‘New entrants were expected to be seen and not heard’

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Rob Holt Shawbrook Bank

In Disney’s 1964 classic Mary Poppins the children go with their father to the marble-decked Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where he works, and are berated until backs against the wall, little Michael is forced to hand over his tuppence for investment, despite having more interesting ideas for the money. Things hadn’t changed much when Rob Holt joined the sector two decades later.

“Banks of old were very hierarchical, and new entrants were very much expected to be seen and not heard,” recalls Holt, senior manager for property finance at Shawbrook Bank. “This was extremely challenging for me because I always had ideas and opinions.”

Thankfully, times move on. Since joining Shawbrook six years ago, first as a sales executive before rising up the ranks to management, Holt says “I couldn’t wish to see a bigger contrast, colleagues are always encouraged to share best practice and ideas”.

He heads up the sales desk team for the bank’s property finance division, leading on credit application vetting, and helping brokers present cases in a way most likely to achieve borrowing for their clients. “It’s my responsibility to ensure the team is well equipped to support our broker partners,” he says.

According to EY’s Bridging Market 2020 report, published in April, lenders say broker-related channels remain the most important for loan originations, a continuing theme from 2019 – although for the first time respondents also cited “aggregator websites” as an important source for originations, in a partial severing of the broker-lender relationship.

As far as Holt is concerned, brokers are bullet-proof for business with Shawbrook, and keeping in tight communication with them is his primary focus. “Being so close to our broker community means I get to hear their feedback first-hand, which allows me to play a part in shaping our proposition to improve their journey,” he says.

With increased competition over the last 12 months, the EY report found both lenders and brokers have focused on how they can differentiate themselves to attract borrowers. Speed of execution, high-quality service and funding flexibility are key differentiators, demands sometimes at odds with a market thrown into disarray by Covid-19.

Lending fell 45% in the first half of the year, according to Bridging Trends, lender MT Finance’s data blog, besieged by the first lockdown and in some cases panicked lenders turning off the taps. However Shawbrook’s Bridging Market Snapshot reveals that applications reached their highest ever level in the third quarter of this year, representing an increase of 39.1% over the previous quarter and more significantly rising by 25.7% compared to Q3 2019 levels.

Even so, the landscape remains tough, says Holt.“The biggest challenge is undoubtedly the restrictions imposed by lenders following Covid-19. At Shawbrook these have not been too far reaching but the market reaction in general has been far from coordinated, leaving brokers and clients confused.”

Holt joined the banking industry at a very different junction, the Big Bang, which for better and worse caused the sudden and far-reaching deregulation of British financial markets, helping to create the level of competition that allowed newer lenders like Shawbrook to enter the market. “I started back in 1986, which makes me sound positively ancient, but the time has flown past,” he says.

Initially working in a branch as a cashier at Midland Bank, now part of HSBC, Holt progressed through the ranks to become a branch manager, then on to commercial franchise relationship manager. His biggest problem was growing his ambition without expanding his waistband.

“I was looking after large chains like KFC, Costa and Subway for London and the South East, and as you can see it was a somewhat calorifically challenging experience because there was never a shortage of free food!” he says.

When he’s not talking shop for Shawbrook, Holt splits his time between unpaid positions in politics – “I’ve worked as Constituency Chair and Secretary for the Labour Party” – restoring vintage radios and music systems from the 1950s to the 1970s, and computer programming (“I’m a Linux enthusiast and currently learning the Python programming language”).

But with a flurry of new hires, work is keeping him pretty busy. In a show of strength from Shawbrook, and in expectation of a growing demand for bridging in 2021, Holt has five new team members joining within the space of eight weeks to further bolster the sales desk. “That’s not a problem,” he says, “that’s a challenge, and a chance to offer more support to our brokers”.

His advice to new recruits? – stay open to anything. “If you decide finance is for you, grab any opportunity because once you’re on the ladder the options to diversify into sales, credit, products, marketing, risk, even technology, will open up.”