Combine harvester in a field

UK’s leading broker expects
£140m annual business by 2012.


Anyone who thinks that the UK broker sector is
backward-looking or in a state of decline might well form a second
opinion after speaking to Allan Ross, managing director of First
Independent Finance (FIF).

After Ross made the decision to increase
investment in the Ayreshire broker’s staff and systems during the
market’s darkest hour, FIF now has a well-developed sales support
machine, and a place among the tiny pool of financial services
businesses awarded gold status by business standards body Investors
in People.

One of the largest brokers in the UK,
FIF  has grown from a spare-bedroom operation in 1999 into a
business advancing just short of £100m (€118m) in 2008.

Due to the financial crisis, 2009 saw
significant sales difficulties for all UK intermediaries, and left
FIF to contend with a much lower flow of new business.

However, although its turnover last year
dropped year-on-year from £10.9m down to £4.2m, net profits held up
well at £457,480 against just under £1m in 2008.


Continuing to invest

Yet rather than dropping staff and trying to
outlast the recession on money made during boom times, Ross made
the decision to keep his team intact and continue investing heavily
in business development.

It was not a cheap decision – IT investments,
recruitment, training and rebranding all saw the net worth of the
business fall from £500,000 to £414,000 over the year.

Nevertheless, the results are clear. Volumes
for 2010 look set to climb to £85m, and Ross is convinced that the
pre-recession new business target of £140m annually by 2012 is
still achievable.

Working towards this will be a network of more
than 30 field personnel, whose local sales territories link up to
cover almost all of the UK mainland. Their work is done almost
entirely on the road, and business is brought in by a constant
stream of introductory visits to local companies.

According to Ross, this hands-on approach to
sales is quite a daunting task for staff moving from lenders or
other types of brokerage.

“If you’re used to getting deals phoned in
daily for the last 25 years, it’s really hard to get out there and
knock on doors,” he said.

Indeed, for this reason, although FIF employs
a good number of industry veterans, it is one of the few brokers to
hire and train junior staff, having done so throughout the

It does not tend to lose staff, either. FIF
keeps all salespeople on a salary, and, in its 10 years of doing
business, has not lost an employee capable of bringing in enough
income to cover their pay.


Key facts: First Independent FinanceQuality, not quantity

But while Ross is keen to rebuild FIF’s sales
volumes over the coming months, he is adamant that staff should not
be selling by any means necessary.

“If your answer to ‘when does your appetite to
make a sale stop’ is ‘when no finance company under the sun will
accept the deal’, then you don’t fit our model at all,” he

Responsible selling is serious business to
Ross. One of FIF’s directors, Derek Money, has the secondary task
of managing the business’ reputation. Thanks to his development of
an extensive written best-practice policy for FIF, staff now carry
a manual explaining how to sell finance to the company’s

As a result, FIF’s funder panel reads like a
Who’s Who of British asset finance, including several
lenders who have otherwise withdrawn entirely from the broker

FIF has very much taken the position that
finance companies are the primary customers of a broker, and as a
former manager at Highland Leasing himself, Ross feels he knows
what those customers want.

“Right from the beginning, the idea was to
create a business with UK-wide coverage, very IT- and
process-driven, and with a big sales support function,” said

Walking through the converted Stewarton-based
textile factory in which FIF’s business is headquartered, the
quantity of resource backing up the broker’s field staff is hard to

The upper floor of the building houses a room
full of support staff following up on incoming business, while a
neighbouring boardroom is home to three salespeople with laptops,
working on proposals using FIF’s homegrown IT system.

Downstairs, a room shared by operations
director Derek Money houses the creators of FIF’s IT systems – they
are putting the finishing touches on the company’s new i-Max
system. This web-based offering, available at the time of going to
print, will be deployed to dealers and manufacturers keen to offer
finance alongside their goods.

This step up into the world of sales-aid
finance will be one that makes FIF’s 2012 volume target that bit
more attainable, and would not have been possible without the
systems investment that Ross put above profit last year.

When the external environment becomes more
forgiving overall to the bottom lines of UK brokers, one gets the
feeling that Ross will be very glad indeed of the infrastructure he
has put in place.