Meet four of the industry’s best, BLD’s latest Diamonds
By Laura Miller -
Every Diamond is as unique as their gemstone namesake, but it’s no coincidence a pattern is starting to emerge among those who make it onto the list. The ability to give is a clear differentiator – to identify a problem and create the time and energy to fix it, not to shrug it off as ‘someone else’s problem’.
Here are four bridging pros extending their Diamond quality far and wide…
Tiba Raja, executive director, Market Financial Solutions
It can be hard to remember from this distance, 14 months out, the shock of that first lockdown announcement on 23 March 2020. We just didn’t know – anything. Then businesses were shuttered indefinitely. The panic buying started. And the grim death toll in the weekly tally of hospital numbers emerged. Overnight trying to plan or organise anything became like trying to get dressed in the dark. And yet without barely pausing for breath, Tiba Raja, executive director at Market Financial Solutions, sought and secured a way to help. On the day lockdown was announced she set up an initiative with Benares, a Michelin star Indian restaurant in Mayfair, to deliver freshly cooked, complimentary hot meals to NHS staff and Emergency Service workers across London.
The food packages, jointly paid for by MFS and Benares, have been delivered to Hammersmith, Charing Cross, Chelsea & Westminster and St Mary’s (Paddington) hospitals, as well as local NHS medical centres in Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Victoria. When the initiative came to an end on 3rd July 2020, over 5,500 meals had been donated to exhausted NHS staff treating Covid-19 patients. “I was lucky enough to deliver some personally, which I don’t consider to be a responsibility as such, I’m glad we could help,” says Tiba.
All this while she had enough on her plate (if you’ll excuse the pun). Working parents have faced particularly acute stresses during the last year. With schools and universities closed, and the uninviting prospect of being stuck in a single room in a house share for months on end, the young and young adults alike returned home to ride out the storm. For business owners like Tiba, whose two older sons descended on her for the first lockdown, this was another thing to juggle in an already busy career and while trying to react to the new reality of running office teams completely remotely. “That was certainly extra hard work,” she says, an immeasurable understatement, “it’s amazing how quickly they get used to mum doing everything for them again!”
Social media often presented the idea lockdown meant everyone suddenly had loads of free time. The reality was very different for working mothers in particular, who, the data now undeniably shows, shouldered the majority of the extra domestic duties caused by the pandemic, as well as being more likely to work in a sector hit hardest by lockdown closures. Tiba is grateful bridging, and so her business, has largely been able to continue –“We were fortunate to be very busy over the whole lockdown period,” she says. But that has only been possible due to break neck speed adaptations. “As a business owner, a large amount of work was needed in a short amount of time to make sure the infrastructure was in place for the whole workforce to work from home,” recalls Tiba, all on top of the business as usual.
Company owners are notorious for overworking and can be at increased risk of the burnout now emerging as a very real cost of the unfamiliar and abrupt adaptations we’ve all had to make over the last year. Running yourself into the ground risks not only your own health and livelihood, but the livelihoods of every employee working for your company. Discipline is required to find a balance, a strength Tiba found despite the increased pressure of pandemic working. “It can be hard to separate work and life when you are trying to do both in the same house, I’ve been regimented with having a working space that I then leave when I’m finished for the day,” she says. Lockdown has also taught her business isn’t everything, and to not take anything for granted. “We are a close unit in my family anyway, but I think we will make even more of a conscious effort to see each other regularly once things are back to normal.” A true Diamond from desk, to the domestic, to food delivery.
Carl Graham, regional director, Tuscan Capital
BLD Diamonds are awarded for qualitative rather than quantitative reasons, but it’s hard to ignore the unusual number of nominations for Carl Graham – including, it must be said, his own. Only a run down of the reasons his peers gave for Carl deserving recognition will do him justice; he’s about finding solutions; a great sounding board for queries; not afraid to give his professional opinion; work ethic is second to none; knowledge and enthusiasm is brilliant but also a really positive and can do approach; really goes above and beyond; has great credit skills and a really strong customer focus; always attentive, calls you back, has an appetite to do deals (a basic quality but sadly not many in the industry actually do the basics); when he can’t do a deal he is adept at passing me the info for someone that can, which is very rare; a likeable chap who puts the hours in and deserves the recognition; best bridger in the business.
