Instead of pulling back during COVID, Aussie CEO James Symond can proudly say the national brokerage is growing and thriving despite the pandemic.
The energetic and passionate 48-year-old caught up with Australian Broker to discuss Aussie’s exciting plans and his renewed focus on the business after being diagnosed with cancer three years ago.
Symond has spent 28 years working at the iconic Australian business since it was founded by his uncle and former Aussie chairman, John Symond, in 1992, almost 30 years ago. He says the mortgage industry has suffered some significant knocks from events of the last few years, from the royal commission to bushfires and COVID-19.
“The one thing that happens during these times that we have found is there’s always a flight to quality brands and businesses,” he says.
“Aussie always goes from third or fourth gear straight into sixth. The turbochargers are set alight and we go for it.”
Symond says that while other firms have made people redundant during the pandemic, Aussie decided to add more than 200 brokers to its network. At present, Aussie has more than 970 brokers and over 208 stores across Australia.
“Between now and Christmas we have 15 new stores opening. We’re driving for 1,200 brokers and 300 stores nationally by 2022. A big word for us this year is ‘growth’. ”
The leading brokerage has invested more than $16m in marketing its brand in FY20, with half of this spend activated during COVID. Its promotions have included TV ads, bespoke commercials and digital campaigns.
“We said to our brokers we would go harder on their behalf, and the results show,” says Symond.
Aussie also launched a recruitment campaign, ‘Aussie Bloom’, about six months ago to help franchisees recruit brokers. It offers a start-up incentive of $6,000, targeting talented staff from various skilled backgrounds and helping new brokers transition into the business.
“We’re driving for 1,200 brokers and 300 stores nationally by 2022. A big word for us this year is ‘growth’ ”
“For the first six months we make sure there are financial training wheels on these brokers so they can feed themselves,” says Symond.
Since the campaign’s launch, Aussie has already attracted more than 140 new applications from brokers, with over 70 new recruits already on board.
“We will double that number over the next six months – that’s how well it’s going. It’s easing people into the industry with the best training and support possible.”
Aussie has been able to recruit some high-calibre people from outside the finance industry – including from hospitality, retail and airlines – “who had been let go and just needed a nudge”.
New brokers are given options: the lower-entry-cost mobile broker model with high support; working as a broker at one of Aussie’s more than 208 retail stores; or becoming a franchisee running a scale business with a number of brokers.
“Either way, everyone benefits from our world-class training and accredited mentoring program, Signature by Aussie,” says Symond.
“We have even pivoted during COVID-19 to run these virtually, and the feedback and results have been amazing, not to mention incredibly convenient, particularly for our regional brokers.”
At the conclusion of the induction program, brokers are qualified for a Certificate IV in Mortgage Broking; they can then study for a full diploma over 12 months. Between April and November more than 160 brokers had been enrolled in the induction program.
So, what’s giving Aussie so much confidence about the home loan market and pushing its growth strategy? For starters, it’s the brokerage’s incredible success recently.
“October 2020 was Aussie’s best October settlement and lodgement month on record. We are on fire,” says Symond.
September also signalled Aussie’s largest-volume month on record.
“In FY21, our lead volumes were up almost 10% year-on-year in September, and we’re making an impact on our customers with our Net Promoter Score results thriving at almost 80%.”
An MFAA study showed that mortgage brokers recorded their highest market share in over a year by facilitating 57% of all new residential homes in the April–June 2020 quarter.
Symond says there are other reasons for Aussie’s fantastic results.
“You’re taking a group of amazing people, combined with an incredibly trusted brand, combined with a strategy that is extremely robust, combined with a business that has no debt and a very financially capable parent [CBA] who has the will. You’ve got a very fiery combination there that is very successful.
“October 2020 was Aussie’s best October settlement and lodgement month on record. We are on fire”
“My job is to safely and securely grow our distribution channels as hard as we can, in particular over the next couple of years.”
Six months ago, Symond predicted the property market would not collapse due to the pandemic and the situation would not be as bad as some bankers feared.
“The average mum and dad are more driven than ever to buy their home. They don’t want to rent.
“Interest rates have never been so low. The property market is still seen, in comparison to other assets, as a safe bet. If you go and put your money in the bank, you don’t get any interest. If you go and put your money in the stock market, it’s like playing roulette these days.”
There has been a big adjustment to how Aussie brokers work during COVID, but Symond says the brokerage has been in a great position to meet the changing needs of consumers.
“Consumers have never had better service; everyone’s plugged into more technology, and we’ve applied more customer tools.”
In terms of Aussie’s white label home loans, Symond is amazed at the financial resilience of customers during the pandemic.
