malcolm was now swaying to Barney as his new protege. Zikes! That Friday night as the team hit the town, Barney reminded me constantly about his bonus as he enthusiastically bought champagne for the ladies who processed our business.
“Now then, Scum,” (Barney’s nickname for me earned from growing up in Port Talbot), “I can’t help noticing that I appear to be considerably, connnn-siderably richer than yawwwwww!” he shouted in a strong Brummie accent mimicking Stanley, the infamous Harry Enfield character of the era. I was laughing with him, but internally I was crushed, and I vowed at that moment it would never happen to me again.
Moving on – Aug 2000
One day, after a couple of years of this carry on, I was sitting in the offices of a very successful broker introducers in Cardiff, who asked me how I felt about my job and said to me that I should consider stepping through the looking glass and come to work for him as a broker. I liked the idea and the timing was right; it was clear that getting promoted in First National was going to be difficult, and so I took the decision to promote myself by taking the job. I negotiated a much better remuneration package and a brand-new BMW 3-series coupe. Basically, a wet dream. The bank had been good to me; the constant training courses had been second to none. I had lapped it up, ingesting everything they had to offer. They’d invested a huge amount of time and money into my development and I had learned a lot, and delivered for them, but it was time to move on. I handed in my notice and Malcolm tried to convince me of the solidity of the bank lifestyle, but he knew that FNB were on borrowed time with me. I was climbing up the corporate pole and that was that.
Impressed by Barney’s analytical skills and concerned that he would wobble, First National promoted Barney to ‘Technical Consultant’. Barney had created a very useful program called Planfitter, a simple but effective piece of software to help brokers identify if their client would ‘fit’ one of the bank’s products. The bank introduced Barney to a software house, had it sharpened up and burned onto CD-ROM’s which was then sent out to the hundreds of credit brokers on their books. Barney was impressing the pants of all and sundry in the bank’s management and his peers didn’t like the attention he was getting. Unfortunately for FNB, the software house had identified with Barney’s potential and nicked him for themselves! With an offer he couldn’t refuse, Barney promptly left the bank and headed to London to report for his new role.
Return of the double act – March 2001
It wasn’t long before I started to get frustrated in my new role. I was getting constant questions about why I needed a cheque for a valuation, was this client’s application going to complete if we paid for mortgage references or would it be a waste of money? My boss (who was and still is a lovely chap) would tut-tut and shake his head as he reluctantly signed some cheques and held onto others. It was becoming more nauseating than my first job back in the life insurance company. It’s a new department for f***’s sake, it needs investment!
One afternoon a few months later, during a period when I was beginning to lose my normally plentiful motivation, I got a call from Barney who was also fed-up with his new job, spending the weeks in London and coming home to his girlfriend in Wales at weekends. The grind was not for him, but with a new home and mortgage he needed a job before he could jump ship. Instantly I called my boss and convinced him that Barney would be a great hire. We’d work together and do what we did before. To be honest I relished the challenge of working with someone who could keep me motivated. I must have been convincing because the boss agreed to it. A few weeks later, the old double act was back on the road.
Our joint activity was exhilarating, and we wrote more and more business by delivering the best possible customer service. Competitors were either non-existent or too slow. No remorse for any competitor was shown; if you were up against us, you were going to lose the client. We were faster, stronger, nimbler. The boss had stopped tutting and could see that his investment was starting to deliver result. Clients were delighted and this pleased their mortgage brokers who returned to us time and time again with more business. All was well again, and we enjoyed watching the fledgling business take shape through our hard work.
Then the telephone of fate rang again. It was our old boss from FNB, Malcolm Rees. He’d been approached by an angel investor who was looking for experienced people who wanted to set up a brokerage but needed the capital to do so. He had been to check out the offer, but the parties hadn’t clicked. We hadn’t really considered our own thing at that point, and we were doing well where we were. Barney had just bought a lovely apartment in Cardiff Bay and I, a smart townhouse in Penarth Marina on the opposite side of the water. We both had chunky new mortgages and leaving our jobs for a start-up shouldn’t have been that appealing. It didn’t stop us though and secretly off we went to London to talk about the prospects of this new brokerage. The offer was exciting and having the opportunity to throw off the shackles off and drive our own organisation forward with our lofty values was just too tempting. It was there for the taking. On the way home from London we pondered the advantages of the offer and despite our big mortgages and growing bills, we decided that we should go for it. There was never any discussion of failure, no feelings of not being able to succeed. It just wasn’t in our mindset. We had absolutely no idea of the wild ride were about to go on.
Yes Loans & Mortgages – Sept 2001
We applied for a consumer credit license, found some tiny premises and struck a deal (we didn’t know if it was good or bad, but it felt reasonable), bought some budget desks and chairs, an old BT Norstar telephone system and some PC’s and we opened a bank account. The angel investor had set up the company and dropped in some funds. We were now directors and shareholders of a limited company, and we were almost ready to trade. We’d done it all on the QT while still doing our jobs. It wasn’t easy, but we had to keep it under wraps in case the boss tried to drive a wedge in our plans. In the background we prepared everything for our departure, even had the cars valeted at our own expense, cleaned the office and left every file in a state where it could be picked up and worked by the next person. We called the boss up to our top floor office and told him we were going to set up on our own. We thanked him; he was gutted but didn’t seem annoyed, more ego-damaged perhaps. No amount of convincing would have stopped us from pursuing the dream, and shortly after, we were onto our next mission.