It is rare outside Oscars night to hear such a long list of praise from such a variety of different sources – we should all be so lucky to be so well regarded by our business partners. And yet, drilling down into the examples that underpin these breathless accolades it becomes clear, luck has had very little to do with it. As the saying goes, the harder you work, the luckier you get. During the pandemic Carl took this to extremes. Catching coronavirus still wasn’t enough to stop him: “There have been many occasions where we have discussed live cases late into the evening, but even from his Covid bed he was sending messages and e-mails,” says Mike Coates of broker Commercial Expert, “he is an absolute pleasure to work with and always finds time to have a laugh too, if we had team members like Carl in all businesses we would all be very happy and successful.”
In a world where, from travel to tree surgery, customer service departments increasingly show an unrelenting inability to say ‘sorry, that was our fault, we’ll fix it’, a recurring theme from those who recommended Carl is his refusal to pass the buck. “As a broker, the best we can ever expect from a lender or from a member of the lenders team is ownership; of our relationship, the relationship with our client, but overall ownership of the deal or proposal,” says Paul Goodman, MD at Goodman Corporate Finance, “Carl delivers this in absolute bucket loads”. This creates a virtuous business circle, imbuing every part of the deal with a confidence that allows brokers to move onto the next loan, content they can now play a supporting role to Carl’s safe pair of hands, while the client is assured that, baring hell or high water, the bridging loan will draw.
In this way, Carl makes the customer journey paramount in his day to day dealings. From the strength and time span of the testimonies he has received, dating across his over 17 years’ experience in the specialist mortgage and property finance sectors, what sets him apart as a Diamond is in large part his ability to maintain this enthusiasm for quality. Which continues to this day – one of Carl’s most complimentary recommendations is from his time at Tuscan, which he only joined in January 2021. “His appointment at Tuscan has raised our energy levels and forced us to look at new ideas which has been a breath of fresh air – it feels like he has been with the Tuscan team for years already….in a good way!” Consistent, committed, collegiate – Carl has all the Diamond qualities.
Allegra Penny, relationship manager, Funding 365
The term role model is bandied around quite easily these days. Most often it is linked to a famous face, with the reach of millions via twitter and instagram. But this is a very remote reverence. Much quieter, but arguably more important, are the everyday role models we sometimes, if we’re lucky, get to sit beside in the office and learn from by much more relatable examples. Role models like Allegra Penny at Funding 365. In the words of the firm’s female underwriters: Allegra has been a huge inspiration to me since joining Funding 365; she’s very, very easy to talk to; she’s always happy to jump on a case to help me out; she sets an incredible example to me in her professional and high quality work; a big reason that I have more confidence is Allegra’s feedback and watching her work.
This last comment in particular stands out. Allegra doesn’t just come into work each day and do her best. In a world overpopulated by people trying to tear each other down she strives to raise up those around her, especially other women. As the first female hire under Funding 365’s graduate recruitment scheme, Allegra could have made a not unreasonable calculation that it would be better to be a shining exception. Instead she has been an inspiration and champion for those women who have followed her, particularly significant in a still-male dominated industry such as bridging. You can’t put a price on the value of mentoring, but there remains a lingering sense that in business nice people finish last, that you can be hard nosed and successful or sympathetic and giving but you can’t be both. Allegra disavows this outdated view. Her efforts in 2020 helped Funding 365 receive £2billion of enquiries from over 300 brokerages across multiple products, demonstrating not only her hardworking, can-do attitude but also how natural she is at developing and nurturing relationships, and how that translates directly to deals done.