“They had so much in reserve from a redraw point of view. A lot of those customers that chose to go off [paying their mortgages] for hardship reasons for six months – so many have started to come back earlier.”
While Aussie’s brokers have quickly adapted to the new virtual world during COVID, the firm’s commitment to its retail stores and personal contact with customers continues.
“I think doing loans online has become more significant, but I believe most loans are still done the old-fashioned face-to-face bricks and mortar way,” Symond says.
“We’re still talking about the most complicated process in an average mum and dad’s financial life – a mortgage – and that needs explanation, someone that spends time with the consumer.”
Symond doesn’t see this changing in the next five to 10 years, as Aussie’s investment in its retail network is enabling brokers to build scalable businesses.
“With our reduced franchise fee and contribution to new store fit-outs, we have 17 new franchisees approved in 2020 so far, with another 18 in the pipeline – 50% of these have been internal candidates and the other 50% high-calibre external candidates.”
Existing franchisees who have renewed their franchise agreements are being rewarded through Encore, a program that provides incentives to refresh or refit their retail stores – 43 have taken part so far.
Network development managers are also being added along the eastern seaboard, targeting growth in that region.
Kim Horan is an Aussie franchisee at St. Marys and Wetherill Park. She started in 2008 as a new-to-industry broker. She has had roles in the sales leadership team and worked with other brokers to help them build successful businesses.
“One of the reasons I love being with Aussie is the strong sense of family and their ongoing commitment to excellence, growth and being industry leaders,” Horan says.
“They have a passion for their customers and brokers that goes above and beyond, and it is always exciting to see what new and innovative concepts they will come up with next to enhance the customer experience and the broker experience.
“Aussie is a winning team and they have been a good choice to partner with as I have built my first Aussie store and then my second.”
Vaughan Fowler, who along with his wife opened the Aussie Cronulla franchise in late 2017, started with Aussie in 2006 as NSW/ACT state manager.
“The Aussie brand brings with it an enormous amount of credibility and goodwill,” Fowler says. “Matching that with a great customer experience and a strong local and community presence has enabled our business to grow quickly and successfully.
He says the transition from general manager to broker was made significantly easier by having a huge network of mentors – other Aussie franchisees and brokers that he could call on for guidance and advice.
Providing training for brokers is vitally important at Aussie.
“There would not be another mortgage broker in this industry that spends the amount of money, time and effort on ongoing training, learning and development within our brokers than Aussie,” Symond says.
This commitment is reflected in Aussie’s staff retention rates.
“I think doing loans online has become more significant, but I believe most loans are still done the old-fashioned face-to-face bricks and mortar way”
“In fact, 60% of our brokers have been with Aussie for more than five years and 31% for more than 10 years,” Symond says.
“I’ve got people who’ve been with us for 25 years. You don’t retain those sort of people, and they don’t get those sorts of results and earn a high-quality living without creating a successful, caring environment like we’ve done.”
This loyalty to Aussie as a “family-style business” is also reflected in its customers; Aussie has facilitated loans for generations of families, Symond says.
“That’s the beauty of dealing with a mortgage broker and a family-style business like Aussie rather than just going to a lender or a bank.”
Aussie is boosting technology too, after Symond told his team 14 months ago that it needed significant investment.
“We decided to pour money into new systems and processes for the team members, customers and brokers,” he says.
This includes providing new sales tools, which are being rolled out in partnership with the world-class digital Salesforce CRM and replaces Aussie’s own proprietary system Tool Box.
Other features such as compliance by design systems, comprehensive changeover checklists and digital tools like eDocs and Microsoft Teams have helped brokers adapt to the new virtual world.
“We’re spending more money on technology today than we’ve ever spent, because we need to. I want to make sure my brokers are armed with the best tools on the planet to build a high-quality business,” Symond says.
Aussie is also prepared for the introduction of the best interests duty in January. Symond is welcoming the change and says it should be extended to lenders and banks.
“Anything that can make the process safer for the consumer, we’re behind. BID is something we are all ready for, are already doing and are very comfortable with.”
You could be forgiven for thinking Symond might have slowed down after discovering in 2017 he had multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, but that’s not the case.
He says it was scary and tough – he had a bone marrow transfusion in June 2019, which involved being in a sealed room at St Vincent’s Hospital with no visitors for three weeks. Symond lost his hair, dropped 50 kilos in weight and does dialysis three times a week.
“You just incorporate it into your life. I’m as focused as ever; I’m as aggressive as ever. I hopefully apply the necessary amount of strength and leadership this business still needs to ensure that I am worthy of the role that I have.
“I think the results on the board are showing exactly that. I have never been more excited about the future of this industry and what a group of great people can accomplish within it.”