Big Interview: Jamie Russell, Commercial Director, Ortus Secured Finance


jamie_russell-ortus secured finance

Forging a career in the world of finance never crossed Jamie Russell’s mind when he was fulfilling a childhood dream of commanding soldiers in the British Army a decade ago.

But now as Commercial Director at Ortus Secured Finance he believes the lessons he learned during a previous life as an Infantry Officer is helping him, his team and the wider 20-person strong business keep on advancing in the ever-competitive property and bridging sector.

“I went to Sandhurst to be an Army Officer after leaving University,” explains Russell. “You either stay in the forces for a full 22-year career or like me you leave after a short period. I was there for 5 years before, like many other officers have done over the years, I joined the financial sector in 2017.

I never ever thought I would do the same when I was commanding soldiers running around in a field, digging trenches, and seeing the world.”

However, he adds: “As an officer you also train in leadership and management and how to get through tough times, stress, and crises.

It also ingrains planning and operational skills into you as well as understanding what drives people.

When you are leading men overseas it’s about motivating people to do difficult things and it is all about relationships.

I believe all of this transfers over to the financial services world especially property finance which is all about trusting people.”

Russell’s first exposure to the finance world was as a Business Development Manager at Octopus Real Estate.

He describes the role as a ‘great training ground’ for the property sector, working with a strong team and immediately enjoying the buzz of origination.

He joined Ortus as initially a Business Development Manager in 2019 quickly becoming a Commercial Director.

“We were very small back when I joined with a team of eight. My first task was getting to grip with the Ortus loan product set both residential and commercial, whereas my role at Octopus tended to focus on residential property loans,” Russell says.

“Over the years I have developed relationships with key brokers and grown our teams across the regions of the UK. We now have people in Scotland, Manchester, Northern Ireland, and Birmingham.

We’ve really expanded our offering to cater for the more granular sub £1million market, but also to structure more complex and bespoke loans.

In the past six weeks the largest 5 loan completions add up to north of £50 million. This is a space that Ortus wants to grow in.”

Russell is also part of Ortus’s management team helping to set strategy. “We have a management committee of which I am one voice, and we try and arrive at decisions in a collaborative manner,” he explains.

“If there is one thing that management in the Army or the civilian world has taught me is that if you arrive at a solution as a group and you all reach consensus then the team will push much harder to make it succeed.”

But his main focus as Commercial Director is growing the company’s loan book and originating business.

“I am still very much working on deals and managing the wider four strong team of originators in the regions,” he explains.

“We have a very diverse origination team in terms of strengths. That’s a great plus as whenever we have a problem we collaborate. Usually someone has seen it before or has a useful insight. You also have to find out what motivates each individual person on the team.

I have a lot of focus on London, as that is where most of our brokers are, but it also means getting out to the regions and supporting the BDMs on the ground.”

That regional focus is also important, he believes, in terms of growing the loan book around the UK.

“I’m originally from Plymouth and whenever I go back to see family, I make a habit of speaking to the local brokers whom I know,” he says.

“There is something about dealing with somebody local that knows the ins and the outs of the area that is really powerful. We capture that by having good local people in our regional offices. We encourage everyone in our team to go and visit them.”

Ortus, he adds, does not just have breadth of coverage but also sector appetite lending to both residential and a wide range of commercial such as offices, care homes, warehouses, pubs and hotels.

That means Russell in his role as commercial director also has to manage product development across this myriad of areas.

“We have our existing products such as our well-known Projection Led Commercial Loan which means we provide owner-operators loans that rely on their projections as opposed to past performance. That’s something not many other lenders do,” he states.

“The key is to constantly review our products and make sure that they are suitable for the market. I also try and identify gaps in our product set and speak to all of the brokers that we deal with about how to plug that with a solution.

It’s no good me coming up with an answer by myself, it is key to involve brokers at all stages. Ultimately, they are the consumers.

They are the ones who will have to turn to their clients and tell them this is a good product. If they have a hand in the design and structure, then they may be more likely to recommend it.”

As an example, last year Russell says he ‘identified that the market was going to be different’ post mini budget with fewer acquisitions given the volatility.

“It was clear that it was going to be a market mainly for refinancing and that could mean clients moving from banks to other providers to get a deal.

Their covenants might have been broken but the underlying business and income remained strong,” he says.

“We designed a product called “Mid-Term Commercial” giving an option to borrowers to refinance away from their existing lender for commercial property but not be tied in for 5 years with ERCs. We provided a more flexible three-year option.

We saw a massive boost of enquiries. It is about looking at market conditions and bringing out the right product at the right time.”

This depth of knowledge is a far cry from when Russell left the Army and through its help secured a place on a basic financial services college course.

“One of the topics we were doing was how to calculate bond prices. Not easy when your first reaction to that is ‘What the heck is a bond?!’.” he laughs.

“It was frustrating because I was sat with people who had just graduated after finishing an Economics degree who were looking at me like I was a complete idiot! But I quickly accepted that I didn’t know a lot and I would have to use my military skills to adapt and ask questions, gain information and lean on people around me.

I always ask why. If we have a deal which we can’t do for a certain reason, then why not? If we are capped at a certain loan to value, then what is the reason behind it? I sound like a child! Why? Why? Why? but it helped me build up my knowledge base as quickly as possible.”

Russell believes the bridging and alternative finance sector will be attracting more candidates from a wider range of sources in the months ahead.

“I believe that recruitment into the sector has changed. We’re seeing people from different financial and non-financial backgrounds apply,” he says. “The sector since I joined in 2017 has become a lot more sophisticated.

There are more serious players in the space now and with that comes a layer of complexity. In response the quality of individual at lender and broker is only improving over time. I’m excited what the future holds for the sector.”

Despite this Russell however can’t help one last piece of self-reflective humour.

“I try and avoid staring into crystal balls, because I am often wrong!” he says. “But what I do know is that whatever the market throws at you, it is important to be flexible.

With our strong institutional firepower, we are in a good position to meet our aims today and into the future.

The market opportunity has never been better. I am, as you can tell, an optimist as everyone who works in origination needs to be!”