Crew Financial is a finalist for New Brokerage of the Year at the 2021 Australian Mortgage Awards. Staffed by pilots and cabin crew, the brokerage has grown at a time when COVID has cruelled the aviation sector. It focuses on loans for airline industry employees.
Rick Garner has more than 20 years’ experience in the finance industry, but since he was a child all he’s ever wanted to do is fly planes.
However, after achieving that goal at 18 and going on to become a Qantas Airbus 330 pilot, Garner has now combined his passion for flying with helping fellow aviation staff secure loans through his Brisbane brokerage, Crew Financial, established in 2018.
Garner’s team of mortgage and finance brokers are all from the aviation industry. As well as Garner, there’s Virgin Australia international flight attendant Marita Baracz, Qantas pilot
Matt Clarke, Jetstar A320 pilot first officer Daniel Jones, and broker and former Virgin Australia Boeing 777 pilot Matt Symons. Only Garner and Jones have previous finance industry experience.
The team’s journey to becoming successful brokers is a remarkable testament to their ability to transition into a new role in a different industry.
What’s even more impressive is that most are combining careers, continuing to fly planes and serve airline passengers while also finding loans for their clients. Garner and Jones still work as pilots, Clarke is a flight simulator instructor, and Baracz is a part-time flight attendant.
Garner, 45, grew up in regional Victoria, and his love of aviation started early.
“I was in love with [planes] when I first saw them flying around as a child,” says Garner. “I never wanted to be a fireman or an astronaut or a policeman. I only ever wanted to do one thing, which was fly planes.”
At 16, Garner and his family moved to Canberra, and he was able to study aviation in high school in Years 11 and 12. He gained his restricted pilot’s licence at 18, then his full licence. At 20 he had his commercial pilot’s licence, and at 26 he was granted an airline transport pilot’s licence.
In 2012, Garner was flying 130-seat Boeing 717 jets domestically for Cobham Aviation (QantasLink), and in 2018 he got a full-time job at Qantas as an A330 international pilot.
“Flying these machines is just amazing,” says Garner. “It’s quite exhilarating. It’s technically challenging – there’s a lot to learn. There’s always training and personal growth involved.”
It was through flying that Garner got his start in finance. After leaving school, he worked as a junior at a charter airline.
“I ended up being promoted to operations manager – it was a pretty senior role in the company. The CEO encouraged me to get involved in the business transactions of the airline. This led to me growing some contracts and financing some of the new aircraft they were requiring.
“I was getting my commercial [pilot’s] licence at this time, and I had this job as a senior person in this charter airline … I just wanted to fly planes, but he nurtured that.”
Garner says he started a commerce degree, and he also educated himself on the stock market and property investment.
After leaving the airline and moving with his young family to Sydney in 2002, he says it was difficult living on a co-pilot’s income of just $36,000 a year.
“I didn’t think the airline industry was going anywhere at that time, which was a mistake, but I thought, what am I going to do? I had acquired these financial services skills from the airline business.”
Garner secured a role at AMP as a financial planner, and then he became a broker in 2003, setting up his own brokerage and financial advice business, Reliance Capital Financial Group, in 2004.
After 10 years running Reliance Capital, Garner decided to refocus on flying.
“I was having a good time in financial services; it was a good business, and I liked serving clients, but I’d flown turboprops but never a jet aeroplane … it felt like something I hadn’t completed in my life.”
He says as a Qantas pilot he would be asked questions by his colleagues when he told them about his finance background.
“I couldn’t give people financial advice, because I was no longer licensed to do so, but a lot of people were reaching out and wanting information. They would tell me they’d go to a broker or a banker, who would always say they really didn’t understand how their [airline] pay worked – it was very confusing to them.”
Garner says this is because there are many different and complex industrial agreements in aviation. He realised airline staff were having poor customer experiences because brokers and banks couldn’t comprehend their income.
“I thought, I could do this really well – I’m going to start up a business that just caters for this niche, because it’s a niche I know well, and I can get better outcomes. So I started Crew Financial.”
His intention was just to provide a secondary income to his pilot job, but the brokerage took off.
It now employs five brokers, five full-time support staff and three BDMs who are being trained to become brokers.
Garner says there’s been a great response from aviation clients, who are relieved they can finally talk to brokers who understand their payslips.
“Being able to give some customers positive outcomes when other people have told them no is really rewarding.
“We had a greater than 400% increase in the last 12 months. We went from a part-time broking business doing not a lot in March 2020 to settling just over $86m in FY2021.”
Aviation workers bring transferable skills to broking, says Garner. They can follow tight systems and procedures; they have empathy from working in small teams, a great customer focus and are outcome oriented. The areas the team had to learn included developing sales plans and working for commission rather than a salary.
Garner says he created robust automated systems for the Crew Financial brokers to follow and that allowed them to provide a great customer experience. For example, the brokerage’s scalable proprietary technology platform enables brokers to put a deal together in two hours instead of 10.
“We’ve taken away a lot of the admin tasks so we as brokers can focus on the face-to-face customer experience.”
“We’re really, really proud of what the team’s been doing, how they’ve adapted and invested in their own personal growth. There’s a lot to learn in broking; it’s not as simple as everyone thinks it is, so they’ve really stepped up to that challenge, and it’s starting to pay dividends for them.”
While Crew Financial has pivoted well during COVID-19, Garner says anyone can do it.
“It’s really about executing a plan, having some clarity about what you’re trying to do and who you’re talking to and how you’re going to deliver that.”
He also praised Qantas and Virgin for encouraging staff to pivot and reskill.
“The airlines have been really supportive in being flexible with regard to how people deploy themselves during periods of stand-down.”
So, how does an international pilot find time to operate a brokerage?
“I’ve set the business up so that I can actually do both,” Garner says. “That’s why we have five full-time support staff in place, including a dedicated settlements coordinator.
“We know that flying is going to return – we’re not leaving our aviation jobs, because it’s fun and we like it.”
Garner says he wants to grow Crew Financial even further, hiring more brokers and targeting the government, defence, essential services and medico sectors.
Marita Baracz combines careers
Baracz began her aviation career at Virgin Blue in 2004 and has lived in a number of countries. She joined Crew Financial as a broker in September 2020, six months after moving back to Australia from Sweden just before the pandemic hit in March.
“It’s a unique job where you develop the ability to form genuine connections with people very quickly,” says Baracz.
She says she has always been interested in finance.
“My father owned a real estate office, so I was surrounded by property and finances growing up. He encouraged us to buy property and save for the future.”
When she returned to Australia, Baracz was ready to resume her job as a long-haul flight attendant, until COVID decimated the industry.
“It was the open door I needed to pursue my other passion. During the initial broker course, the stars aligned, and I sat next to another long-haul pilot, Matt Symons, who had joined the group at Crew Financial.”
Baracz says broking allows her to research and discover new properties and has really provided an “insight to the other side of the coin”.
“Communication is key in aviation, and that directly correlates, plus the ability to build quick connections,” she says.
“Aviation is also very procedure driven for obvious reasons. While there are laws and procedures for compliance here, learning the unique way each lender does things has been insightful.”
While Baracz recently returned to working at Virgin part-time, she says broking provides the option to juggle her family and work life.
“Crew Financial is one example of utilising one skill set into another, and I feel fortunate that it was a direction I love.”