A builder of small business

by AB22 Nov 2019

With an eye for opportunity, Cameron Poolman saw OnDeck Australia achieve 70% growth in broker-generated loans this year, proving that the CEO of the AMA Fintech Lender of the Year gets small businesses

To understand how OnDeck is managing such rapid growth across both the broker channel and SME sector, it helps to know more about the background of CEO Cameron Poolman.

Soon after finishing an undergraduate degree in engineering and a master’s in business, Poolman applied for a role at Gray Eisdell Timms, an auction house in Lakemba in Sydney’s southwest. The recruiter warned Poolman that he was “too nice for the hard heads” running the business. In the 1990s, liquidators’ auctions were a tough game. Poolman gave himself six months.

He learned the trade in a hands-on way, meeting with clients and valuing and auctioning commercial assets. It provided Poolman with first-hand insights into what makes a business work – and what can lead to its failure.

His commitment to get under the bonnet of each client’s venture is an ethos Poolman still applies at OnDeck – and he doesn’t do it from behind his desk. Every Friday he heads out on the road to visit at least two clients.

“It’s the most valuable time of my week,” says Poolman. “I get to hear our customers’ stories first-hand, hear if we delivered on what we promised and gain our clients’ perspectives on how we can do things better.”

Moving into e-commerce

In the late 1990s, the auction business was changing as the internet took off.

Recognising that a business revolution was underway, Poolman approached the board of Gray Eisdell Timms, asking for $50,000 to set up a website – and so GraysOnline was born. Within three years it grew from a side venture operating out of a shed in Lakemba to an international business with offices across Australia and New Zealand.

The success of GraysOnline led to Poolman taking over in 2005 and, subsequently, leading a management buyout – a process he admits was challenging. 

“It’s tough negotiating with a bunch of experienced auctioneers when you’re in your 30s,” he recalls. 

Even harder was convincing lenders to back him. In the end, Poolman secured over $10m in buyout funding from the banks, but the experience revealed how mainstream lenders viewed SMEs – an awareness that shapes OnDeck to this day.

By 2014 GraysOnline was one of Australia’s largest e-commerce groups. However, after running the business for 10 years, Poolman was ready to move on. He sold his stake and set out to prove his success with Grays hadn’t been a fluke.

A recommendation from a friend resulted in an equity share, in tandem with MYOB, in the Australian offshoot of US-listed SME lender OnDeck, a company pioneering the use of data analytics and digital technology to make real-time lending decisions and deliver capital to small businesses online.

As Lakemba and Pitt Street are worlds apart, it came as little surprise that Poolman was set to shake things up. 

SMEs’ reliance on brokers

While he was quick to recognise that OnDeck was filling a gap in the SME finance market, Poolman also saw the need to grow engagement with the broker channel.

“The broker market is a significant pillar of support for Australian SMEs,” says Poolman. “Over half of SMEs turn to a broker for their capital requirements, making the growth of online small business lending a win-win for both brokers and their clients. But it’s not just about broadening their revenue streams.

“OnDeck’s engagement with the channel is aimed at allowing brokers to better service their SME clients, both in terms of providing more timely access to capital, while offering choice and flexibility for SME owners encumbered with security against their personal or business assets.

Poolman credits his time at Grays with building his understanding of how crucial it is to provide speedy assistance to SMEs to help them seize opportunities as they arise.

Adding value

To ensure OnDeck is genuinely adding value to its broker partners, Poolman has expanded his business development team. Even with head count more than tripling in 2019, he remains deeply engaged in the recruitment process.

“I interview every person we bring into the business,” Poolman explains. “Our culture, ethos and values are all based on a passion for small business. I need to be sure that, as we scale our business, we continue to foster those values – and that every person who works here shares that same commitment to the small business community.

“Certainly for our broker channel, the experience that each OnDeck BD brings to the role gives brokers the confidence that we know our products and processes thoroughly, and that we are skilled at solving SME challenges.” 

As Poolman sees it, transparency is critical to OnDeck’s success. He explains, “When the royal commission was announced, instead of saying to my team, ‘This is what you need to watch out for’, our meetings focused on how we’d like to be treated as customers – and that’s with fairness and transparency.

“Too often financial institutions gauge their success on customer satisfaction scores. It can be easy to feel the business is running well based on 90% satisfaction. But this fails to address the 10% of customers who feel they may have been treated unfairly. It comes back to taking the time to know your customers, and it’s one of the key drivers behind my weekly visits to OnDeck clients.”

However, OnDeck was prioritising transparency well before the royal commission. 

“We successfully drove the adoption of the SMARTBox™ loan comparison tool, which uses plain English to explain the pricing metrics for small business loans,” says Poolman. 

Tools for brokers

OnDeck shows its commitment to the broking community by offering support in a variety of ways. Extensive education is backed by practical tools, such as a suite of free white label marketing materials to support a broker’s push into the commercial lending space.

The same level of support is extended to SMEs. A considerable step forward was made with the 2016 launch of OnDeck’s Free Credit Score calculator. Since then, over 10,000 SMEs have checked their credit scores, and Poolman believes the calculator is also a useful tool for brokers to add value to SME clients.

“Our research tells us one in four SMEs plan to seek additional business finance in the future. We also know that one in two (53% of) Australian business owners don’t even realise that their business has a credit score. Yet credit scores can have a big impact on the availability and cost of finance,” explains Poolman.

“Brokers now have the opportunity to sit down with their clients and walk through their business credit score with them, offering value-add advice on simple steps that can be taken to improve the score.”

Eyes on the prize

While OnDeck Australia was named Fintech Lender of the Year at the 2019 Australian Mortgage Awards, Poolman isn’t about to rest on his laurels.

“It was a fantastic accolade for the entire team at OnDeck, and it helps alert the broking community to the possibilities offered by fintech lenders that take a very different – and more efficient – approach to the loan application and assessment process.”

But Poolman admits he has his eyes on a bigger prize. 

“Ultimately, we’re focused on the twin goals of helping brokers grow their businesses by diversifying into SME lending, and allowing Australia’s small businesses to reach their full potential through faster, easier access to capital.”