The speculation surrounding Abbey’s intermediary arm has slowly star-ted to dissipate, especially with the appointment of Ricky Okey as its director of mortgages and protection.The newly created role for Okey in February and the formal announcement that Abbey is committed to the intermediary community shortly after, are the first steps towards a new era under the Santander flame. Okey acknowledges there was some confusion from the intermediary community as to what would happen to the arm dedicated to this sector. Abbey for Intermediaries director Ambrose McGinn resigned on March 10 shortly after the press office in Glasgow was disbanded. The nervousness from a loyal intermediary community was understandable. Okey says: “Let me make it crystal clear that we are completely and utterly committed to the intermediary market. It is a significant part of Abbey and we are committed to the Scottish Provident brand.” Okey was quite a catch for Abbey. Formerly the general manager of Charcol, he is now looking at mortgage lending from the point of view of the lender and is still using his experience as a mortgage intermediary. He says: “It is very interesting sitting at the other side of the fence. I can bring an understanding of what the customer, the intermediary, and the end-customer wants.” The most frustrating thing for Okey, when he was a mortgage intermediary, was waiting too long for an answer from lenders as to whether an application would be accepted. He says there is nothing worse than waiting for a “slow no” from a lender. This experience has lead him to demand from Abbey for Intermediaries a fast response to enquiries and a quicker service. Okey says: “I do not want an intermediary to be hanging around for an answer, or to get a decision in principle and then get bogged down in phone calls and extra paper work. Dips need to be more sophisticated, sleeker and quicker and carry out the weight they are supposed to carry.” The way this will be taken forward at Abbey and for most lenders is through technology. He adds: “Everyone wants a decision quickly – and at the right cost.” The main improvement Okey wants to get cracking on – and he has only been at Abbey for seven weeks – is to improve service. Abbey has had quite an ear-bashing for its poor service which Okey wants to address immediately. He says: “The service issues are a hangover from regulation which has definitely impacted. December was a slow month in the mortgage market. In the new year, applications started to come through. Some lenders coped with this issues better than others.” Little consolation to those who have had to battle to get the phone answered in the intermediary call centre. But Okey assures intermediaries he is going to sort out the service issues. Although he will focus on speeding up processes, he guarantees intermediaries this wont take product innovation off the agenda. Currently, Abbey for Intermediaries’ most successful products are its fixed rates. It offers a twoand three-year fixed-rate mortgage at 5.39 per cent with a minimum 5 per cent deposit, and 5.29 per cent with a minimum 25 per cent deposit. The flexible plus tracker is also popular, with three months at 4.24 per cent tracking the Bank of England base rate at -0.51 per cent and after three months at 5.5 per cent tracking at+0.75 per cent. Abbey’s gross mortgage lending stood at 25bn for 2004, with an estimate 8.9 per cent of the UK share. Okey is keen to look at other areas in which Abbey’s rivals are finding some success. Remortgaging will continue to be strong this year and there is still no evidence, according to Okey, that the strength of buy-to-let will wane. He would like to think there will be more business from first-time buyers, although with the changes to the stamp duty threshold, Okey concedes this will be regionally divisive. He says: “Even if we do see a flow of FTBs, there is still evidence of demand for rental accommodation. There is no indication that the professional landlords are exiting the market and these will want to remortgage their portfolios.” Okey adds: “As you know, we are a pretty mainstream player. We are looking at breaking into new markets.I want to make sure that we are being innovative with mortgages as well as with Scottish Provident.” But he says Abbey still has to battle with the issue of regulation, while it looks at taking its product range forward. Despite being nearly five months on since M-Day, he believes Abbey still has to look carefully at interpreting the rules without stifling its ability to operate. He says: “Abbey has to interpret regulation in the right and proper fashion and at the same time to make sure the right level of commerciality applies for lenders and intermediaries alike. I still think that is the main challenge. What we are focussing on is both the lender and the intermediary help each other and we are harmonious in our aims.” Abbey for Intermediaries still has quite a way to go before it repairs some dented relationships with intermediaries but with Okey’s experience on both sides of the fence, the improvements are hopefully not too far off.