Colin Snowdon, chief executive of prime specialist Wave Lending, is a self-avowed geek in military and Russian imperial history. Not many other mortgage industry professionals can recite the accession speech of tsar Nicholas II.
A graduate in medieval and modern history from Birmingham University, he joined the Royal Naval Reserve as a junior officer shortly after leaving his academic studies but for the sake of his wife chose not to pursue a full-time nautical career. Instead, he has captained three lender start-ups.
“Setting up a new business always gives me a buzz,” says Snowdon, who was managing director at The Mortgage Business and Britannia’s Verso before joining Freedom Lending in 2002. “I love bringing together all the raw materials, funding, people, premises, systems and distribution to create something that brokers will love and buy. Assembling all the parts and seeing it gel together is very satisfying.”
After setting up Freedom Lending in 1997 under the auspices of Freedom Finance, the parent company sold the firm to Merrill Lynch in July 2006. Snowdon says the new owner was attracted by the firm’s competitive products, good service and investments in its staff.
As part of the purchase agreement, Freedom Finance allowed Freedom Lending to continue to trade under the same name for a further 12 months after acquisition. Rebranding was completed in late June this year, after a lengthy process of researching possible identities and trademark and internet URL availability.
Many mortgage lenders opt for initials in their brand name but Snowdon and his colleagues opted for a more symbolic name. “We see ourselves as on the same wavelength as our partners and customers,” he explains.
In just over a year, Wave Lending has more than doubled from 65 staff at the time of acquisition to about 150 today.
Essential to the success of a start-up business is the strength of the team assembled to drive it forward, Snowdon believes. Having the correct team in place and nurturing the talent of individual members means the business as a whole will grow. “We may not be so well known or have nicknames like the Fab Four or the Famous Five but we are very solid, proficient and professional.”
In a competitive market, Snowdon thinks it is the human face of a business that makes it stand out. Railing against the poor levels of personal service in the mortgage industry, he says technology has too often become a substitute for good customer relations.
“The average standard of service in the integrated mortgage market is disappointingly low. I am no Luddite, technology is very important, but people should not be kept on hold on a premium-rate phone line. They should be able to speak to a well trained human being. Intermediaries like the way we communicate, the way we are open, frank and honest, whereas lenders with all-singing, all-dancing technology can actually have quite poor service.”
With an abundance of business and benign lending conditions up to now, the mortgage market has been kind to start-ups. “Anyone can set up a lender and apparently make it succeed these days,” says Snowdon.
He believes that new start-ups are the lifeblood of the industry, bringing new ideas and ways of doing things that keep existing lenders on their toes. This dynamic environment means consumers are getting a very good deal. “Profit margins, however, are a fraction of what they once were,” he cautions.
At the helm of a specialist lender trying to steer a prosperous course under these conditions, Snowdon believes his knowledge of history is a useful navigational aid. He says the discipline helps develop an important sense of judgement, allowing the shrewd analyst to strip away comment and bias to understand the logic behind why people say what they say.
“It allows you to think about all the possible alternative scenarios and opportunities that might be created and to make sense of the market. You can find your way and make judgements in a more impartial way.”
But with a credit crunch, how does Snowdon think the lending market will fare in the near term? “Some lenders are more vulnerable than others. Nobody can affor to ignore the rising costs of funds. It is not just a problem for specialist lenders, it is a problem for all lenders which take a significant amount of funding from capital markets. Big lenders and banks all tap into the capital markets so it is a problem for the whole industry. It is going to be tough and is bound to have an impact on product pricing.”
But he adds that the mortgage market is cyclical. At the time he came into the industry, he says there was barely any competition. “The biggest change in my career has been seeing mortgages go from being rationed to the oversupply of mortgage funding we have now.”
With a big international parent company behind him, Snowdon believes his firm will be able to ride out a possible credit storm comfortably. “It is going to take the industry some time to adapt but I have no doubt the markets will sort themselves out.”
Born: Billingham, County Durham, 1954
Lives: Northwich, Cheshire
Education: Bedehall Grammar School, Billingham; Birmingham University
2007-present – chief executive, Wave;
2002-07 – managing director, Freedom Lending (Freedom Finance);
1997-2002 – managing director, Verso (Britannia Building Society);
1988-97 – director and general manager, The Mortgage Business (Bank of Scotland);
1985-87 – product development manager, National Home Loans Corporation;
1979-85 – branch manager, Leicester Building Society;
1976-79 – graduate trainee, Lloyds TSB.
Likes: Military history, classic cars
Dislikes: Television these days, arrogance and braggarts
Drives: 1969 Triumph TR6
Favourite book: War and Peace by Tolstoy
Favourite film: Dr Zhivago
Favourite album: Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield
Career ambition: Continuing to grow the business successfully
Life ambition: Ensuring the happiness and security of my family
If I wasn’t doing this I would be … Surrounded by books, forging a career as a history lecturer