Explaining what drives her, Allegra says: “I really enjoy getting to know people and finding out what motivates them, and the role of relationship manager perfectly combines my personality and property interests.” This sweet spot of talents has, clearly, propelled her company and those around her to achieve greater things, and has also turbo charged her own career. Allegra has emerged with these accolades having only been in the industry for four years, and progressed from sales and marketing executive to relationship manager at Funding 365 within just six months of joining the firm. And she remains ambitious for more.
As well as planning to keep expanding her industry knowledge and building her relationships to drive the growth of Funding 365, Allegra intends to increase her involvement in hiring, training and leading a team, in order to continue helping develop and progress younger team members’ careers. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, according to her colleagues Allegra’s stand out star quality is her positive energy, meeting every suggestion, request and brief put to her with enthusiasm and passion. Senior management, keen to encourage team members to carve out their own future roles at Funding 365, say the sky really is the limit at the lender for Allegra.
Simon King, commercial finance broker, Wharf Financial Services
Simon’s entry as a Diamond is more unusual than most, given he has only been part of the bridging sector for the past nine months. But then not many of us can say we’ve raised the best part of half a million pounds for charity over the last decade. Since the age of 16 he’s had a passion for cycling, so in 2009 while at banking giant Lloyds he co-founded a bike team, the ‘Green Army’. Over the next seven years to 2016 Simon and the Green Army raised over £400,000 for charities including The Royal British Legion, Demelza Children’s Hospice, The British Heart Foundation and finally Bloodwise. For this last charity in 2016 the Green Army Bike Team took on two big rides, going from Carcassonne to Barcelona, across the Pyrenees, including the climb of Port D’ Envilira, the highest road in Europe at 2408 meters, as well as doing the London to Paris 24 Hour Challenge. The money he helped raise will have changed the lives of those relying on the help of his chosen charities. Yet Simon considers he has been the fortunate one: “I’ve been lucky enough to ride some of the most stunning roads in Europe, and make many new friends along the way,” he says. And he’s not done yet; Wharf Financial Services will be organising a ride as soon as the lockdowns are fully lifted.
Pivoting has been the buzzword of the pandemic as we have all tried to adapt as best we can to a very not normal situation. In May 2020, as the full horrors of coronavirus began to emerge, Simon found himself in his first ever break from full time employment since leaving school in 1977, following a lifelong career as a banker (and 41 years with Lloyds). Staring down the barrel of an at best uncertain jobs market, some in his position may have considered the middle of a global pandemic an apt time to bow out and retire. Not Simon. “One thing I knew for sure was that I was nowhere near ready to retire. I hate throwing anything away, unless it’s broken or worn out, so why would I throw away 43 years of experience in financial services?” he says.
What to do but join forces with someone else trying to relaunch themselves at the worst possible time? Marc Champ was setting up Wharf Financial and called to invite his old friend Simon in. “Once I’d picked it up, I loved it,” he says. Simon brings the enthusiasm for a challenge honed from his charity work into his new role in bridging, unafraid to face new hurdles, and learn new skills, late in his career. “What I love is while many banks will look at a proposal and say ‘no thanks – this isn’t one for us’, a broker has the opportunity to really spend time with the customer and consider all of the available options,” he says of his position switch.
You don’t come away from 40 years of banking without learning a trick or two. “The relationship is always more important than the transaction,” says Simon, pointing out his very first Trustpilot review was from a client who, after some discussion, didn’t actually proceed with his application, “but will be in a far better position to do so in a few months time”. His plan is to capitalise on his banking experience to set Wharf apart. “We have the expertise to cover all areas, from domestic franchise funding right through to International Trade Finance, so I think we should promote that and really differentiate ourselves from the competition,” he says. Reinvention in the middle of a global health crisis is no mean feat. “I’m learning a new job and have made a significant career change, proving you can teach an old dog new tricks!”
Laura Miller is a freelance journalist who writes about money and business. She regularly appears in UK national and trade newspapers and magazines, and has previously worked for ITV News and the Telegraph among others. Find her on twitter @thatlaurawrites