We’d put most of the start-up capital into advertising in the red top papers, a well-trodden method of generating business at the time, but all the same it was new to us, as we were only familiar with procuring our enquiries through mortgage brokers and financial advisers. Still, we’d give it a bash. A series of adverts were planned for The Sun, the Daily Star, and the Daily Mirror at a cost of £30,000. All we had to do was sit back and wait for the phone to ring with fresh new clients and use our skills to find them the right loan at the best possible price. Easy.
As it turns out it wasn’t; fate had showed its ugly face in the most horrible way possible – our timing could not have been worse: I was in the office on 11 September, a couple of days before we were due to start trading, in harmony with the launch of the adverts in the nationals on 14 September. I was cleaning the grotty window sills and hoovering the carpets ready for Barney to arrive with a van full of computers, screens, desks, chairs and other office paraphernalia. My mobile rang and my then girlfriend informed me that something weird had happened – a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Centre buildings in New York. While we were on the line, the second plane hit the other tower and it was clear the world was about to about to become a different place.
Our loan adverts went live on the 14 September as planned but the phones did not ring off the hook. In the weeks to come, you’ll remember the papers were full of incredibly sad stories, pictures, and scenarios about the future. Our very expensive adverts were seen by nobody. As grotesque as the whole period was, it nearly brought our brief foray into business to a very sticky and abrupt end.
Back to B2B – Nov 2001
With the telephones gathering dust, we decided to pick up where we had left off with our previous broker introducers. It didn’t feel right to ask our angel investor for more capital to spend on the red tops again. We did what we’d always done – hit the phones! Broker relationships were rekindled, and visits were made. We had around 30 introducers giving us business, but we could easily handle more, so we called up Yellow Pages and bought all the IFA and mortgage broker data records for the whole of South Wales and the West Country. 2,000 or so records kept us busy for a long time. We bought a whiteboard and listed all our potential business for that month. We spent the mornings calling potential introducers looking for those who had had recent failed remortgage applications, explaining to brokers how we could help their clients get the funds they wanted, and show the broker a new revenue stream. In the afternoons and evenings, we sped off in our cars to hand deliver finance documents to our clients in person and answer their questions, easing their concerns and worries and cementing relationships.
In the first year we helped more clients achieve their financial goals than we had ever done in any previous year. The following year we employed a colleague from FNB to head up our sales department and over the coming years we built our team person by person training everyone to be excellent brokers with the very best customer service skills. Nothing was too much trouble for our introducers and their clients.
Exponential growth – 2004
Put simply the mortgage application can be very stressful for clients. When a mortgage is declined due to a credit blip or an LTV restriction, or the mortgage lender doesn’t wish to lend any more, its even more stressful, especially when the client is relying on those funds arriving. This is where specialist brokers like us come in. We make a difficult situation much simpler, and help clients get funds that they didn’t think they could access. And we work a lot faster than the mainstream market. Word of our good work started to spread far and wide. We enlisted the help of our friends Tom Lloyd and Mike Jordan at Bluegg Creative to come up with high quality marketing campaigns that made us different. The industry at that time was not known for its marketing skills, so it didn’t take a lot to stand out from the crowd, which we fully intended to do. Bluegg used the open brief that we gave them to really experiment. We became known for our instantly recognisable full-page adverts which we took out in the main industry publications which we used to broadcast our service standards. If people hadn’t seen the magazine ads, then they would have had a telephone call from our team or a broker pack posted through their letterbox filled with pens, post it notes, desk pads, mousepads and coasters plastered in our telephone numbers. We started playing about with email marketing before pretty much anyone – all very new at the time. If you were a mortgage broker, it was difficult to avoid us.
We bought lists of IFA and mortgage broker data for the whole country and got our team of young enthusiastic people to call everyone in the country to tell them about our service offering. The phones were crazy every day with thousands of incoming and outgoing calls. The noise in the office was incredible and sometimes I wondered how on earth anyone could hear themselves think; I still do! As we were now operating nationwide, the team that processed the business no longer had the time to go out and deliver and collect finance documents from the clients, so we recruited drivers, hired cars, bought phones and gave them a company credit card each. Clients do not want to hand their passports and other personal documents over, so we equipped the drivers with mobile photocopiers so that they didn’t have to. The drivers became as slick as the rest of the team; they met clients at airports, in their offices, on the factory floor, on holiday at Bognor Regis and wherever they were needed. It was all about speed of service and removing the painful bits from the loan application. The drivers were travelling 5,000 miles a month each, way over our agreed limit – the hire car company was forever on the phone expressing their annoyance.
We’d built a format that worked; from recruiting and training new brokers (Cardiff has a large call centre community, and the best people are always looking for the next move and a career), mentoring them through a buddy system, giving them opportunities to rise through the business organically, we had created a hierarchy that could be climbed by those who were willing to apply copious amounts of elbow grease and demonstrate world class customer service. Despite being limited by slow internet and clunky systems of the era, our team had an amazing bond and the operation was as slick as shit through a goose. The early years were the ones where we discovered some of today’s most knowledgeable industry people, Dilan Evans, Mike Gallagher, Joe Dillon, Monika Lowe, Phil Howard, Neil Mace, Tony Webb, Nathan Raffour, Jamie Hesketh, Andrew Gage, Ben Gillespie, Rhys Thomas – all of whom remain with the business today although they now form the operational team of the whole SMG group.
Our small offices became bigger offices, which became even bigger offices. 5 staff became 10 staff which became 20… 40… then 80. Our customer service levels were high and there was no let-up in demand for our high-end service. With over 30,000 prospective introducers on our database, with around 250 clients each, some of whom would need our services, the potential was unlimited. We had established strong relationships with our lender partners, SPPL, First Plus, Money Partners, Prestige Finance and Blemain Finance among others. The lenders that funded our business always wanted more. The brokers who gave us the business knew we could be relied upon to get the job done and to pay their commissions straightaway. We were one of a couple of firms that were doing it better than anyone else. We just kept our heads down and reached for the sky day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year and we barely looked up. We learned that dogged persistence combined with awesome customer and broker service was the key to success.
In 2005, the finances were becoming a real headache. The staff numbers were climbing. We had salespeople, underwriters, managers, team leaders, couriers, administrators, HR and recruitment people, a fleet of cars and beautiful new offices. We had just moved into Neptune Court – our brand-new state of the art HQ. Barney and I moved upstairs into a purpose-built corner office. Today, we sit downstairs with our teams at any desk that is free, but it was fitting for the time; it was well-appointed with thick wallpapers and leather chairs. Opposite was a large boardroom with a beautiful walnut table and soft leather seating for 12.
The team downstairs was generating hundreds of loan completions each month and despite having external accountants to do the heavy work, I was struggling to reconcile it all up front. We were trying to build systems just to cope with the growth but we always seemed to be slightly behind what we needed. Computer networks had to be built and rebuilt, bandwidth was constantly being upgraded, and newer, faster lines always seemed to be needed. We bought bigger fax machines, faster photocopiers, better computers, more desks, more RAM, dual screens, additional partitioning to section out more training rooms. It reminded me of the old cartoons where the new sections of the bridge over the canyon are being thrown into place at full speed as the speeding steam train crosses it!
Ordering the chaos – March 2005
One day I received a call from Ben Yeadon, one of my best friends from my college days who I met up with regularly. Ben was bored of his job working as an accountant at a glass fabricator in Leeds where he’d lived all his life. Now he was looking for a new direction. While I’d struggled to get a low 2:2, he’d breezed through university with a first class degree in Accounting and Finance, coming first out of 60 people on our course. He’d also starting doing his masters course. He knew his stuff and I trusted him implicitly. A package was negotiated and a month later he moved to Cardiff and took up his new role as Financial Controller of Yes Loans & Mortgages Ltd., (Ben later became Finance Director and is now Chief Financial Officer of the group). Ben took a corner office and his systems were put in place; he organised a physical and virtual filing structure and set about bringing order to the chaos. Within 6 months he’d had the serviced plants removed from the office, the hangers on had been sent on their way, credit card limits were reduced, suppliers who had been milking us for years were bid farewell and generally things that we either had no idea about or were too busy to even care about were reigned in. Under Benson’s watch, invisible frugality would be the order of the day. At this point there were over 100 staff in the offices. Newer, bigger servers fit for 250 staff and the latest VoIP telephone systems replaced our older systems. The business was strong, stable and financially resilient. We were ready for the future.
What’s a liquidity crisis? – August 2007
If the early years were crazy, the time from 2005 – 2007 was on another level. We were in a period of hypergrowth. We invested in two other companies and grew them into strong brokerages; now there was one large brokerage and two smaller ones doing pretty much the same thing, all growing with insatiable demand for our services as mortgage brokers became more and more switched on to specialist finance solutions. On the advice of our lawyers, we changed our name from Yes Loans & Mortgages as there was another firm with a very similar name just 20 miles away and it was causing confusion. Our three companies together became The Y3S Group.
At this point I took some time out to spend with my wife for our first wedding anniversary. Getting away wasn’t easy but we’d had a torrid year following major complications during the birth of our first child which ended up in severe brain trauma through clinical negligence. We needed to get away for some R&R. We flew to the South of France and stayed at small hotels and guest houses in St Tropez and Aix en Provence, finishing off with a couple of days in Monte Carlo, trying to heal some of the damage in our souls. We were staying at the Hotel de Paris in Casino Square, with a balcony looking down over the gigantic yachts in Port Hercules. Munching on a warm croissant, I poured fresh coffee into two china cups. My wife was in her bath robe sipping on a glass of orange juice and reading the morning paper in the sunshine.
“There’s a chap here saying that there’s a liquidity crisis looming,” she said. “Any idea what that means?”
“No idea,” I replied. “It’s probably nothing. Come on, let’s get dressed and go see the Prince’s Palace.